An armored truck, clouds of cash and one man’s moral journey

Atlanta - I-285 July 9, 2019, An armored car had lost part of its load, sending somewhere around $175,000 somersaulting across six lanes of asphalt. And for about 15 minutes, one of the most despised interstates in a city full of them became the setting for a new kind of mayhem — one that forced scores of drivers to make unexpected, but weighty, decisions.- Tyler Estep- The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Video edited by (Tyson Horne tyson.horne@ajc.com)

Phillip Dean’s first thought was of tragedy.

Fresh out of the Air Force, the 24-year-old was wrapping up his shift driving for Uber Eats and headed up I-285 to his parents’ house when he saw the taillights stacking up. He figured there’d been a car crash — and, by the looks of it, a bad one.

He switched into emergency mode, reminding himself how to perform CPR. He was ready to help should the situation call for it.

It didn’t.

The scene Dean happened upon July 9 wasn’t a car wreck. It was an entirely different, extraordinarily odd episode, even for a city whose interstates have a way of attracting odd episodes.

Previous installments include That Time I-85 Caught On Fire, of course, and the whole "Snowmageddon" thing, when a thin coating of snow and ice froze commuters in place for hours and hours and made Atlanta a punchline for Yankees and late-night talk show hosts alike.

There was also the zebra on the Connector, and the tiger on I-75, and an untold number of incidents involving free-roaming bovine.

But this. This was different.

In terms of sheer out-of-body strangeness, Dean put it on par only with riding in the backseat of a fighter jet.

Piles and piles of cash floated through the air like falling leaves.

Cars were stopped in all sorts of unusual places, their occupants darting in and around traffic to scoop up money by the armful.

An armored car had lost part of its load, sending somewhere around $175,000 somersaulting across six lanes of asphalt. And for about 15 minutes, one of the most despised interstates in a city full of them became the setting for a new kind of mayhem — one that forced scores of drivers to make unexpected, but weighty, decisions.

What do you do when the physical manifestation of a slightly easier life floats past your windshield?

And what, the Universe would later ask, is the cost of a clear conscience?

Video image shows drivers stopping to collect money that fell from an armored truck when its side door flew open on I-285. SOCIAL MEDIA POST
Video image shows drivers stopping to collect money that fell from an armored truck when its side door flew open on I-285. SOCIAL MEDIA POST

•••

When the first 911 call came in — the one about money floating all over a nearby stretch of America's deadliest highway — the dispatcher working the phones for the Dunwoody Police Department didn't quite know how to react.

She paused. She said “oh.” And she asked again for a location.

She’d heard right, alright. Money. I-285 westbound. Somewhere between Chamblee-Dunwoody and Ashford-Dunwoody roads. A stretch of the interstate known as the Perimeter that’s visited by more than 200,000 cars each day.

It was just shy of 8 p.m., the still-setting sun glaring off the corporate towers that embody one of the most affluent areas of Atlanta, the most unequal city in the United States.

“There was money all over the road, like a bag of money fell out of something,” that prescient first caller, a man named Dave, said. “And there’s people all over the road, picking it up on the highway.”

The calls kept coming.

“Oh my gosh, I mean people are out of their cars, running back and forth across five lanes of traffic,” one woman reported.

“It’s like something from the freaking movies,” said another.

At first, Dean thought those leaf-like piles on the side of the road were, well, leaves. Then he got a closer look – and realized something far stranger was happening.

“That’s actually money,” Dean thought. “And that’s not a little bit. That’s a lot of money.”

Phillip Dean, 24, was one of several drivers who stopped along I-285 in July 2019 to pick up cash that had dropped out of an armored truck. Dean later returned the money he found to Dunwoody police. CONTRIBUTED
Phillip Dean, 24, was one of several drivers who stopped along I-285 in July 2019 to pick up cash that had dropped out of an armored truck. Dean later returned the money he found to Dunwoody police. CONTRIBUTED

•••

A few moments earlier, the occupants of an armored truck bearing the name of GardaWorld had unwittingly given birth to the Perimeter Payday.

The side door, the door with the latch they’d been struggling with all day, had come loose. And then it had opened. Two bags of someone’s money — $175,000, maybe more? — fell out and onto the road.

They didn’t know it until a sympathetic driver-by waved them down in the middle lane.

It was around 8:09 p.m., about 10 minutes after other folks started dialing 911, when the harried call from Lanea Wilmore was patched through to an emergency operator.

Wilmore was the “hopper” on the two-woman crew that night, tasked with getting in and out to retrieve or deliver money and, presumably, chiefly responsible for securing the door that popped open.

“We just called base. They told us to call the police,” she said through a spotty connection. “There’s money all over the expressway.”

Such incidents are extraordinary events for everyone involved, as Wilmore and the unsuspecting folks on 285 were finding out. But as it turns out, they’re not especially unusual.

