THE HEIST THAT HAUNTS
Nearly 20 years later, former FBI agent reflects on Nevada's biggest bank robbery – and its tragic consequences

T

he FBI agent had no formal crisis negotiation training when he was handed the phone early on the morning of Aug. 29, 1999.

On the other end of the line: a man he had arrested eight months prior for helping commit the largest bank robbery Nevada has ever seen, Timothy Blackburn.

Blackburn had recently busted out of jail with the help of his wife, Sophia Lim. The couple were now holed up with their two young daughters inside an east Las Vegas apartment.

For as long as it took, then-agent Henry Schlumpf’s job was to keep Blackburn, one of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives, on the phone.

“Because if he’s on the phone with you, he’s not shooting anybody,” Schlumpf was told by the crisis negotiators coaching him at the time.

Nearly 20 years after the $1 million bank robbery, the December 1998 heist remains the largest such case in the state’s history. It set off a series of events that ended with all four dead inside the apartment that August morning.

Over the course of about three hours, Schlumpf, Blackburn and his family talked. They talked about the robbery. They talked about love. They talked about death. They talked about the future.

During the negotiations, Schlumpf thought he was close to persuading Lim to leave with her daughters. But at 6:19 a.m., a muffled shotgun blast sealed their fate.

“And that was it, you know? It’s all over. And it was just devastating,” Schlumpf said in a recent interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

‘A million dollars in cash’

Schlumpf, now an investigator at the Nevada attorney general’s office, said he has thought about the case nearly every day for two decades.

The agent received a call about the bank robbery just after midnight on Dec. 21, 1998.

When he arrived at what was then a Bank of America repository at 4215 E. Charleston Blvd., he learned that two armed, masked men had kidnapped three janitors and used them to gain access to the repository. He learned that two security guards then had come to open the vault, that the masked men had tried to take the guards’ guns, and that one of the guns went off during the process.

A bullet had ricocheted off the floor and hit one of the guards, William Swick, in the chest. Swick survived the shooting but died of cancer more than a decade ago, his wife, Sylvia, said when reached by phone in late October.

The masked men grabbed a shrink-wrapped bundle of cash and escaped, tires screeching. Authorities weren’t sure how much money was taken until Schlumpf found a receipt under a table at the bank.

“I pull it out of there, and it says $1,088,000,” he recalled. “And it’s like: Wow, that is the biggest bank robbery in Nevada history right there. A million dollars in cash.”

Anonymous tipster

Investigators had little information to go on, Schlumpf said. The guards and janitors couldn’t provide specific suspect descriptions, video didn’t show much, and there were no fingerprints.

One investigator found a pickup truck parked slightly askew while canvassing a neighborhood. A resident had noted that a different pickup was parked there earlier — a white “dually,” which had two wheels on each side of its rear axle.

In an effort to draw attention to the case and find tips, Schlumpf persuaded the bank and an armored truck company to offer a $50,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.

The tips started coming in, but most led nowhere.

On Dec. 30, however, an anonymous tipster called under the code name “Foxfire.”

“And I go, ‘OK, Foxfire, what can I do for you?’” Schlumpf recalled. “She goes, ‘Well, I got a friend who’s got a friend who knows somebody who says that her boyfriend’s brother has a laundry basket full of money at his house.’”

Schlumpf remembers thinking, “Who’s going to make something like that up?”

Foxfire got her reward.

She gave a phone number that traced back to a woman named Naomi Stachowsky, who lived in a trailer on the east part of town. Another agent staking out the trailer spotted a man exit and get into a white “dually” pickup and drive off.

The plate belonged to Timothy Blackburn.

inline-smallTimothy Blackburn (North Las Vegas Police Department)

From there, they found Stachowsky at her job as a dancer at the “Talk of the Town” strip club and her boyfriend, Riley Bates, inside the trailer. Investigators also found poker chips from the Luxor inside the trailer, which led them to arrest Riley’s brother, Robert, at the resort.

He’d spent more than $30,000 in cash at a club in one night.

