“Honestly, I was in shock. I couldn’t believe it. I almost didn’t believe that catch.”
Sean Murphy on the Patriots’ loss in Super Bowl XLII
This is a story about craftsmanship. A story about a thief so smart even police call him “brilliant.” A story about a criminal so knowledgeable even a judge once admitted he knew more than many of the attorneys who stood before him.
And, just as much, it is a story about the group of detectives and agents and officers who use their own wits and excellence to try to stop him.
The story begins 13 years ago, on Super Bowl Sunday in 2008. Ahead of the game, there is really only one storyline to discuss: Can the Patriots go undefeated?
New England has been captivated by the Pats for months. Costello doesn’t miss a play from his couch. Zani is working on game night, wearing riot gear in case the Pats win and fans take to the streets to celebrate. He walks his patrol on Boylston Street, peering through the windows of bars and restaurants to follow the action.
Just outside the city, in Lynn, Massachusetts, another die-hard, Sean Murphy, is just as locked in. Murphy, then 42, is a Pats fan going back to the lean years of Sam “Bam” Cunningham. He went to the Pats’ two previous playoff games in person, and he nearly gets tickets to the Super Bowl too. When they fall through at the last minute, though, he decides to spend the day with a buddy, Rob Doucette. “He was my weed dealer,” Murphy says, “and we just sat around his house eating ribs and smoking joints all day, watching the Super Bowl.”
For most of the night, the Patriots seem poised to complete their perfect season. And then: David Tyree makes his improbable catch, the ball somehow pinned against his helmet. Plaxico Burress cradles the game-winning touchdown pass from Eli Manning. Tom Brady’s Hail Mary falls short. The perfect season is ruined.
There is no celebration in Boston, no crowd to trouble Zani after all. He goes home. The streets of the city are silent.
In Lynn, Murphy seethes. “I was in shock!” he says. How could this happen? How could they lose? And to the Giants? He cannot believe the season has ended without a title.
“I was ratin’ [jewelers] by how much money they made. I put the big ones up top, and I was workin’ my way down.”
Sean Murphy on researching possible targets
A few weeks after the game, Murphy is at a local library doing research. Most of the time, he operates a moving company, North Shore Movers, which does good business at a couple hundred moves a year. But Murphy’s real passion is theft. “I’m a professional thief, a master thief,” he says in the way someone might casually mention they’re a pretty good golfer. On this day in the library, Murphy is scouting potential targets.
“I was looking to do a jewelry manufacturer because the price of gold was going up,” he recalls. As part of his research, Murphy Googles the manufacturers’ names to learn more about their inventories. Most of what he finds is mundane — random reports or tax filings — but when he searches for information on a company named E.A. Dion Inc., which is located in nearby Attleboro, an article from the New York Post pops up. In it, Murphy reads that Tiffany’s has contracted with E.A. Dion to produce the Giants’ Super Bowl rings.
“F— them Giants!” he remembers thinking. “They don’t deserve them rings!”
Now, understand: This isn’t just a revenge play. Murphy is too meticulous for that. Sure, the rings element has him fantasizing — “I got f—in’ Eli Manning’s ring, I got Strahan’s ring …” — but he never, ever does a job if it isn’t right. It’s his rule.
So he does his due diligence. He looks into what else E.A. Dion might have on hand to make sure the take will be worthwhile and is pleased to learn they carry valuable coins, assorted jewelry and raw precious metals. Then he assembles a crew: Murphy is the leader. Joe Morgan, a car salesman who is at the time Murphy’s top assistant, will join him inside. David Nassor, another associate, will be the “peek,” or lookout man, stationed out front keeping watch.
Murphy also spends considerable time picking a date. After reading that E.A. Dion made the Super Bowl rings for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after the 2002 season, Murphy scours old news reports to try to determine exactly when in 2003 the Bucs players received their rings. That way, he figures, he can identify the sweet spot for this hit, that period when the Giants’ rings will be finished but before they are shipped to the team. He settles on a day in early June.
