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Consumer Reports

Confession of a master thief stuns rich, affirms police | (KRT) Allison Williams stole from some of the richest people in America and got away with it.

Diamonds, sapphires and rubies from the Whitneys and a Campbell Soup heiress. Paintings from the Woolworth estate.

Decades ago, police counted Williams and his brother, Cliff, among the country's best safecrackers, crediting them with pulling off some of the biggest scores along the East Coast.

Behind bars since 1987, Allison Williams now spends his time reading the Bible and trying to get closer to God.

And over the last year, the 82-year-old has been confessing to the Philadelphia Inquirer from inside Camden's Riverfront State Prison.

In five interviews and more than a dozen letters, Allison told how his New Jersey-based gang carried out crimes - including murder - that have gone unsolved for ages.

The revelations have stunned his high-society victims, but not police who dogged the Williams brothers.

"It was not a bad life," Allison said with both pride and regret. "There was a lot of money involved."

Allison smiled as he viewed photos of Bois Dore, a Newport, R.I., mansion once owned by an heiress to the Campbell Soup fortune.

An unsolved burglary there in August 1963 was a highlight of his long career as a high-stakes cat burglar in the days before alarms and electronic surveillance.

"It's a bygone era, but even in that era, you had to be smart to be successful - you can't just go and take people's jewelry. So I guess you could say we were smart."

It was not the kind of success he'd envisioned.

"I look back on it all with horror and disdain," said Allison. "It wasn't right."

It was at age 35 that Allison stopped being an honest man, he said. A farmer, the Jersey City, N.J., native had tried to become a man of the cloth. His own pastor, George Christian, believed it was his calling.

"To anyone knowing him, it was obvious years ago that he was marked out for the Lord's work," the Philadelphia minister, who has since died, wrote in a letter of recommendation to Shelton College, a now-defunct divinity school in New York City.

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But three years into his studies, Allison's farm in Goshen, N.Y., was failing and he asked to cut back on his classes.

"This way," he wrote the admissions director, "my hopes for future ministry, though dark at present, will burn steadily on by His grace."

It was not to be.


Unable to support a wife and four young sons, he moved his family to Mount Pocono, Pa., near his brother.

"Cliff said to me, `You need money, don't you, Al?' I said, `Yeah, I really do.' He said, `Well, I've got a job for you. You don't have to do anything but blink a light, and you'll get one third.'"

And so the would-be minister stood across the street from the firehouse one night in 1957, flicking a flashlight three times to signal the all-clear as his brother hauled out a safe full of money from the Mount Pocono Fire Company's annual festival.

"I didn't feel so good about stealing because I had never stolen anything before in my life. But then, you get used to it after a while."

Allison's share was $5,000 - "more money than I had seen my whole life on the farm."

"I had a chance to be a good minister," he recalled, shaking his head. "And I went astray after that. I went with Cliff."

But Allison was fond of his younger brother, who had spent more than a year in a German prison camp after his B-24 was downed during World War II.

He'd long thought that Cliff, who had started stealing as a kid, needed guidance. But not the kind that Allison then provided - to leave behind nickel-and-dime thefts.

"I said, `Why fool around with little things, Jones?'" Allison said, using the name they called each other while on jobs.

He was hooked on easy cash. Over the next three decades, with Allison's brains and Cliff's hands, the Williams brothers would find plenty of it.

They bought safes to take apart and study. Cliff learned to drill through the lockbox used by American Stores Co., now Acme, and pop it open with a bent screwdriver. A supermarket was usually good for $10,000, and they hit a half-dozen in the Philadelphia area.

By 1959, they were living in various South Jersey towns and searching for a bigger payday. They decided on the House of Diamonds in Wilmington, Del. Dropping through a skylight, they drilled open the safe and made off with the Christmas stock of watches and more than 250 gems. Some measured six carats.

Police at the time called it Wilmington's largest burglary - $100,000 worth of jewels, or $651,000 in today's money.

It was a smooth haul - until a barber who helped plan the job blabbed to police. "We weren't caught," Allison said. "He ratted on us."

Their arrest jolted Allison, turning his thoughts toward his sons and his crumbling marriage.

After I'm released from prison, he thought, I'll leave this way of life. But free on appeals for several years, he and Cliff would aim higher.

The idea to hit society folks came from Jimmy Cummings, a thief from Philadelphia's Fishtown section who, at gunpoint in 1939, had taken $100,000 in furs and jewelry from the Breyer ice cream family.

