JFK Cuban Cigar Heist
"Stanius, you'd better come see this."
Stanius set the president's speech aside. There was a gathering commotion just outside the young writer's office and he followed the worried crowd of White House staffers into the lounge where Walter Cronkite addressed the nation on black and white television.
"This is Walter Cronkite in our newsroom and there has been an attempt, as perhaps you know now, on the life of President Kennedy. He was wounded in an automobile driving from Dallas Airport into downtown Dallas, along with Governor Connelly of Texas. They've been taken to Parkland Hospital there, where their condition is as yet unknown..."
The spectators gasped. Stanius glanced around the room and saw shocked, frozen faces. Pale hands covered awestruck mouths. Tears welled, heads shook in disbelief. Hands were clasped in prayer. Telephones rang, tears began to fall. And this was his chance. Amid the chaos that was to ensue, this was his one and only chance.
Stanius disappeared from the room and headed down the hall for the president's study. President Kennedy wounded, Stanius heard Cronkite's voice again. Taken to the hospital, his condition yet unknown. Sweat beaded on the speechwriter's forehead as he rounded a corner and slipped into the president's study. He hoped the president would survive. Mr. Kennedy was a good man with nice children and a friendly wife and he had always been fair to Stanius. And even if Mr. Kennedy did survive, the White House would soon be filled with panic and uncertainty. And the most uncertain time would be now. Thus, it was probably the only opportunity for Stanius to get his hands on JFK's prized cigars.
Stanius knew exactly where they were; he had often been invited to share a stogie with the president during those late night speech-writing touchups. As he slipped into the study he went for the oak desk's lower left-hand drawer. He knew the story. Salinger goes to every tobacconist in Washington, D.C. the day before the president signs the order for the embargo and returns with 1,200 Cuban cigars. JFK went through those cigars faster than Stanius went through coffee - and as one of the U.S. President's speechwriters, Stanius went through a lot of coffee. But JFK still had one left in that box in his drawer. The last of his stash that he was saving for a special occasion.
As Stanius knelt to open the door, he heard the voices of two men approaching so he paused, tried to think of an excuse for why he was in the study. A moment passed and the voices moved urgently down the corridor, leaving Stanius alone in the study.
He opened the drawer and found the cigar box. Inside was the last of Jack's Cuban cigars, but also a little surprise, something Stanius didn't know existed - a gift from Che Guevara. On top was a note from the shaggy revolutionary: Since I have no greeting card, I have to write. Since to write to an enemy is difficult, I limit myself to extending my hand - Che.
Stanius always thought the Cuban leaders were a bunch of weirdoes with their fatigues and beards but for some reason Kennedy had kept Guevara's gift. This would be worth much more than he had calculated - a healthy payday to be sure. Stanius closed the box, hurried back to his office, stashed it in his briefcase and then returned to the crowded lounge. No one noticed he had been absent.
Cronkite was still on TV, "From Dallas, Texas, the flash apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 pm Central Standard Time. 2 o'clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago." The room gasped, people turned and embrace each other and tears were shed for many days.
20 years later: 1983
Like Santa Claus holding a child's wish list, Tercero checked the prizes item by item. An authentic Babe Ruth game jersey from the mid 1920's, a pistol used by Teddy Roosevelt during the Spanish-American War, a Fedora Humphrey Bogart wore in Casablanca, a rare unpublished Hemingway manuscript, and a pair of unused tickets from the Titanic.
Tercero folded the list and gazed through the van window at the mansion across the street. "Quite a collection of precious American bullshit." He chuckled. Americans were so proud of their pop culture and their nostalgia that they were willing to spend millions of dollars to own these pieces of what they would call 'history.'
Redding flipped through the paperwork he had compiled: newspaper articles, auction house disclosures, tracking sheets from his own reconnaissance. "Add to Sternhardt's list: a pair of high heels worn by Marilyn Monroe. Sternhardt paid $30,000 for them at the Surdyk's auction last month."
Tercero scoffed, inhaled the last of his cigarette and flicked the butt out the window. "Enough to feed five children for years and he spends it on a pair of women's shoes."
"They're very nice shoes."
"I'll be the judge of that."
Tercero and Redding had been tracking auction activity for years and had pinpointed Russell Sternhardt as one of the most active buyers of memorabilia. According to newspaper articles compiled by Redding, Sternhardt didn't care where the items came from - auctions, museums, the black market - and he kept his collection in his mansion so he could show off his plunder to his elite friends and associates. And now Tercero believed they had chosen the perfect night to pounce.