“He’s got this brand new bright yellow blazer and these bright blue contacts he bought, and he’d been partying for a week,” Schlumpf said. “He was in no shape to be interviewed, so we got nowhere.”

Finding Blackburn was more difficult. When authorities arrived at his house, he ran. He headed for a minivan driven by his sister-in-law, Seila Lim, who tried hitting police with the vehicle but ended up crashing it.

Police and K-9 service dogs discovered Blackburn hiding under a porch. Authorities found most of the money the next day, New Year’s Eve, under a doghouse in Blackburn’s backyard.

Jailbreak

In early August 1999, Blackburn, his attorney, a federal prosecutor and Schlumpf gathered inside the law library at the now-defunct North Las Vegas Detention Center. Schlumpf laid out the case against Blackburn.

“Well, how much time am I looking at?” the inmate asked.

“Tim,” Schlumpf replied, “your probation officer isn’t even born yet.”

Blackburn turned to his attorney and said he wanted a plea bargain.

On Aug. 11, 1999, Blackburn escaped.

He traded gunfire with corrections officers as he fled the jail. His wife, who over the course of a week had helped remove the plexiglass dividing inmate from visitor with an electric screwdriver she had hidden in her hair, had given him the gun and wedged a shoe in a door to facilitate his escape.

“So now we’re looking for him. Everybody in Vegas is looking for him,” Schlumpf recalled.

Authorities ran down tips and checked out several “look-alike calls” about Blackburn’s whereabouts.

One bogus tip came from a Las Vegas police officer who thought he had spotted the wanted vehicle and Blackburn’s family in Mount Charleston’s Kyle Canyon, prompting a response with hundreds of law enforcement officers, armored personnel carriers, helicopters and tankers to refuel those helicopters.

They weren’t sure whether Blackburn was in Las Vegas, so authorities tried finding every person, home or vehicle in the city associated with him. Family members either loved him or feared him, which made it difficult to get them to cooperate, Schlumpf recalled.

“Blackburn has showed us that we can’t predict anything he’s going to do, which made him especially dangerous,” Schlumpf said.

Multiple attempts to reach members of the Blackburn and Lim families for this story were unsuccessful.

However, on a chilly night last month, Terry Blackburn pulled his SUV into the driveway of his home, tucked away in an east Las Vegas cul-de-sac.

He declined to be interviewed, saying he prefers privacy. He also said he’s still grieving the loss of his only brother.

“So you live with it. You never get over grief, right?” he said.

During the hunt for Timothy Blackburn, authorities arrested Sophia Lim’s sister Seila for lying to the FBI. They also arrested Terry Blackburn after they learned that he had left a driver’s license for his brother in their mother’s mailbox prior to the jailbreak.

As it turned out, Timothy Blackburn had left Las Vegas. The FBI learned that he called his best friend, Dewey Cooper, as he escaped the jail. Schlumpf figured Blackburn would call Cooper again, so the agent asked Cooper to pass along a message.

“I want you to tell him, that, I, you know, Special Agent Henry Schlumpf, that I’ve arrested Terry, and I arrested Seila, and I’m going to keep arresting people until he turns himself in,” Schlumpf said.

Timothy Blackburn called a week later from Tijuana, Mexico. Cooper delivered the message.

Negotiations

When the FBI received a tip that Timothy Blackburn’s family was staying in a unit at Budget Suites, 4625 Boulder Highway, Schlumpf was skeptical. Why would he return to Las Vegas?

But then Schlumpf suggested trying a ruse in which a security guard knocked on every door at the building regarding a noise complaint. Sophia Lim stuck her head out the door to unit E234.

Schlumpf still doesn’t know why the family returned.

“It’s like I could not believe it. I could not believe it,” Schlumpf said.

The agent figured Timothy Blackburn was still armed, so a crisis negotiator, Monique Panet-Swanson, called into the apartment to warn him that the unit was surrounded and that SWAT was coming.

Panet-Swanson got Timothy Blackburn on the phone. With the lights out between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m., she spoke to him from inside another apartment at the complex.

Then Timothy Blackburn told the negotiator that he wanted to talk to Schlumpf.