"The Old Mastermind" showed Cliff and Allison his stack of society-page clippings of the area's fancy women in their pricey jewels.

Hitting the rich at their summer mansions, where security would likely be eased, was a better approach, Allison decided.


Their first target, in summer 1963, was Bois Dore, the Newport, R.I., mansion of Elinor Dorrance Hill and her husband, banker Nathaniel P. Hill. Elinor Hill had received a share of the $115 million left in 1930 by her father, Campbell Soup president John T. Dorrance.

Before they could rob the mansion, they had to find it. Allison went to the firehouse and said, "`I have to put carpets in for these people, and I can't find the house. Can you help me?' And they take you to a big map board."

Allison recalled, "We waited a week sitting in a tree watching the house."

One night, after the Hills set off to a ball, Allison and Cliff threw a rope over the roof, secured it on the other side, and climbed to a balcony with their tools.

Cliff did not have to crack the safe. It was open. Inside was $300,000 in old family jewels, a haul worth nearly $1.86 million today. Newspapers called it Newport's biggest heist.

"It was really quite traumatic for my mother," Dorrance H. "Dodo" Hamilton, 76, recalled last month.

She had especially grieved over losing a gift from her husband - a diamond necklace by French designer Jean Schlumberger, said Hamilton, 76, of Wayne, Pa., whom Forbes calls one of the 400 richest Americans.

Hamilton was fascinated by Allison's confession.

Hill's personal maid, Margaret, had felt responsible for the loss of the jewels.

"Margaret was in charge of getting jewelry out and getting it to mother. Whatever she didn't take, she would put back in the safe."

The night of the theft, Margaret felt ill and forgot to set the lock, Hamilton said.

"Poor Margaret the maid, who is long since dead. She had blamed herself. But they would have gotten it anyway."

Allison took the pieces to Jewelers' Row on Sansom Street in Philadelphia, where they were picked apart and repackaged, he said. The stones were used in other settings, and the gold was melted down.

"It was fantastic what they used to wear years ago," Allison said, running his fingers across his chest. "They don't wear that kind of jewelry anymore."

Certain jewelers, Allison said, "loved to see us. We were their best friends."

Allison's elation after Bois Dore was dampened by guilt. Now, he thought, was a good time to stop stealing.

"That's what I would think every time," said Allison, whose marriage had ended. "But it didn't work that way."


Their next target would be even bigger: Yamron Jewelry Store in the upscale Traymore Hotel on Atlantic City's Boardwalk.

They knew the store had a security system because their first try, in January 1964, had been thwarted by the alarm.

Still, they'd managed to haul off $85,000 in jewelry. The next time, with more accomplices, they pulled off Atlantic City's largest robbery, forcing the manager to turn off the alarms at gunpoint.

The $561,000 jewelry heist remained officially unsolved because the government's star witness disappeared after he started talking to police.

Robert Lewis, a 22-year-old from Gibbsboro, N.J., was arrested while driving the new car he'd purchased with his Yamron take.

When Lewis gave up the others, another accomplice, Jimmy "The Fisherman" Parsells, moved in for the kill, Allison said.

"He said, `I'll take care of him.'"

Parsells and Cliff took Lewis on a fishing trip to Biscayne Bay in Florida. Lewis was shot in the head, wrapped in chains, and dumped overboard, Allison said.

"When people started getting killed, that upset me," Allison said. "I just thought, if I sneak in there and rob these rich people, they have insurance, nobody is getting hurt. I didn't think that was all that bad."

Police would later investigate the Williams brothers and their crew for eight other murders between 1967 and 1974. All were thought to be of associates who knew too much.

In addition to the Lewis killing, Allison laid out details of three others that would later be pinned on him and Cliff.

He helped with the planning but contended that he never took a life.

"I never killed anybody. I stayed away from it. I couldn't do that."

The distinction is irrelevant to retired Lt. Col. Robert Dunlop of the New Jersey State Police, who headed the team that pursued the gang in the 1980s.

"They were a deadly, treacherous group," Dunlop said. Allison "may not have pulled the trigger, but he played an integral part in these murders. Anybody who was going to testify against them and threaten their freedom had something to fear."

Allison lowered his head slowly and fiddled with his fingers when asked to respond.

"Yeah," he said, "that's true."