The last factor for Murphy is geography, so he scouts out E.A. Dion’s facility, wanting to be positive it is in an area where he will be able to work without being seen or heard.
E.A. Dion checks a lot of boxes: It is in an industrial park, down a long road that branches away from the main street. There aren’t many houses nearby. And just behind the industrial park is I-95, a sprawling highway that provides a steady hum of noise. On a Saturday night — Murphy’s preferred night to do any job because fewer people come to work on Sundays — the area is totally dead.
“In my business, it’s location, location, location,” Murphy says. “E.A. Dion fit the profile perfectly.”
In an as-yet-unpublished manuscript Murphy has written (title: “Master Thief: How To Be a Professional Burglar”), he details the intricacies of his trade over a preface and 10 chapters. The chapter headings are straightforward: “Safe and Vaults,” say, or “ATMs,” and the text is similarly direct. In the chapter on how to “Scope” a target, for instance, Murphy spends several pages explaining the way to identify telephone wires running to a building’s alarm system.
“The proper procedure,” he writes, “is to locate the nearest string of telephone poles near your score and look for the lines that go down the pole and underground closest to the building you want to hit. Those will be your telephone lines.”
Murphy is dismissive of thieves who do “smash and grabs,” simply breaking into a place without putting in preparation. Why risk it? “A little bit of leg work before a score,” he writes, “can make the difference between a half-million dollar score or a 20 million dollar score.”
In this case, Murphy’s careful planning hits a snag about a week before the job, when he is stunned to see the Giants on TV receiving their rings at a ceremony in New York. “We felt we had missed the train,” he says. “And then we said, ‘Well, f— it, we might as well do it anyway.’ Because we need the money, and it’s gonna be a good score.”
They proceed as planned. On the evening of June 7, 2008, Murphy and his team meet at the moving company warehouse in Lynn. Murphy has used one of his fake IDs to rent a white box truck from Budget, and he has already completed his typical routine of wiping down his tools with Simple Green, a cleaner, to remove any fingerprints.
Murphy loves his tools. He refers to them as “doo-dads” and lists them with great delight. “An electromagnetic steel drill press that’ll core out a 4-inch hole from solid steel that we use for a safe,” he says. “I have a core bore, which is a hydraulic core bore, which will drill an 18-inch hole through reinforced concrete in a port vault …” He can go on like this. “Once you get to my level, having the right equipment is the key to getting these big scores done,” he says.
Murphy and his crew suit up. They always dress the same for a job: black coveralls, black rubber galosh-style boots over their shoes, gloves and black ninja-style masks. On the chest of the coveralls are two zippered pockets. In the right pocket is a police scanner with an earpiece that goes into the right ear, so everyone can hear if the cops receive a call; on the left is a walkie-talkie receiver with an earpiece that goes to the left ear, so the crew can communicate with each other. On each man’s forehead is a miner’s light; around his waist is a fanny pack filled with screwdrivers and other handheld tools.
The men head to Attleboro a little after 4 p.m. They park in a lot near E.A. Dion’s facility and watch the building, drinking water from plastic bottles and smoking marijuana to pass the time. As night falls, Murphy and Morgan climb onto the one-story building’s roof. Murphy finds a power outlet on the HVAC equipment and plugs in his favorite tool: a cellphone signal jammer he bought overseas. Once it fires up, Morgan uses a burner phone to test that there is no signal, then Murphy reaches out and snips the wire running from a nearby telephone pole.
Suddenly, the building is defenseless. There is no phone service for the alarm system to use, and the backup cellular system is now disabled too. Just to be sure their handiwork hasn’t tripped anything that might alert the police, Murphy, Morgan and Nassor wait about 45 minutes in a wooded area nearby.
When no one comes, Murphy and Morgan return to the roof. Murphy takes out a drill and power saw and begins cutting. The metal-on-metal is loud, but no one is around to hear. It doesn’t take long for Murphy to open a hole in the roof about 4 feet across.
He and Morgan drop inside.
“The second you walked into the buildin’, it was obvious to us that … a large amount of product was stolen from the factory.”