The two thieves slumped in their seats until Sternhardt's limousine passed. Redding eyed Tercero as the Cuban sat up, peered into the rearview mirror and started driving the van the opposite direction.
Redding knew Tercero was some kind of Cuban ex-military and the third son of his family, hence the nickname Tercero. Redding didn't even know the man's real name. But he was pragmatic, organized and courageous. Bold. That was how Redding would describe this heist on the Sternhardt mansion: bold.
As Tercero drove the van around one corner, then another, he considered his partner. Redding had some Hispanic blood but Tercero didn't know how much. He was some kind of a computer data thief. A master researcher, Redding knew how to access people's personal information and exploit it for financial benefit or blackmail. He seemed to have some kind of official government training, but Tercero was not sure which government. They met years ago as petty thieves, and had been working together ever since.
Railroad tracks ran through the woods about a half mile from the mansion and that's where Tercero parked. The night was dark and cold. There would be frost in the morning, but no snow. The ground was still dry, so it would be an easy walk.
"Get the duffel bag," Tercero pointed towards the back of the van as he hopped out. He hung the strap of his own small black bag over his shoulder. Both men wore black gloves, black shirts and pants, black shoes. No need to darken their faces - there was little chance anyone would see them up close. And they both carried pistols, just in case.
The roof of the mansion was just in sight over the tree line but they weren't headed there. Instead Redding pointed them to a small, abandoned brick building near the tracks, just a hundred yards from Sternhardt's castle.
"It was supposedly some kind of depot back in the 30's," Redding explained as they walked to the building
Railroad tracks ran through the woods about a half mile from the mansion and that's where Tercero parked.
The windows had been sealed with concrete and the wooden door bolted shut with a cast iron brace. Tercero and Redding knelt in front of the door and Tercero produced a small, custom-built, battery-powered saw from his bag. He went to work on the brace as Redding paced around the building watching for any movement from the road, the trees, the air. The night was quiet, except for the gentle buzzing of Tercero's saw.
"I'm in!" Tercero finally announced and Redding helped him slide the metal brace from the doorway. They shoved the wooden door open and entered the musty brick house. Tercero turned on his flashlight and scanned the small empty room. In the shadows, something moved.
"Rats," Tercero muttered as a pair of black rodents scurried across the room and disappeared into a corner. Tercero thought he heard one of them hiss before he ignored the animals and shined his light through the rest of the room. "Looks like nothing more than a small, friendly train stop."
Redding scoffed. "It's not going to be right here in front of you." He pointed to a wooden counter near the back of the shack, sitting beside a round, iron wood-burning stove. "There." They walked behind the counter and right beside the stove Redding shined his light on a small metal trapdoor. He pulled the handle, then harder, and harder still until the door opened and revealed a cold, black hole in the ground.
Redding and Tercero smiled at each other.
"¡Puerta de oro coño!" Exclaimed Tercero as he shined his light into the hole and found the stone steps that lead down to the cavern.
Cold, dark, dry and endless. They pointed their lights down the long tunnel and started walking. "This is where they used to come in?" Tercero asked.
"That's what my research said. They'd enter through the depot, speak the password to whoever waited at the counter and they'd be allowed entry into the secret tunnel."
"Old power lines running along the ceiling," Tercero pointed with his light. "Must have had electric lamps down here to light their way."
"They were classy people, despite their devious ways."
"Yes, classy people can be quite devious."
They traveled along the tunnel for a hundred yards until they reached a doorway. "There was probably another guard here," Redding explained. "And a different password."
"Well, speak the password and let us in before I freeze to death!"
Redding smiled. "It might be easier than that." He tried the doorknob, the door opened. When the thieves stepped through the threshold and shone their lights, their jaws dropped. They stood frozen in shock at the sight before them.
Tercero stepped into the room and said to Redding, "Not at all what I was expecting."
Sternhardt purchased the mansion in early 1950, just before the 'I Like Ike' years. The previous owner had been wealthy beyond imagination, a giant of industry and commerce. He had built the mansion in the 20's and during Prohibition had used the guest house as a portal to an underground speakeasy.
"This is where many a privileged man came to get zozzled," said Redding.
"Literally, an underground speakeasy," Tercero observed as he scanned the dank, concrete basement with his flashlight. He imagined the camaraderie and bullshit that must have flown in this room. A stone bar lined one side of the room and behind it a cloudy mirror hung on the wall, decorated with a dusty American flag. Old bottles of bourbon and cider lined the bar and stools were overturned on the floor or lined against the side wall. The treasures in this room alone could be worth thousands. Near the bar, a stone staircase led to the ceiling where another trap door marked the entrance to the mansion's guest house. "There!" Redding pointed Tercero to the stairs. Tercero popped the trapdoor and climbed into a small, dark alcove.
