$1.7 million theft leaves wealth of questions

July 03, 1994|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun Staff Writer

He was a talented engineer, a conscientious father, a loving son and a civic leader in the waterfront community near Annapolis where he lived with his mother.

But federal authorities say Robert Patrick Schmitt Jr. was also a major-league thief.

Mr. Schmitt, 31, has been charged in U.S. District Court in Baltimore with stealing $1.7 million from the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the largest theft in the bureau's 132-year history.

His arrest June 17 brought to an end a monthlong federal investigation and threatened the promising career of an "up and coming star" engineer who at one time worked to redesign the type of bills that were stolen -- the $100 note.

The arrest of a man who earned more than $66,000 a year, was president of his community association and graduated from one of the nation's top engineering schools has federal officials, bank officials and neighbors puzzled.

"He was well thought of. He was talented, extremely bright, and he was an up and coming star. Everyone here is shocked," said Norma Opgrand, a bureau spokeswoman.

Mr. Schmitt, who remains free on bond, would not comment on the case. He is charged with one count of theft of government property and, if convicted, could be sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined $250,000.

According to a federal affidavit in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, freshly printed $100 bills were slipped out of the bureau over about two months this year.

The money was deposited in accounts at two banks, one near Mr. Schmitt's Edgewater home and another near the 14th Street printing plant in Washington where he worked, according to the affidavit.

Each of the dozens of deposits made from March 30 to June 14 was for less than the $10,000 limit that banks must report to federal authorities, according to the affidavit.

Internal Revenue Service agents were tipped off May 17 by Lola Lawchuck, vice president for compliance at Annapolis Bank and Trust Co., who became suspicious when a customer who listed his employer as "U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing" deposited almost $200,000 in crisp, new $100 bills over the course of about a month.

The man avoided eye contact and appeared to be nervous, according to the affidavit.

After tellers questioned the man about one of his larger deposits, he tried to avoid future inquiries by "using the drive-through window exclusively," the affidavit says.

In the weeks before his arrest, Mr. Schmitt bought a $125,000 Ocean City condominium and put a $100,000 deposit on the waterfront house across the road from his home.

He also leased from Citizens Bank of Washington the largest safe deposit box available on March 31, according to the federal affidavit and a bank spokeswoman.

Mr. Schmitt made two visits to the 10-inch-by-10-inch box. Federal authorities said that when they searched it after his arrest they found $500,000.

Investigators also reported finding $650,000 in Mr. Schmitt's car, which he had driven to the Bureau of Engraving's fenced-in lot on the day he surrendered.

Lisa Griffin, the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, said that all but about $50,000 of the stolen cash has been accounted for. She said federal authorities have filed forfeiture proceedings in U.S. District Court to take possession of the condominium.

The affidavit, filed by Katherine O. Steadley, an IRS special agent, says that much of the stolen money went into accounts jointly held by Mr. Schmitt and his mother.

The day before Mr. Schmitt and his mother bought the Ocean City condo, his mother went to Annapolis Bank and Trust and obtained two certified checks totaling $126,000 to pay for the condo, according to the affidavit.

Edna D. Schmitt, 57, declined to comment.

Ms. Griffin said investigators are trying to determine how the cash was slipped past security guards at the bureau's exits and parking lot gates.

Test bills were stolen

Ms. Opgrand said the stolen money consisted of test bills with serial numbers identical to cash shipped legally to banks in New York City.

The bills would have been missed and traced because anyone who enters the test bill vault must get prior authorization, she said.

"If you try something like this, you're chances of eventually getting caught are virtually 100 percent," Ms. Opgrand said.

Mr. Schmitt's neighbors, friends and federal officials say they are puzzled about the accusations.

"As far as I know, he was a very decent boy. He studied hard at school and then worked hard when he finished school," said Bertha Haymaker, a family friend from Annapolis.

Neighbors and friends say Mr. Schmitt is the son of Mrs. Schmitt and the late Robert Patrick Schmitt, an office administrator for the FBI who died several years ago.

The family moved to Saunders Point, a quiet waterfront community, in 1966, buying a house on the 4200 block of Kings Road with a $24,500 mortgage, according to county land records. To secure her son's bail Mrs. Schmitt posted as bond the house, now valued at $121,000, according to state tax records.

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