For the next three hours, the agent talked with the fugitive, his wife and their daughters. Trained negotiators coached him as he spoke.

Not sure what to say at first, Schlumpf told Timothy Blackburn that he must have had a rough few weeks. No, the fugitive replied, his family had been having a great time. They had taken a trip to Sea World and held a birthday party for the girls.

Schlumpf ended the call and moved to a different apartment, where two Metropolitan Police Department negotiators told him to call back and keep Blackburn on the phone.

Meanwhile, Metro dropped chain-link fences around the buildings, set up surveillance, established a command post, positioned SWAT officers outside Blackburn’s apartment and brought in helicopters.

Once back on the phone, Schlumpf balanced trying to get the family out of danger and trying not to upset the armed fugitive.

“He did not want to go back to jail and have his daughters visit him in jail,” Schlumpf recalled.

They would talk for a while, take a break, and then start the process over again.

Sometimes Schlumpf talked with Sophia Lim or the girls: Tiara, 4, and Tiana, 5. Tiara told him she was taking dance lessons. She wanted to be a ballerina. The agent testified at a 1999 coroner’s inquest that he could hear the girls playing with toys in the background.

At 6:19 a.m., Schlumpf was speaking with Sophia Lim about her own future: Maybe she could get probation or house arrest for her role in the escape.

“And she’s semi agreeing with it,” Schlumpf recalled. “She says, ‘But if I spend even one day in jail, it will be on your head.’ And then I hear a shotgun blast.”

‘It was just over’

I walk kind of down a ways, and I hear somebody say ‘419′. And I don’t know what all the Metro codes are. None of them are for anything good. But I say, ‘What’s 419?’ And he goes, ‘Dead body. They’re all dead.’

Henry Schlumpf

The phone went dead. He could hear the SWAT team, which was poised to enter at the sound of gunfire, burst into the Blackburns’ apartment. The building shook as the negotiators ran from the room. They hurried back to tell him it was a false alarm and to try dialing again. No answer.

Schlumpf stepped outside to find out what had happened.

“I walk kind of down a ways, and I hear somebody say ‘419,’” he said. “And I don’t know what all the Metro codes are. None of them are for anything good. But I say, ‘What’s 419?’ And he goes, ‘Dead body. They’re all dead.’”

A Metro officer guarding the perimeter, Nevin Hansbarger, had accidentally fired his shotgun while slinging it over his shoulder. Hansbarger no longer works for Metro, a department spokesman said, and multiple attempts to reach him for comment on this story were unsuccessful.

Timothy Blackburn, Schlumpf now knows, heard the blast and fatally shot his wife and daughters before turning a revolver on himself inside the apartment bathroom. SWAT officers heard those gunshots as they entered the room and fired at Blackburn’s falling body, but it was too late.

A crowd of people had gathered outside the scene, Schlumpf said. The career law enforcement officer teared up as he recalled walking past the crowd and going home to sleep.

“I all of the sudden didn’t have anything to do,” he said. “It was just over.”

inline-largeThe shared grave of sisters Tiana Blackburn, 5, and Tiara Blackburn, 4, at Eden Vale Memorial Park in Las Vegas on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018. Rachel Aston Las Vegas Review-Journal @rookie__rae

‘We’ll never know’

Having had nearly 20 years to reflect, Schlumpf doubts he could have changed what happened. Accidental discharge or not, he said, the person ultimately responsible for the outcome was Timothy Blackburn.

“Somewhere it would be Blackburn who was going to end the thing the way he wants to end it, either coming out, or the other way,” he said. “And I don’t think he was going to come out.”

Schlumpf now thinks Sophia Lim wasn’t going to leave the apartment, either.

He wishes he had recognized that she had played a prominent role in her husband’s crimes. Perhaps if he had arrested her, too, things could have ended differently, he said.

”But we’ll never know,” the former FBI agent said.