"What did your blueprints say to do next?" he called down to Redding, who looked up to him from the stairs.
The previous owner had been wealthy beyond imagination, a giant of industry and commerce. He had built the mansion in the 20s and during Prohibition had used the guest house as a portal to an underground speakeasy.
Tercero did as he was told, testing each wall until one budged slightly. He put his shoulder into it and the door slowly creaked open, spilling moonlight into the alcove from the room he was about to enter. Tercero peered into the crack and saw the door opened into the closet of a small bedroom. The closet doors were opened and Tercero could see the moon through the bedroom window. He stepped inside and waited quietly for Redding to join him.
"Shhhhh," Tercero whispered. "Stand silent for a moment and make sure no one is here."
"No one is here," Redding insisted. "I've been casing this place for months, tracking Sternhardt's routine nearly down to the minute. Tonight he meets with his investor group at 8:15 before heading to the Piedmont Lounge downtown for cigars and booze. He won't be back until after midnight and his staff is dismissed at nine. He has no guests so the house should be empty, and the caretaker leaves with his dog every night at seven. We have almost three hours to work with."
"We won't need nearly that long," Tercero said as they emerged from the closet and inspected the room. It was a small guest bedroom with a modest dresser, a small nightstand and a queen size bed. A substandard guestroom for such a large mansion, thought Tercero as he turned off his flashlight. The house was dark and they navigated using the dim moonlight.
Redding didn't see the small table just outside the bedroom door and when he bumped into it, he knocked a row of books to the floor where they landed with a few cluttered slaps. Outside in the night, a dog barked.
Tercero and Redding instinctively crouched to the floor and prepared to retreat back to the secret doorway but a moment later the dog stopped barking. Redding replaced the books and the men continued.
Soon they reached the guest house's foyer where the front door opened to a covered brick walkway that led to the mansion. From here it was a straight walk to the mansion's kitchen entrance. It was the only unobstructed entry into a castle surrounded by a 12 foot stone wall topped with electric wire and an army of security cameras. The secret underground tunnel was the only way in or out and Redding had studied old blueprints of the mansion along with newspaper articles detailing the existence of the Prohibition-era speakeasy.
Tercero opened the guest house door and walked into the night. He touched the pistol in his pocket and wondered what happened to that dog as they crouched and jogged across the walkway and stopped outside the kitchen door. A glass window allowed them to glimpse inside the dark house.
"How do we make our final entrance into the mansion?" Redding asked.
"We're burglars. How do burglars normally enter a house?"
Redding shrugged. He hadn't thought about this part of the plan.
Tercero removed a hand towel from his bag.
"Always carry a towel," Tercero explained. "It's the world's most useful item." He folded the towel and held it against the glass window. "You can use it as a pillow or to dry yourself off if you get wet. It can carry things, or be used as a bandage." He made a fist and punched the towel, shattering the glass. "Or in this case," he reached through the hole and unlocked the door, "as a spare key."
Tercero opened the guest house door and walked into the night. He touched the pistol in his pocket and wondered what happened to that dog as they crouched and jogged across the walkway and stopped outside the kitchen door.
Tercero shook the glass pieces off his towel, folded it and placed it back in his bag as Redding grinned and admired Tercero's ingenuity. "I'm going to remember that one!"
Headlights suddenly illuminated the walkway. Tercero and Redding fell to the ground and crawled behind the hedge that surrounded the mansion. Where is that dog? Tercero wondered as the headlights approached the guest house. Perhaps Redding had misunderstood Sternhardt's schedule. Perhaps the millionaire was simply not feeling well and was returning home early. As a car approached the mansion, Tercero considered aborting the heist, scurrying back to the guest house and disappearing into the secret door.
He was worried that if they tried to leave now, the barking dog would return and give away their position. Tercero reached into his pocket and removed his pistol, a .45 automatic with his initials "AS" carved into the butt. But the car stopped just before it reached the mansion, and the driver's door opened. "Harold!" a man's voice called. "Harold! Come here!"
Tercero heard the dog yelp and from the shadows, the furry critter bounded toward the car and jumped into the front seat. The driver's door closed, the car turned around and drove away, its headlights disappearing into the night and leaving Tercero and Redding alone in the dark.
Tercero put his gun away and turned to Redding, "I don't know what that was about but it was too close."
"Looks like the caretaker forgot his dog."