Rich Campion, Attleboro PD sergeant, on the scene at E.A. Dion
The first thing Murphy and Morgan do once they land on the E.A. Dion floor is prop open the doors to each room in the building. As each man sweeps loot into one of two 50-gallon rubber trash barrels, having every door open makes it easier to move the cans from one room to the next.
These sorts of details are important to Murphy, as is a belief that this kind of work should not be done in a rush. “S—, we were there all night, basically,” he says of the E.A. Dion job. Murphy begins in the vault room. Morgan goes to look through the other offices.
Murphy finds plenty before he even gets to the 6-foot, solid steel safe: boxes filled with 5-pound bags of beaded gold and silver sitting on tables; sets of plastic trays with tiny drawers, the kind you might use to hold loose screws or bolts on your workbench, only holding gold in different karats; stacks of gold plates on the wall, “about 30 or 40 pounds,” Murphy says. He swishes all of it into his barrel.
The robbers move room to room, carefully emptying E.A. Dion’s stock. Antique coins. Wedding bands. Necklaces and bracelets. Estimated value for all they take is more than $2 million.
When Murphy is finally ready to go after the vault, he goes into the hallway to tell Morgan to get the truck, so they can unload the heavier tools needed to break the safe.
Morgan emerges from an office with bright eyes. “The Super Bowl rings are here!” he says. Murphy is stunned. “What do you mean?”
They aren’t locked up, aren’t even in a drawer, Morgan says. There are more than 50 of them. Morgan holds one out. “Look, it weighs about 20 pounds!”
Holy s—, Murphy thinks. He had thought the rings would be gone, but he is not especially interested in parsing the backstory right at this moment. The rings go into the stash.
The men move toward the safe. After trying and failing several times to drill through the mechanism, Murphy says to Morgan and Nassor — who has been called inside to help — that he thinks their best play is to simply pick the safe up and take it with them. With more time and space, he says, they can slice the safe into pieces back at the warehouse.
Morgan looks at the refrigerator-sized safe, which weighs several thousand pounds. “How the f— you going to move this thing?” he asks, and Murphy bristles.
“Joe, what do I do for a living?” he snaps. “If a customer comes to me and tells me he wants us to move things, what am I going to tell him? ‘I can’t do it?’ Of course I can do it.”
Murphy grabs a pallet jack that E.A. Dion has in its storage area. The men slide it underneath the safe. During a reconnaissance trip, Murphy had noticed E.A. Dion’s loading dock had no dock plate, or bridge, that could go between the dock and a backed-up truck, so he made sure to bring one of his own. He tosses it down, and he and the crew wheel the jack, and the safe, right into the back of their box truck.
As sunrise nears, they clean up. The men pass through the facility once more, and Murphy goes to the roof to collect his jammer. Morgan slides the door down on the truck. The radios have been silent all night.
The men drive back to the warehouse in Lynn. They slip off their coveralls and galoshes. They unload, and begin divvying up the take. Murphy gets 50% of everything; Morgan gets 40%; Nassor, the peek man, gets 10.
They sift through all the gold. Murphy sends out a staffer to pick up breakfast sandwiches.
“She looked at me and she said, ‘Is Sean going to know that I’ve testified against him? … I want him to know that it’s me who did him’”
Al Zani, state police lieutenant, on a key interview
Jimmy Breslin once said that “the No. 1 rule of thieves is that nothing is too small to steal,” and the police reports from the days and weeks after the E.A. Dion break-in bear that out: Murphy and his crew got everything. Cash. Jewels. Raw materials. Even a dark green hand-truck dolly marked “shipping and receiving” that E.A. Dion workers used to help them move boxes.
The place is cleaned out.
Richard Campion, a detective on the case, arrives shortly after an employee discovers the break-in and calls 911. Campion talks with Ted and Dennis Dion, who took over the business their father started in 1968. The Dion brothers are in shock, Campion sees, devastated as they consider what this might do to their business.
