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Friday, August 8, 2014

Question the Queen City: The ‘60s gang robbery at Belk

Posted By on Fri, Aug 8, 2014 at 9:30 AM

Editor’s note: We recognize how quickly Charlotte has changed over the years, so here’s us trying to preserve its story. In this series, local author David Aaron Moore answers reader-submitted questions about unusual, noteworthy or historic people, places and things in Charlotte and the surrounding metro area. Submit inquires to davidaaronmoore@gmail.com.

My grandmother worked at the old Belk Department Store that used to be in Uptown near the corner of Trade and Tryon streets. She talks about that period of her life with great fondness, but there’s one topic she’s mentioned several times that left all of the store employees deathly frightened: a major robbery by what police described as a “gang.” Do you know any of the details? — Lucia Daniels, Norfolk, Virginia

The old downtown Belk.
  • Carolina Room, Charlotte- Mecklenburg Public Library
  • The old downtown Belk.

The story your grandmother is referring to is the stuff legends are made of.

Once upon a time, before the advent of malls, QVC and the Internet, people actually used to do all their shopping in Uptown (which I’ll refer to as downtown for the purposes of this historical reflection).

They would take a city bus or drive into town with their families in tow, making it an all-day affair including lunch or dinner at one of Belk’s two in-store cafeterias. They might even wrap up the day with a movie at the old Carolina Theater.

After a busy afternoon and evening with a store packed full of families doing their early spring shopping in 1967, the store closed its doors as usual for the night. It had been a clear and sunny Saturday, with the temperature in the mid to upper 60s.

Belk security guard Onan Smith was making the rounds of the sprawling old downtown store, which stood where the Bank of America Corporate Center is today. Smith had just finished his walk-through of the first floor when he spotted three men he didn’t recognize.

Since the store was already closed for the evening, Smith later recalled that he thought it was particularly odd that the men had seemingly appeared out of nowhere. He said he didn’t notice a fourth man behind him, who knocked him out cold with the barrel of a gun (presumably) before he ever had a chance to defend himself.

While Smith was still unconscious, the men dragged him up a stairwell to the fourth floor and handcuffed him to the staircase railing. According to the guard, several hours passed before he regained consciousness.

During that time, the well-organized gang of thieves used acetylene torches to cut into a large walk-in vault and three other smaller safes. They also ripped open a safe and a wooden cabinet in the jewelry department. According to police, they would walk away with as much as $200,000 in cash and $13,000 in furs and jewelry.

John McCaskill, a former manager of the store, spoke with me about the incident in 2004. He said the case captured national attention. “It left a lot of the employees pretty shook up. Some were even scared to come to work. That sort of stuff just didn’t really happen back then. For the time, it was quite a sum of money.”

Indeed, $213,000 in 1967 would be worth about $1.7 million today.

For the thieves to know where safes and vaults were located, one would surmise they were familiar with the layout of the store, and, likely, had connections to an insider. McCaskill said the case was never solved.

David Aaron Moore is the author of Charlotte: Murder, Mystery and Mayhem. His writings have appeared in numerous publications throughout the U.S. and Canada.

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