"As long as there are no more surprises we should be able to finish this operation in less than thirty minutes. Let's go."
Baseball was so popular in Cuba that Tercero remembered a time when Castro, as Comandante, took batting practice during a national game while dressed in his signature fatigues. Tercero had always appreciated the complexities of baseball and the utter impossibilities that unfolded throughout a season but it was not until he held a Babe Ruth game jersey in his hand that he understood the true power of the game. There was something about the dirt on the jersey, the faded pinstripes, the faint odor of sweat that made it seem...magical.
"We can't linger," Redding reminded him as they gathered the artifacts in Sternhardt's collection. The top floor of the mansion was arranged like a museum, with a vast library of books on one end, a seemingly endless wall of literature, and a collection of rare American artifacts on the other side. The Ruth jersey, the Bogart hat, the Hemingway script, the Titanic tickets. It was all there, just as Redding had predicted. Sternhardt had been hitting all the major auctions and amassing this institution of Americana and now it was all in the hands of Tercero.
The Teddy Roosevelt pistol, a pair of Elvis cufflinks, and a box of cigars. Tercero recognized the box as the H. Upmann brand from his home country. He opened it and looked inside to see a neat arrangement of cigars, fairly well preserved, and a small note.
"I'll be damned," Tercero flashed the note to Redding. "A message from Ernesto Guevara himself to JFK. This must have served as Sternhardt's certificate of authenticity." He folded the note and along with a handful of the cigars stuck it in his pocket as a memento.
Beside the fireplace in a glass trophy case stood an attractive bolt-action rifle with shiny polished wood and glistening hardware. Tercero stood before the rifle, not believing his eyes. "That's a Dragunov SVD, a high-power Russian-made sniper rifle. Haven't seen one of those since...1963."
Tercero retired in Key West with one last Kennedy cigar. He kept a small cottage next to the beach and sat on his patio with one of his island's cigars and reflected on his years.
He opened the case and took the rifle, adding it to their loot.
"Let's get out of here, Tercero. We're cutting it close."
They made off with the entire collection and leaving behind nothing but a broken window and a few footprints. Sternhardt returned to his home just after midnight but by then it was too late. Two days later his entire collection was offloaded for millions to a European billionaire who went by the name Jean. Redding took his share and retired to South America, never to see Tercero again.
Jean soon dispersed the collection, negotiating top dollar for the individual pieces and making a fortune in the process. The Bogart hat went to a Saudi oil tycoon who was a huge fan of American movies, the Hemingway script to a museum in the Soviet Union. The Ruth jersey he gave as a gift to his father-in-law, who loved all things sports, and the Roosevelt pistol Jean kept for himself, hanging it in a frame in his office.
Not being a cigar smoker and having no use for the old box of Cuban cigars, Jean gave them to his pregnant sister's husband Rudy, a boorish American, in his opinion. Upon the birth of the child, Rudy passed the cigars out to his buddies with "It's a Boy!" ribbons tied to them.
Tercero retired to Key West with one last Kennedy cigar. He kept a small cottage near the beach and sat on his patio with one of his island's cigars and reflected on his years. Long ago he had been hired by Castro to do one of the world's most difficult jobs but once the mission was complete, the heat became overwhelming. Tercero defected, became a thief, retired and finally had a chance to sit and enjoy something he had dearly missed since being away from Cuba. Sternhardt's artifacts had funded his retirement and except for a single cigar, Tercero kept only one other memento of his days in the underworld: the Dragunov SVD sniper rifle.
When he first saw that rifle in Sternhardt's mansion Tercero knew instantly it was something special. He had used a similar rifle during a high-risk, history-altering operation in 1963.
After he took the Dragunov home from Sternhardt's and had a chance to look it over he noticed two letters carved on the rifle's stock: AS. Antonio Sandoval, Tercero's given name. This was Tercero's rifle, the exact one he had used during his most famous mission in 1963, when he shot JFK from the grassy knoll in Dallas. No telling how that Oswald kid was involved, but it had been the perfect cover for Tercero, who considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. He puffed his cigar, savored the sunny weather, and this reunion with his memorable rifle.
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Mark McGinty is a descendant of Cuban cigar makers and the award winning author of The Cigar Maker. His work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Melbourne Magazine, Yahoo! Entertainment and La Gaceta. Mark lives in Minneapolis with his wife and daughter. They run a small publishing company called Seventh Avenue Productions and will release Mark’s next book, Home to Nagasaki, in 2013. Visit his official website to learn more: http://www.markmcginty.net.Show all Mark McGinty's Articles