Contact Mike Shoro at mshoro@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5290. Follow @mike_shoro on Twitter.

ad-high_impact_4
Crime
Krystal Whipple arrested in Arizona
Krystal Whipple, charged in the killing of a Las Vegas nail salon manager over a $35 manicure, is expected to return to Nevada to face a murder charge.
Alleged Las Vegas casino con man, who was on the run, appears in court
Mark Georgantas -- who entered a plea deal on a charge of stealing from people he met at Las Vegas casinos, but failed to show up for sentencing -- appearing in court after being captured in Utah. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Memorial service for Kwavon’tia Thomas
Timika Thomas sings during a memorial service for her son, Kwavon’tia Gregory Thomas, at Unity Baptist Church in Las Vegas on Saturday, January 12, 2019. Kwavon’tia was shot and killed on Christmas Eve. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
LVMPD Looking For Blue Bucket Bandit - VIDEO
On December 31, 2018 detectives with the LVMPD Northwest Area Command Patrol Investigations Section received a report of the theft of a surveillance camera from the front porch of a residence located in the area of West Lake Mead Boulevard and North Rampart Boulevard. The victim in this case became aware of other residents in the neighborhood who had been the victim of similar crimes.
16-year-old boy fatally shot in North Las Vegas
North Las Vegas police were investigating the fatal shooting of a 16-year-old boy on Wednesday, January 9, 2019, marking the department’s first homicide investigation this year. (Katelyn Newberg/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas police piecing together details of fatal shooting
Six hours after the fact, Las Vegas homicide detectives worked to reconstruct the scene of a shooting early Jan. 7 that left one man dead in the southeast valley. (Rio Lacanlale/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas police searching for man in Christmas robbery
A man walked into a business about 2:35 a.m. Dec. 25 on the 5000 block of South Eastern Avenue, near East Tropicana Avenue, and “committed a robbery,” a police release said. Police wrote that a person followed him outside of the business, and the man pointed a gun at him. (Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department)
Fatal shooting at Green Valley Ranch casino
Henderson Police Department Lt. Kirk Moore briefs the media on a fatal shooting at Green Valley Ranch casino in Henderson on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019. (Briana Erickson/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Police release video of suspect in armed robbery
Las Vegas police released video Monday in an effort to identify a man they said robbed a convenience store clerk at gunpoint last week.
Buffalo Wild Wings Hit and Run
Here's the surveillance of the hit-and-run crash in front of BWW, in which a woman repeatedly crashed into a manager's vehicle in a failed attempt to squeeze into a tight parking spot. She walks in, asks how long the wait is, then storms off after being told of the 10-minute wait time. Footage courtesy of manager Daniel Rees.
Multi-agency DUI Strike Team focused solely on arresting impaired drivers
The newly formed DUI Strike Team made up of Las Vegas police officers and Nevada Highway Patrol Troopers have hit the streets looking for impaired drivers. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Jury finds former corrections officers not guilty on all counts
Paul Valdez and Jose Navarrete, two former Nevada Department of Corrections officers accused of using unnecessary force on an inmate were both found not guilty on all charges after a jury deliberated less than 2 hours.
Henderson Constable appears in court
Earl Mitchell, the Henderson Constable indicted on four counts of theft and one count of fraudulent appropriation of property, appeared in court Thursday.
Former FBI agent recalls tragic case 20 years later
Timothy Blackburn robbed a Bank of America depository in December 1998 for more than $1 million — the largest bank robbery in Nevada’s history. After eluding authorities initially, Blackburn was caught and jailed at the North Las Vegas Detention Center. In August 1999, he escaped, guns blazing, with his wife’s help, and disappeared for weeks only to be found at an apartment near Boulder Highway. Former FBI Agent Henry Schlumpf, the lead on the case, remembers vividly the hostage situation that would end tragically. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Officer Shoots Suspect in Nye County - Bodycam
