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‘Can I Keep the Velvet Elvis?’: The Great Hillbilly Heist of 1997

Twenty-five years ago, a small group of rural North Carolinian amateur bank robbers pulled off the second-largest heist in American history. But few could have guessed how spectacularly the heist would go wrong after the criminals initially got away with it. We spoke with the inside man, David Ghantt, to get the real story

2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.

When October 1997 began, Steve and Michelle Chambers lived in a double-wide trailer. By the time the month concluded, the couple had purchased a 7,000-square-foot stone mansion in a gated country club community. They loaded the wine cellar with Pabst Blue Ribbon, and Steve hung a velvet portrait of Elvis Presley in the basement. Michelle, meanwhile, purchased new breasts for herself, along with a $43,000 diamond ring and a new convertible BMW Z3. They paid for all of it in cash. 

Soon, the couple would be paying for something else, too: a hitman. They planned to kill a man named David Ghantt, the guy who had made their extravagant new lifestyle a reality. Ghantt worked at Loomis Fargo’s regional office vault in Charlotte. Until, that is, he decided to hell with it — he was going to pull-off the second largest heist in U.S. history. 

The robbery of some $17 million quickly became one of the wildest bank heists of the last quarter century. But it was the rural, Southern backgrounds of many of the key players, along with the many botched twists and bungled turns, that led the media to dub it the “hillbilly heist.”

* * * * *

When I call Ghantt to discuss his involvement in the Loomis Fargo heist, he confesses that he’s feeling a bit tired from a day of honest labor. These days, the 52-year-old husband and father lives in Jacksonville, Florida, where he works at a heavy equipment rental agency. Some days, the robbery seems like a memory from a different life, a choice made by a different man. But it wasn’t.

Ghantt started at Loomis Fargo in 1994, and soon worked his way up from an armored car driver to a vault supervisor. This meant a bump in pay, up to $8.15 an hour. Even still, he was 27, married and struggling to provide for his family. Soon thereafter, he met Kelly Campbell, a co-worker at Loomis Fargo. One day, the two employees were in the break room and got to talking about the news of the day — a massive bank heist that just occurred in Florida by someone at their company. Down in Jacksonville, a Loomis Fargo employee took $18 million from an armored van he was driving. At the time, it was the largest cash heist in history.

Time passed, and Campbell eventually quit her job at Loomis Fargo. But after she left, she reached back out to Ghantt and brought up what they’d talked about that day in the break room. “She just called me up on the phone and said, ‘Hey, let’s meet one day after work.’ And then, we were talking and she says, ‘How do you feel about robbing Loomis Fargo?’” Ghantt tells me. 

Truth be told, Ghantt had something of a crush on Campbell, and so, he told her exactly how he’d pull off such a heist. “I said, ‘It comes down to picking the right day, and the right time of the month, and all that good stuff.’ I even told her, ‘It wouldn’t be all that difficult. It’s really just a matter of timing, more than anything.’ And she says, ‘How much do you think we’d get out of there?’ I said, ‘Ten to 15 million.’ But I didn’t really know.”

They discussed it further, and Campbell asked him when they should do it. “I said, ‘Probably, the best time would be on the weekend; there’s fewer people there. There’s less security. There’s no management around. That’d be the time to do it,’” Ghantt recalls.

Ultimately, though, the heist wasn’t Ghantt’s idea, which meant he didn’t decide who else was involved. “I didn’t pick the heist team. They picked me,” he says with a rueful tone. To that end, Campbell brought in her childhood friend Steve Chambers, who was characterized in the local press as a small-time drug dealer and a local fence for stolen goods, to lead the team. He was also a former FBI informant who had tipped the bureau off to a planned robbery of a Loomis Fargo armored truck that never came to fruition. At the time of the real robbery, Chambers was facing criminal charges — he’d written 30K worth of bad checks and was facing jail time for it. Basically, he needed a score to make his problems go away. 

All the while, Ghantt prepared himself for the task at hand. Given his position at the bank, he’d be the one to pull off the robbery, and he intended to be ready. Some amateur thieves might turn to movies and TV shows for lessons on criminal behavior. Not Ghantt. “I hit the local library — the thing that we used to do before Google,” Ghantt says with a small laugh. “I studied up on the FBI. I did a little research into crime statistics and the local cops. I learned something that was valuable at the time: Most criminals never leave a 250, maybe 300-mile circle from their home base. That’s where they feel comfortable.”