Michael Riley, a former Burlington County assistant prosecutor, said Allison's claims about never killing with his own hands might be accurate. "Cliff and the others were the stone-cold killers," said Riley, who ultimately put Allison in prison. "Allison was the brains of the group. He would make the snowballs and the others would throw them."

The collapse of the Yamron case ate away at Atlantic City Detective James Donalan, who has since died. He hounded the brothers, often stopping by the Haunted House, a club that Allison opened on Pacific Avenue in 1966 with his share of the Yamron money.

"You did pretty good for yourself, didn't you, Al?" Allison recalled his adversary saying. "I'd smile and say, `What do you mean, Jimmy?' "

Donalan tried to turn them into informants. In return, Allison and Clifford tried to put him on the take, with no luck.

"He was a good cop," Allison said with admiration. "You couldn't trust him."

With the nightclub, Allison had a legitimate business and fresh thoughts of an honest life.


But when the Old Mastermind came calling with a new target, he quit kidding himself and started planning the burglary of Cady Hill, the Saratoga Springs, N.Y., home of Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney and his wife, Marylou.

The product of two of the nation's most prominent families, Whitney was a multimillionaire with a half-dozen residences around the world.

In the fall of 1966, with the Whitneys in New York City, Allison and Cliff went up to Cady Hill to prepare for the job.

The house did not have an alarm. They picked the front-door lock, removed it, and made a key in their van to use the next summer when the Whitneys - and their jewels - would return.

But their plans were interrupted. Seven years after the House of Diamonds burglary, their appeals had run out, and they were sent to prison for a few months.

Cliff got out first, and needing money, he and two pals grabbed the key to Cady Hill and drove north in August 1967.

When the Whitneys went out for dinner, the thieves slipped past a guard, crept up the driveway, and quietly let themselves in the front door, Cliff would later tell Allison.

As in Newport, they would not need burglary tools. Minutes later, the trio left with $781,000 in jewels - a new high, worth $4.43 million today.

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover assured the Whitneys that his agents would find the culprits. He was wrong.

Again, the precious pieces were recycled on Jewelers' Row, Allison said.

"Oh, damn, some of those things were such lovely old antiques," Marylou Whitney, 78, said recently when told about Allison's revelations. "That makes me furious."

Whitney, whose horse, Birdstone, beat Smarty Jones in this season's Belmont Stakes, always wondered how the burglars missed her sister-in-law's jewelry and a $500,000 string of pearls that had belonged to Napoleon III's wife, Empress Eugenie of France.

She was surprised by the answer: The burglars were searching for a safe.

"That's why they went into the back closet," she said as the 37-year-old mystery unraveled. "They did not look for jewelry in the drawers; they looked for it in a safe. We didn't have a safe, and I used to hide the pieces in different places. I had a jewelry box, which they took. If I had thrown those pieces in the drawers, they would not have found them.

"How silly of them that they didn't have a good time here," she quipped. "They didn't have a safe to crack."

Allison used his share from the Whitney burglary to buy a farmhouse in Pleasantville, near Atlantic City, which became a hangout for area bad guys, according to organized-crime surveillance reports.

When talk arose of an inside job involving Pomeroy's department store in the Levittown Shopping Center in Tullytown, Pa., Allison tried to quash the idea. The job was too small and relied on a security guard he didn't know.

But the lure of quick cash overtook common sense.

On June 3, 1971, the Williams brothers held up their inside man, Charles "Chuck" Warren, as he and another Pomeroy's guard carried moneybags to the bank. The yield? A mere $30,000.


The Pomeroy's job proved an even bigger blunder than Allison had feared. It would lead to bloody times and, eventually, murder charges for Cliff and Allison.

Pressured by police, Warren gave up the Williams brothers. They turned to one of their criminal buddies, Albert "Monk" Schaffer for help.

According to Allison and detectives, Monk and Cliff rigged a shotgun in the trunk of Warren's Plymouth Fury a few days before he was set to testify in March 1972.

The 12-gauge contraption, built with weights and counterweights, was designed to go off when the car stopped or turned.

Warren, 29, was blasted as he drove home from the Moorestown Mall, where he managed a tie shop. The pellets tore through the backseat and the front seat and into his gut, but Warren survived.

As Cliff and Allison searched for a hospital worker to help finish the job, a new problem arose.

Charles "Charlie the Greek" Koskinas, 45, another Pomeroy's conspirator, panicked when he heard that Warren was still alive.

"He started talking kind of funny," Allison recalled.

By the time Warren succumbed to his wounds nine days later, the Greek was in the ground.