Campion and his partner, Jimmy Cote, lead the initial investigation. The robbers, they discover, were clearly high-end but far from perfect. The police find an extension cord left behind on the roof. They find footprints. They find, near the loading dock, a Milwaukee electromagnetic drill press with a zip tie holding the chuck in position.
They also interview neighbors and employees at other businesses located in the industrial park. At first, they have no luck — no one was at work that early on a Sunday. But then they get a lead from the police department’s tip line. The caller says he was out for a walk with his young son that Sunday morning and was near the industrial park because his son likes to look at all the trucks that are always parked at a nearby warehouse.
As they were walking, the father tells Campion, he remembers seeing a vehicle leaving E.A. Dion; it stood out, the father says, because it turned the wrong way out of the parking lot.
Campion asks: What kind of truck was it?
A white box truck, the man says. With a Budget logo on it.
Campion adds it to his file, which is ever growing thanks in large part to the collaboration between local police and an interagency task force out of Boston. Zani, Costello and O’Neil are part of that group assigned to this case.
In the beginning, there is speculation that maybe this was an inside job — the Dions explained they had some disgruntled ex-employees — but Zani, the state police lieutenant, never buys this theory. “As soon as I heard about E.A. Dion,” he says, “the only person that came to mind that was capable of doing such a break was Sean Murphy.”
Zani has seen a slew of burglars come out of Lynn in his years on the job. He tells the group what he knows about Murphy and doesn’t hesitate to label him the “top dog” among the collection of crooks Zani calls the “Lynn Breakers.” Zani has been chasing these breakers for a long time, he says, and this case might be his best chance at stopping them.
Murphy’s rap sheet runs forever, Zani tells the officers. The jobs — both proven and alleged — range from pharmacies to big-box chains. For a while, Murphy was into electronics; then cash machines. More recently, he’d been going after prescription pills that he could sell on the black market. The thread through all of it, and the element of the Dion job that Zani recognizes, is the methodology. Murphy isn’t one for brute force; he always prefers a precision-cut hole in the roof to a splintered door or a shattered window.
Knowing Murphy’s attention to detail, Zani feels it is unlikely they’ll be able to pin anything on him based solely on physical evidence collected at the scene. Those pieces of evidence — the footprints, the drill — will help build the case. But they’re going to need more. That means the best way to try to catch Murphy, Zani thinks, is to “rattle the trees” around him.
Costello and Zani spend hours running down friends and associates of Murphy, trying to find a way in. They learn that Murphy has a regular crew of crime partners and that he also spends time with a number of younger girlfriends — typically women with drug habits. Murphy openly ranks the women, referring to them publicly with labels like “top girl” or “No. 3.”
“The girls were the start,” Costello says. “Because when you participate in a crime that requires multiple people … and when you brag about it after the fact, you increase the number of people who know.”
The break for Zani and Costello comes when Lynn police are called to Murphy’s house one night in October of 2008, four months after the E.A. Dion job, to investigate a domestic dispute involving Murphy and one of his longtime girlfriends, Rikkile (pronounced Ricky-Lee) Brown. Brown and Murphy had gotten into a screaming match, and Brown had thrown her purse at Murphy. Another woman, Jordayne Hartman, is listed on the police report as a witness.
Hartman, it turns out, has an outstanding warrant for an unrelated crime, so when Zani and Costello see the report involving Murphy, they ask a trooper to bring Hartman in too. After Hartman is arraigned, Zani and Costello approach her to talk about Murphy.
They are leery, expecting a brush-off. But Hartman is angry. She and Murphy had a falling-out, she tells them, and she doesn’t hold back.
She explains how she and a friend met Murphy shortly after getting out of drug rehab and how, as Zani says, “Murphy was basically supplying both of them with heroin for sex.” Hartman describes to the officers Murphy’s hierarchical system when it comes to women and how he sometimes gives the women pieces of loot from his jobs.
Hartman also describes circumstances and characteristics that investigators can link directly to the E.A. Dion case. How Murphy talked about his cellphone jammer, for example, or how he came into the house not long after the E.A. Dion break and dumped jewelry out on the bed to show some of the women. Hartman says there were big rings in the pile.