A Nye County Sheriff’s deputy shot and killed a man Thursday night. Jason Paul O’Bannon, 46, died after the altercation with police. Reports of a man firing a weapon outside his house brought police to the scene just after 8 p.m. Detective Wesley Fancher fired the shot that killed O’Bannon, police said. O’Bannon had a “lengthy criminal history” in California and Nevada dating to 1988, according to police
Nye County sheriff news conference on officer-involved shooting
Nye County Sheriff Sharon Wehrly details the police response as officers came under fire Thursday when a man was shooting a rifle in his yard. When the man pointed a weapon at an officer, police opened fire. The man died.
Officer-involved shooting in Nye County
The Nye County Sheriff's Office gives information about a shooting in Pahrump on Thursday night after a man began firing shots outside of his home. (Nye County Sheriff's Office)
Law Enforcement Active Shooter Training Exercise
Multiple Las Vegas Valley law enforcement agencies held an active shooter drill at the Department of Public Safety’s Parole and Probation office on December 6, 2018. Officials set up the training exercise to include multiple active shooters, a barricaded suspect and multiple casualties. (Katelyn Newberg/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Dozier execution timeline
Scott Dozier was set to be executed July 11, 2018, at the Ely State Prison. Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez delayed the execution.
Las Vegas Metropolitan Briefing 18th street gang
Las Vegas Metropolitan briefs the media on the recent arrests made regarding the 18th street gang.
Las Vegas Metropolitan Briefing - 18th street gang
Las Vegas Metropolitan briefs the media on the recent arrests made regarding the 18th street gang.
The Mob Museum
Man shot in Las Vegas traffic stop had knife, police say
Police said the man fatally shot by an officer during a traffic stop in downtown Las Vegas had a “homemade knife.” Demontry Floytra Boyd, 43, died Saturday at University Medical Center from multiple gunshot wounds after officer Paul Bruning, 48, shot him during a traffic stop. Bruning pulled Boyd over on suspicion of driving recklessly at 7:41 a.m. near Sunrise Avenue and 18th Street.
Man shot, killed by Las Vegas police after traffic stop
Las Vegas police give a briefing after a man was shot and killed by an officer following a traffic stop. (Rio Lacanlale/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Video of suspect in Home Depot parking lot shooting
A man who was injured in a Nov. 20 shooting in the southwest Las Vegas Valley died at a hospital Tuesday, the Clark County coroner’s office said.
Nevada Task Force 1 Dog Units Return
Four dogs and their handlers returned to the Las Vegas Valley on Thursday, November 29, 2018, after deploying to the Paradise, California wildfire last week. The dogs, trained in human remains detection, are part of Nevada Task Force 1, a Federal Emergency Management Agency urban search and rescue team. (Katelyn Newberg/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Police thwart brazen kidnapping attempt
Metro officers suspicious of woman claiming to be with Child Protective Services prevent possible kidnapping of three-week-old infant.
Shot Spotter technology used by Metro extended for another year
Gunfire location technology being used by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department gets extended for another year of evaluation.
Nye County pursuit ends in rollover crash caught by dashcam
A truck flipped twice before landing on its wheels as a driver tried to flee Nye County Sheriff's deputies on Friday, Nov. 23, 2018.
Nevada Highway Patrol stops wrong-way driver on Thanksgiving
The Nevada Highway Patrol has released dashboard and body camera video showing troopers deploying spike strips to stop a suspected impaired wrong-way driver early Thanksgiving Day. (Nevada Highway Patrol)
DUI sentencing
The parents of 8-year-old Levi Echenique speak after a woman who drove under the influence of marijuana and killed the boy was sent to prison.
3 Pahrump residents arrested on false imprisonment charges
James Thatcher, 28 of Pahrump, Chelsea Demille, 30 of Pahrump, and Sandra Wombles, 19 of Pahrump were all arrested after it was discovered that they were holding an adult female and male prisoners in their bedroom. (Nye County Sheriff's Office)
2 kids struck by gunfire in North Las Vegas shooting
On Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, people opened fire into a residence in the 3600 block of Hamlin Place in North Las Vegas. Two kids were hit by gunfire and sent to the hospital with non-life threatening injuries, according to North Las Vegas police. Anyone with information is asked to call the NLVPD at 702-633-9111.
Stephan Bonnar DUI Arrest
Stephan Bonnar arrested for DUI in Nevada.
TOP NEWS
News Headlines
Home Front Page Footer Listing
Circular
You May Like

You May Like