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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.

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