This piece of information would become critical to his getaway plan. “I thought, ‘Okay, if I get out of that bubble — because the cops depend on that, even the feds — my chances to get away go way up.” 

The plan was to split the money three ways: Chambers, Campbell and Ghantt would each walk away with what Ghantt estimated to be $5 million a piece — the kind of money that changes lives forever. 

After a couple of weeks, Ghantt and the rest of the heist team were ready to strike. No dry runs, no rehearsals. Ghantt simply got ready for work one morning knowing it would be his last day on the job. 

* * * * *

Things started to go south the night of the robbery. It was the first Saturday in October. Ghantt was working a late shift, and just after 6:30 p.m., his coworkers were packing up and heading for home. Ghantt and one other employee were the last to leave. “His name was Corey. We got to the end of the day, and he was acting like he wanted to linger. And I said, ‘Hey, man, I got this. If you want to go ahead and go, I got it. Just head on out.’ And so, he did. He didn’t even really question me. As soon as Corey left, I pretended like I was leaving. But as soon as he drove off, I went right back in and opened the vault. Then, I started loading the van.”

Money, when bound in bulk and stacked in canvas bags, is heavier than you might expect. Ghantt spent a solid hour moving what ended up being 2,700 pounds of cash — more than an actual ton — into an unmarked company van. When he finished, the van was filled with $17 million. “As soon as you put that first bag of stolen money in that van, there’s no going back. You might as well take it all,” Ghantt tells me. “That’s one of my personality flaws. I’m a very deliberate person. Once I start something, I’m going to the end.”

As for how he felt in the moment, he says, “Imagine me and you went on an airplane. I threw you out, and then threw the parachute after you. It’s kind of like that. Scary. Exciting. And you’re like, ‘Come on parachute. Get to me.’ It’s that kind of excitement.”

On his way out, he grabbed the surveillance video, hoping to cover his tracks. 

Security camera footage of the robbery

Chambers and Campbell were waiting for him in the Loomis Fargo parking lot, both in separate vehicles. There was a third person with them, too, a man named Eric Grant. Together, they drove in a convoy to an industrial warehouse eight miles away, where Eric Payne, a fourth accomplice was. Ghantt pulled out $50,000 from the back of the unmarked Loomis Fargo van. He pocketed the money and told Chambers and Campbell to send him his cut in Mexico. He’d be in contact. Then he and Campbell drove 90 miles to Columbia, South Carolina, where Ghantt planned to purchase a ticket to Mexico so he could be out of the country before news of the robbery broke the next morning. 

There was, however, one problem with his plan. “This was in the 1990s — the Columbia Airport back then was closed at around 9:30, 10 o’clock. I mean, it was dark,” Ghantt explains. He hadn’t checked ahead of time if the airport had any available flights, let alone if it would even be open. “So yeah,” Ghantt continues, “I took a bus from there to Atlanta, and then I hopped a cab from the bus station to the airport in Atlanta.”

Back in North Carolina, his accomplices were working as fast as they could to hide the $17 million. First, they loaded the cash into blue 55-gallon barrels, and then they moved the barrels into a rental van. “The barrels were Steve’s idea,” Ghantt says. “I was just going to get the money into the van. I told them, ‘Take it, box it up, and you’ll be able to ship it to me in Mexico.’ Back in the 1990s, you could’ve probably boxed up a hot pink elephant and shipped it to Mexico; no one would’ve ever noticed. Going south, nobody really looks at what you’re shipping. It’s everything that’s coming north.”

When Chambers and the two Erics were done loading the stolen millions into barrels, they abandoned the van in the woods. They also left behind a life-changing fortune in small bills — $3.3 million in fives and ones that they overlooked — and the two videotapes that Ghantt had pulled from the security cameras at the bank. In the wee hours of the morning, Chambers and the Erics drove back to the town of Vale, North Carolina, and holed up in a double-wide trailer while counting their cash.

For his part, Ghantt was now officially on his way to Mexico, his future stretched out before him. “Where I was going was right there near the Cayman Islands. Back then, it was one of the hotspots for hiding money.” Ghantt planned to live off the interest for the rest of his life. “I knew that the news wouldn’t break until later that morning. And I knew that by that time, I’d be in Cancun no matter what. I flew from Atlanta to New Orleans. I had a four-hour layover there, and then from New Orleans to Cancun.”