In May 2018, the back door of a Brink’s truck opened on I-70 in Indianapolis, sending about $600,000 into the Midwest wind.

Last December, a Brink’s truck spilled about half a million in cash onto a highway in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

A month before that, a man elsewhere in New Jersey found (and returned) a bag with $10,000 lying on the side of the road. It had fallen off a GardaWorld truck while it was taking a turn.

GardaWorld is a Canadian company and one of the three largest in an industry where secrecy is the rule, not the exception. It has declined to answer questions about the events on I-285 and the subsequent fallout.

“We do apologize for any inconvenience this may cause,” representatives wrote in an email.

Armored trucks are by necessity armored – so they’re very heavy. And the chassis — the frame atop which all that heavy stuff is perched — is wont to shift when there’s a bump or a pothole or a stiff curve. That can make doors pop open if they aren’t bolted properly. And sometimes even if they are.

“It’s not uncommon, that’s for certain,” said Jim McGuffey, a South Carolina-based consultant who spent a quarter-century in the industry.

That knowledge likely offered little comfort to Wilmore and Lorraine Roberge, the driver that night on 285.

Reached briefly by phone, Roberge declined to discuss the incident with a reporter but suggested she and Wilmore no longer worked for GardaWorld.

A Dunwoody police officer speaks with the drivers of the GardaWorld armored truck that spilled an estimated $175,000 onto I-285 on July 9. DUNWOODY POLICE DEPARTMENT
A Dunwoody police officer speaks with the drivers of the GardaWorld armored truck that spilled an estimated $175,000 onto I-285 on July 9. DUNWOODY POLICE DEPARTMENT

•••

Marie Zagaglia, one of the first drivers-by to call 911 from 285, did not give in to temptation. She was on the clock and in a well-marked work vehicle, for one thing. It was also someone else’s money, not hers to take.

And things were dangerous out there.

One cellphone video of the pop-up cash storm showed at least 20 vehicles — sedans and SUVs, work trucks, a semi carrying a load of timber — stopped on the shoulder, doors open wide as drivers and their companions scrambled to scoop up bills pinned against guardrails and concrete barriers.

The footage doesn’t do justice to what Zagaglia and other early arrivers saw.

Cars were stopped not just on the shoulder but in lanes of travel, inches from where other post-rush hour travelers were flying past at 55 miles per hour (or, as Atlanta drivers are apt to do, even faster). Other drivers merely slowed down and reached out their doors or windows, hoping to grab some cash on the move.

A woman in pajama pants and fuzzy slippers darted into traffic. Girls in bathing suits. Men in dress clothes.

“There’s gonna be blood and guts involved in this,” Zagaglia thought.

Dean, the young Air Force veteran, arrived at a similar conclusion. He figured there were 30 or 40 cars strewn across the shoulder and nearby lanes of traffic.

But he stopped anyway, pulling his white Toyota Rav4 to the shoulder in what he deemed to be a relatively safe spot outside the heart of the free-for-all.

“Why not?” he thought. “Everybody else is.”

Moral decisions are often made in a flash, ethicists say. And in everyday, not-all-that-unusual situations, people generally use a well-informed version of their gut: consciously or not, they base choices on their personal rules of behavior and what they believe to be socially acceptable.

But when an anomalous situation — like, say, a pop-up cash storm on the interstate — presents itself, that process can go awry. Baser impulses can take over. Emotions seize control of the steering wheel. Gray areas become grayer.

When he got out of his car, Dean saw ones and fives and 50s float by, and people shouted — nicely, jubilantly, welcoming him to the party — to come on down to the other end where the 100s were.

“It was amazing, because people weren’t like fighting over it,” he said. “I was walking next to this guy, and we’re both following this trail of $1 bills. And we’re picking them up and we get to the point where there’s just one right there and he’s like, ‘Go ahead man, it’s all yours.’”

Dean said thank you, collected his final dollar and sequestered the stack in an unused corner of his wallet. He got back in his car and drove home.

Drivers stopping to grab cash spilled from a GardaWorld armored truck on I-285 in Dunwoody on July 9. SOCIAL MEDIA POST
Drivers stopping to grab cash spilled from a GardaWorld armored truck on I-285 in Dunwoody on July 9. SOCIAL MEDIA POST

•••

By the time a Dunwoody police officer pulled onto the shoulder of I-285 — about 12 minutes after the first 911 call — Dean and most of the cash-grabbers had made themselves scarce. Others were in the process of doing so.

Miraculously, no one had been hurt.

Officer Johnny Pace spoke with the blue-uniformed armored car drivers while they fumbled through documents in the cab of their truck, looking distraught.

“They just did a pick-up from East West Bank,” Pace told a colleague on the phone. “East West Bank, it covers Follies and some other bars and stuff.”

