NARA Coast to Coast: Too Smart-o for Their Own Good

Today’s post is written by Katie Dishman, of the National Archives at Chicago.

Not all crimes are worthy of great publicity. Petty thievery is commonplace, and certainly does not warrant a lot of attention.  However, some cases are considered “perfect” crimes. One happened near Chicago and is documented not only in the National Archives, but also on television. In 1981, William Smarto, along with assistance from his brother Vincent, robbed numerous safety deposit boxes at the First National Bank and Trust Company of Barrington (Illinois). The history of this and similar crimes are in Record Group 21, U.S. District Court Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, U.S. v. William Smarto, case number 84-CR-567.

Since it was considered a “perfect crime” at the time, as the headline in the Chicago Tribune declared, the television series deemed it worthy to recreate since the series typically featured cases with complex or elaborate ways of committing a felony.  A Canadian series called Masterminds, which ran on Court TV (now truTV), featured the true crime story which aired in the early part of the decade.

Although the Barrington Bank was the featured heist on the TV show, the Smarto brothers actually were arrested for two similar burglaries in Chicago suburbs. Counts I and II were for Conspiracy to Commit Burglary and Burglary of the First National Bank of Deerfield; Counts III, IV, and V were for Conspiracy to Commit Burglary and Burglary of the First National Bank and Trust of Barrington; and Counts VI and VII were for Conspiracy to Commit Burglary and Burglary of the First National Bank of Lake Forest.

It is helpful to have seen the reenactment to understand that the Smartos’ numerous visits to the safety deposit vaults allowed them to learn how the bank employees worked. In addition, each visit gave them the opportunity to bring in equipment they would need to pull off their scheme. Not only did they hide implements in their deposit boxes, but they began carrying in larger items claiming they were artwork. In reality they were wood pieces that were used as shelves in the drop ceilings where more gear could be hidden along with food since much of the activity was over the course of a weekend. The Barrington Bank lost more than a million dollars worth of cash and jewelry in that April 1981 heist.

One of the many pages of the inventory of items stolen by William and Vincent Smarto from Barrington Bank in April 1981.

The image of most felons who steal is usually one of someone unemployed or someone who has made a career of thievery. However, William Smarto was a hairdresser who lived in Wheeling, a Chicago suburb. According to one affidavit, he requested his brother Vincent open safety deposit boxes at the three banks; around this time William was “involved in a bitter divorce and was trying to conceal assets” from his wife. Further, William said his brother “knew nothing about any potential bank robbery.” The mastermind was eventually caught when he was found to be hiding in the ceiling of one of the banks he was attempting to rob.

Since William was the instigator, both brothers asked for “severance of counts” since Vincent did not participate to the extent of his sibling, and the criminal acts on the indictment “are not all of the same or similar character.” In addition, a year before the case began in 1984, Vincent had a severe heart attack followed by heart surgery and his lawyer did not know if he could withstand the stress of a trial.

The defendants eventually had to face a grand jury, and the proceedings were overseen by Judge Marvin Aspen, who was featured in Masterminds. The Smartos pleaded not guilty to all counts of the indictment. However, in February 1985, William was found guilty on counts 1, 2, 3, 6, and 7, but not guilty on counts 4 and 5.

United States of America vs. William Smarto verdict

In April 1985, Judge Aspen sentenced William Smarto to 20 years in prison. The sentence was reduced to eight years in February 1986 primarily because of the “defendant’s substantial but incomplete restitution of the stolen items.” Smarto would, nonetheless, have to serve 500 hours of community service upon release which included “cooperation with law enforcement and banking authorities in developing internal security programs to combat potential bank burglaries.” He did acknowledge in a hand-written letter to Judge Aspen of his and his friends’ “happy reaction” to the sentence reduction.

One part of the case that is noteworthy is that William Smarto, at his sentencing in April 1985, denied any involvement or knowledge of the Barrington Bank burglary. But when informed he would have to serve 20 years in prison, he began discussions about returning the stolen items in order to get a reduced sentence. The thought of being incarcerated for two decades must have been enough to jar his memory.

Within a week of the agreement for a sentence reduction, a wrapped package was anonymously left at the defense counsel’s offices where the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) retrieved it and inventoried the items. More than 400 pieces of jewelry and other articles were recovered although many were “tarnished and/or damaged.” Unfortunately for the owner, a ten-carat diamond ring worth $128,000 (in 1981) was not returned.

Another part of the case file is requests that William be allowed to travel. While he was on parole, Smarto was granted a lot of freedom including trips to New Orleans in 1989, Spain in 1990, and Wisconsin in 1991 and 1993. He also requested permission to travel to Bermuda with his wife, so apparently he must have remarried. Whether William used any stolen funds for his vacations was not specified.

Although considered a perfect crime 30 years ago, sometimes the guilty are caught and brought to justice. For a glimpse into the reenactment of the crime, the Masterminds television show is available on YouTube:

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