When he walked onto the plane, he was wearing big, tall cowboy boots, where he’d stuffed a majority of the smuggled cash. When he landed in Cancun, his first stop was Walmart. But as he later recalled to the media, as soon as he stepped through those big-box doors, he realized he was flush with cash, and he didn’t need to shop at Walmart ever again. So he got in a cab and went to a mall. His new life in Mexico had begun.

* * * * *

Meanwhile, back in North Carolina, Ghantt’s wife woke up to find her husband missing. When she realized Ghantt never came home from work the night before, she contacted the police and filed a missing persons report. It didn’t take the local police long to put the pieces together. They found Ghantt’s truck, and in it were his keys, some personal items and his wedding ring. 

On Monday, October 6th, the FBI agents who were investigating the robbery located the Loomis Fargo van abandoned in the woods. Given the presence of the surveillance tapes and a gun belonging to Ghantt, they started with Ghantt’s phone and pager records and discovered a pattern they attributed to an accomplice. But first they wanted to know if it was a robbery or a robbery-homicide. Ghantt was missing and no one, not even his wife, knew where he was.

As it turned out, Ghantt was zipping up his scuba suit in Mexico. “At first, I just blended in with the tourists and picked up a few translation books,” Ghantt explains. “I did every touristy thing you could possibly do while I was down there. From going fishing to riding horses on the beach — the whole nine yards. I really enjoyed the little scuba diving trip. That was great. And going to see the Mayan ruins. That was pretty awesome.”

It felt like a dream vacation — until he started running out of money. “This is where it starts to unravel,” Ghantt tells me with a wry laugh. “I’m on the phone with Kelly [Campbell], and I’m like, ‘Hey, I really was expecting a package to arrive. We need to set up some way for me to get my money.’ She said, ‘We got it all worked out. We got this guy named Bruno. He’s going to start bringing you money.’ ‘Alright. Cool,’ I say. A couple weeks pass, and I call again, ‘Hey, I’d like to get some more money. There’s some things I want to do.’”

Ghantt planned on traveling from Mexico to the Cayman Islands, bypassing customs along the way. “I was looking at small sailboats — and they’re not cheap,” he tells me. “So I’m like, ‘Can you get a move on with my money?’ After a couple of weeks passed, I get a phone call from Kelly: ‘Okay, Bruno’s coming to you, blah, blah, blah.’ So I get a phone call from this guy, and I tell him where to meet me. He comes to my door, and he’s got a brown paper bag in his hand. He goes, ‘My name is Bruno. Here’s your money.’ Then he turns around and leaves.”

The problem was, it was nowhere near the amount Ghantt had expected: “I’m looking at it, and there’s maybe $8,000. Now, I kind of know something is fishy.”

Alone in Mexico with limited cash, Ghantt thought about turning himself in. “There used to be a consulate in Cancun. And I was thinking about just showing up there. That’d probably been the best thing for me to do, really. But I thought — this is me being hard-headed — ‘I’m going to ride this thing to the ground.’ And so that’s what I did.”

* * * * *

Back in North Carolina, Ghantt’s former accomplices were living high on the hog. Two days after they’d robbed the Loomis Fargo truck — the very same day the police found the abandoned van in the woods — Steve and Michelle Chambers walked into a bank and deposited their cut of the stolen money into their account. Three weeks later, the couple purchased, in cash, a $635,000 stone mansion. The Chambers, however, didn’t fit in with the other members of the gated community. So much so that one suspicious neighbor called the FBI. 

While the agents initiated their investigation, the Chambers spent money as quickly as they could. Steve bought a truck, a Rolex and a motorboat. They also purchased tanning beds, a pool table, a Harley-Davidson Road King motorcycle and all kinds of expensive furniture. To say nothing of their art purchases — like the aforementioned velvet Elvis portrait and a painting of a bulldog dressed as General George S. Patton. When neighbors asked where they got their money, Steve said he’d played in the NFL. Or that it was an inheritance. Or that he’d gotten lucky gambling. “In hindsight, it doesn’t surprise me a bit,” Ghantt says, a bitter laugh catching in his throat. “I mean, ‘cause greed is a funny animal. It changes you. It affects everybody different. And it turned Steve into — he thought he was Don Corleone all of a sudden.”