Follies is a strip club in Chamblee, about seven miles from the scene of the cash storm. East West Bank has a branch nearby, a short jaunt up Buford Highway to get to I-285.

Cops and workers from the Department of Transportation walked along the interstate looking for leftover cash. Their efforts netted around $200.

“Money gone, man,” Pace said. “Flying everywhere.”

The next morning, Dunwoody Police Sgt. Robert Parsons would post a brief explanation of the incident on his department's Facebook page, calling it an "isolated cash storm" — and providing an ominous reminder.

“While we certainly understand the temptation,” the notice said, “it’s still theft and the money should be returned.”

•••

Dean called his parents after leaving the crazy scene — “you won’t believe what happened” — and plopped his bounty down on the kitchen table when he got home. For a young man saving for college by schlepping other people’s food around Atlanta, any extra money counts.

But then again: Plenty of folks had used their cellphones to record the mayhem and its participants. Some sort of police investigation seemed inevitable. And Dean was – is – a young man with big goals.

During an Air Force stint that sent him to various bases around the U.S. and Japan, Dean was an F-15 avionics specialist, working on the electronics that keep America’s famous fighter jets up and running. He wants to join back up and become a fighter pilot.

At the time of the cash storm, he was a few weeks from starting school at Middle Tennessee State University, where he hopes his involvement in the school’s professional pilot and ROTC programs will help him earn a much-coveted spot.

He thought about all that and didn't like what a misdemeanor or a felony charge could mean for his future. And Dunwoody PD's Facebook post — which offered amnesty for folks who did the right thing — caught his eye.

So early on the evening of July 11, Dean and his father were buzzed into the police department and met Sgt. William Yeargin.

Dean explained that he’d grabbed what he could and gotten out of there. Yeargin retrieved a plastic bag from the evidence room and brought it back to the lobby. He counted the bills, took Dean’s info and provided him a makeshift receipt scribbled on the back of a business card.

A few minutes into the tedious process, Yeargin’s radio buzzed.

“Just ran a bunch of subjects out of the woods,” the voice on the other end said.

While Yeargin was taking money from grabbers-turned-do-gooders, people were still out searching for a stray buck or two (or a thousand).

The Perimeter Payday wasn’t quite over.

Phillip Dean, 24, returning cash he grabbed after an armored car spilled tens of thousands of dollars on I-285 in Dunwoody in July. DUNWOODY POLICE DEPARTMENT
Phillip Dean, 24, returning cash he grabbed after an armored car spilled tens of thousands of dollars on I-285 in Dunwoody in July. DUNWOODY POLICE DEPARTMENT

•••

Dean was the sixth of nine people who returned money snatched during those brief moments of mayhem on July 9. They brought bills in grocery bags and rubber-banded stacks, saying their consciences had gotten to them.

Most made their bashful trips to Dunwoody PD in the first two days of the aftermath; the final submission was made on July 20.

In all, $6,201 was returned. The individual amounts varied.

$2,094.

$1,657.

$1,612.

$520.

$125.

$116.

$35.

$24.

$18.

That last amount – a mere $18 – came from Dean. Sometimes the price of a clear conscience is relatively small.

“I think it was actually harder (to turn in) because it was only $18,” Dean said. “If I had picked up $1,000 plus, I would’ve gone straight to the police department like get this off my hands, search my car, I’m not hiding anything.”

A few folks apparently felt the same way. But many more did not.

To be clear, the estimate that $175,000 fell off the truck was just that: an estimate. But if you subtract all of the money that was returned and the $200 or so that officers recovered along the interstate, something like $168,599 is still unaccounted for. The actual bags that flew out the armored car’s door also are missing.

Somewhere out there, an untold number of people are sitting on gobs of free cash.

Maybe they’ve spent it already. Maybe they paid the light bill or their mother’s mortgage; maybe they went to Follies in search of a good time.

Maybe they’re not sure what to do with it, eaten up with guilt.

Maybe, just maybe, they’ll return it one day.

Perhaps not.

“I debated a little bit,” Dean said. “That’s human nature.”

Dunwoody police all denominations of bills spilled from the truck. “Ones, fives, fifties, you name it, it was in there,” Sgt. Robert Parsons said. DUNWOODY POLICE DEPARTMENT
Dunwoody police all denominations of bills spilled from the truck. “Ones, fives, fifties, you name it, it was in there,” Sgt. Robert Parsons said. DUNWOODY POLICE DEPARTMENT

HOW WE GOT THE STORY

In reporting this recreation of July’s “cash storm” on I-285, the AJC obtained dozens of records and documents — from incident reports and copies of witness 911 calls to police body and dash camera footage that directly captured key events in the saga. The AJC also reviewed scores of social media accounts and spoke with many people who played roles in the incident, as witnesses, participants or otherwise; with experts from the armored car industry; and with scholars studying morality, ethics and decision making.

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