Allison admits helping dig his grave off Route 9 near Ocean City, N.J. It has never been found. State police reports indicate that Cliff might have shot the Greek. Allison said it was Monk.

Without witnesses, the Pomeroy's charges were dropped, and the brothers returned to the society pages looking for ideas.

They read of an art theft from the F.W. Woolworth estate on Lake Cobbosseecontee in Monmouth, Maine. That summer they again headed north, and came back with a half-dozen paintings.

"I knew if they were hanging in there, they were worth something," Allison said. "Woolworth was no dummy."

Monk was supposed to fence the art, which the FBI tracked for years but never found.

Facing arson-conspiracy and extortion charges two years later, Monk, 37, threatened to squeal on Cliff and Allison to catch a break.

"Monk Schaffer, he was a pretty bad guy, and smart - oh, boy, smart as a whip," Allison recalled fondly. "But he was planning to rat everybody out."

Parsells, the Fisherman, lured him to a bogus burglary in Maple Shade and nearly decapitated him with a shotgun blast to the face.

Two months later, the gang was back to burglary.

With inside help, they hit the Matthey-Bishop refinery in Winslow, N.J., making off with $680,000 in platinum and other precious metals.

The Williams brothers began to feel invincible. But in a few years, Big Tony would prove that they weren't.

Cliff and Allison, awaiting sentencing for burglary in 1976, swapped underworld stories with Anthony "Big Tony" Ciulla - the nation's most prolific horse-race fixer - in the Atlantic County jail. They had mutual wiseguy friends, including Philadelphia mobsters Angelo Bruno and Little Nicky Scarfo.

In 1984, Ciulla would betray them. Cliff and Allison were charged in the killings of Warren, the Greek and Monk.

Out on bail, they were busted for running a $1 million-a-week methamphetamine lab in Havertown, Pa. - a federal case that delayed their murder trial.

Prosecutors chose to try only the Warren case. They did not have the Greek's body, and Parsells admitted to having killed Monk.

Allison - who stood trial alone after his brother died in 1990 of a heart attack - was sentenced to life in prison in 1991.

He calls the now-dead Big Tony a big liar. "The man was dreary. I talked to him about some of the burglaries. But not about murder."

Still, he admits some culpability for Warren's death.

"I knew about it," he said. "You could probably charge me with conspiracy. I might have been able to stop it. But I had no reason to stop it."

Allison will be 88 when he becomes eligible for parole in 2010. He dreams of living out his final days in Texas with two of his sons.

He offers James 4:17 as the verse that best defines his life, reciting it by heart:

"Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin."

"The others didn't know any better," he said through tears, "but I did."


Clifford and Allison Williams teamed up for a number of crimes. Below are some of the others who played a role:

"The Fisherman" - James Parsells

Called "the Shore's No. 1 burglar" by Atlantic City police in the 1960s and a top arsonist by federal investigators, Parsells studied safe designs at the U.S. Patent Office in Washington. The night of the second Yamron Jewelry Store robbery, he sent a telegram to Atlantic City police at their annual dinner: "Sorry I can't be with you fellows tonight, but I have other plans." He confessed to the killing of Albert "Monk" Schaffer and was convicted of stealing $1 million in 1977 from the Atlantic City post office. He died a free man in 1997.


"Charlie the Greek" - Charles Koskinas

Good with a gun, Koskinas in 1970 was one of eight men charged with 70 separate armed robberies, burglaries, arsons and extortions over the previous five years. He would hide from police in a hidden room above the ceiling in his Upper Darby apartment with a TV, a bed and beer. Killed in 1972 following the Williams brothers' heist of Pomeroy's department store, his body was never found. He was 45.


"Monk" - Albert Schaffer

Schaffer, described by police as a violent thug, died in 1974 at 37 when Jimmy "The Fisherman" Parsells shot him in the face. Under indictment for theft, extortion, and conspiracy to commit arson, he was threatening to rat out Parsells and Cliff and Allison Williams. Police suspected that he helped rig the contraption that killed Charles "Chuck" Warren in his car.


"Big Tony" - Anthony Ciulla

Convicted of rigging horse races, Ciulla was known to federal prosecutors as the best in his business. Ciulla gave racing tips to guards at the Atlantic County jail, who brought him booze and home-cooked Italian meals. He entered the federal Witness Protection Program in the late 1970s when the mob put a hit out on him for testifying. He died of a heart attack last year at 60.


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© 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services