Things went from bad to worse when, in November, Michelle strolled into a bank with a briefcase filled with 200 grand and asked the manager, ‘How much can I deposit without the bank reporting the transaction?’ When she showed the bank manager that she really had the money to invest, the cash was still bound in Loomis Fargo wrappers. At that same time, Steve was growing sick of the calls to send more money to Ghantt, and was looking for a way to end that issue. First, in January, he tried to get someone to take some millions down to Mexico. Except the person he offered $150,000 to mule $2.5 million down to Ghantt in Mexico turned him down and instead went to the FBI.

Ghantt, meanwhile, was losing his patience and starting to make threats. “I mentioned it to Kelly. I said, ‘Listen, You all need to get your shit together, or I’m just going to walk over here to the government building and tell them who the fuck I am.’ That lit a little fire under her ass, for a bit.”

By March, Steve Chambers decided he needed to do something more drastic about Ghantt, making plans to send a hitman to Mexico to silence him for good. In the meantime, the FBI was closing in — looking to bust a total of 21 suspected accomplices. The number of people involved had ballooned after Steve started asking friends and family to help him launder the stolen cash. Some family members hid money in bank deposit boxes, other friends were asked to mule cash to the Cayman Islands. Things were spiraling fast. 

The FBI was also surveilling Kelly Campbell and followed her to a pay phone that she used to place calls to Mexico. The agents tapped the phone, and it didn’t take long to locate Ghantt after that. “The whole town I was staying in was 98.9 percent Mexican, except for when the cruise ships were in,” Ghantt recalls. “So it was weird when during the middle of the week, there were these very clean-cut, very Midwestern looking, obviously American guys in the town. But it didn’t really hit me until later.”

On March 2nd, when the FBI agents walked up to Ghantt in Playa del Carmen and told him he was under arrest, Ghantt was relieved. “By then I’d figured out that Bruno was up to no good, and that I’d probably never seen any more of my money. So I was glad it was over. I told the lead investigator I was glad to see him.”

When Ghantt was on the plane home from Mexico with the FBI, he admitted to the agents that while Campbell had been integral to why he’d done it — and that he did indeed have a crush on her — it was never his true motivation. “Was that really what it was about? Nah, it was always about the money,” he told the agents. 

Ghantt would go on to spend six and a half years in federal prison. Michelle Chambers received seven years and eight months, while Steve Chambers was handed an 11-year sentence. For her part, Kelly Campbell spent six years in federal prison.

In 1999, local radio station raffled off Michelle Chambers’ white BMW Z3 as part of the station’s promotion of their “Hillbilly Heist Tour.”

Throughout the multi-year-long case and subsequent trials, journalists often referred to Ghantt and the others as trailer trash and hillbillies. Charlotte Magazine even ran a feature story about the Loomis Fargo heist with the title, “White Trash Crime.” The headlines, however, never bothered Ghantt. “I’ve never taken offense to anything like that,” he tells me. “Because let’s be brutally honest: They’re not wrong, okay? And I think that makes it all the more funny, because it really offends my co-defendants. And to me, if it pisses them off, I’m all for it.”

Speaking of his co-defendants, Ghantt says he’s not currently in contact with any of them. About 20 ago, Campbell sent him a letter of apology, but he never responded. “This is the person I counted as my friend. And when everybody else voted to kill me, she voted with them,” he explains.

After years of reflection and time in prison to work on himself, Ghantt was able to find a way to a better version of himself. As for his new wife, when the two just started dating, he was nervous about letting her know about his past, but he wanted to be honest. And so, he told her, “Google my name. If you want me to leave, I’ll leave.” Then, Ghantt went into another room. “I hear her typing. And then I could hear her laughing. She laughed for like 45 minutes. I had to go in there and tell her the whole story, and she was real cool about it. She was like, ‘Well, at least you had guts,’” he says. “I was expecting her to kick me out of the house.”

Years later, after they married and had a child together, they watched a movie based on the whole ordeal. Called Masterminds, the 2016 film stars Zach Galifianakis, Kristen Wiig and Owen Wilson. It wasn’t a big hit, but Ghantt, who was played by Galifianakis, gives it a rave review. “I loved it. It’s hilarious. Zach always plays that bumbling kind of lunatic, but he’s not,” Ghantt says. “He’s well thought-out. He’s very articulate. Him and I still talk every now and then. The last time he called me, he said, ‘Hey Ghantt, I just saw a big Loomis Fargo truck. I just had to call you.’”

Today, Ghantt can’t look back on the whole ordeal without some degree of pride. Or as he tells me, “How many people in the United States haven’t thought about robbing a bank? So yeah, I’m kind of proud of it.”