Many of the women Murphy had at the house received valuable pieces — Brown even got one of the Giants rings. But at that time, Hartman tells the investigators, she wasn’t in Murphy’s good graces — she wasn’t “top girl” anymore. So she got scraps: a ring with the Radio Shack logo on it, according to some court documents. Eventually, her relationship with Murphy unraveled completely.
At one point, Hartman asks Zani if Murphy will know that she has testified against him. A little nervous, Zani tells her that yes, he will.
Hartman doesn’t flinch.
“Good,” she says. “I want him to know it was me who did him.”
“It was definitely an interesting and somewhat chaotic scene when they went in.”
Jason Costello, retired FBI investigator, on Murphy’s arrest
Well before dawn on Friday, Jan. 23, 2009, several dozen law enforcement agents gather at the Lynn Police Department. It is freezing in Massachusetts, but there is energy in the air. Detectives and agents from the FBI, DEA, ATF and state police are there, as well as officers from the Lynn, Peabody, Wellesley, Swampscott and Mansfield police departments. Everyone sips coffee. Everyone listens to a quick briefing.
Zani has written up the affidavit, and a judge has authorized search warrants for Murphy’s house and car, as well as the warehouse for North Shore Movers. Rikkile Brown’s condo and car are targets too. The group is broken into teams. A little before 6 a.m., they roll out.
Entry at North Shore Movers is straightforward. Campion and Cote find a cellphone jammer and a receipt showing its purchase, with Murphy’s signature on the receipt. On the floor, they find a ring. On a desk, Cote discovers a handwritten list of companies, with names like Jostens (a jeweler) and Stern Leach (a precious metals manufacturer). “E.A. Dion” is in the middle of the list, with notes in the margin next to it referencing its telephone wire and antenna setup. The officers take pictures of everything, including a collection of hand trucks in an area under the stairway in the hall. One of the hand trucks is dark green. It has “shipping and receiving” written on it.
About a mile across town, a slew of agents burst into Murphy’s house. It is an old, small two-bedroom, built in 1850, and it is frigid inside, as though the oil bill hasn’t been paid.
The officers fan out and pull the house apart. They seize some fake IDs and assorted coins. They page through receipts from a company that buys gold. They fish out $9,000 in cash from behind a radiator. They remove $3,000 more from a closet. They find two keys that appear to be for safe deposit boxes. Inside a black purse, they discover a Giants Super Bowl ring.
They find Murphy in bed with a woman. They arrest him in his underwear.
“As soon as she gave me the box, I knew we had it.”
Zani on finding the Super Bowl rings in a safe deposit box
Murphy is unfazed in the aftermath of his arrest. In a holding cell later that morning, he scoffs when Campion and Costello inform him of the charges he’ll be facing. “Breaking and entering?” Murphy says. “Good luck proving that one.”
The police, though, know they finally have the goods, and the evidence keeps piling up. Days after the arrest, Zani and Costello and O’Neil go to the Eastern Bank in Saugus and, using one of the two keys they found in Murphy’s house, unlock the box holding the Super Bowl rings. The other key opens a box at a different bank. It holds a coin collection that belongs to the Dion family.
Later, photographs of evidence from a 2004 case against Murphy in Pennsylvania — a break-in at a Costco dismissed on a legal technicality — arrive on Campion’s desk, showing a Milwaukee drill press with a zip tie around the chuck. Investigators also seized black galosh-style boots.
Even more important than the physical evidence, though, is this: The police keep finding people who will tell on Murphy.
Initially, Hartman (and to a lesser extent, Brown) helps the agents get their search warrants. But after the arrest, Murphy’s crew starts talking.
It isn’t only about the E.A. Dion job either. What law enforcement officials don’t know at the time they arrest Murphy is that he has only just returned to Lynn from Ohio, where he and Joe Morgan and Rob Doucette (the “weed dealer” from the Super Bowl night a year earlier) broke into a Brinks armored car facility and attempted to steal more than $90 million.
That job, authorities learn, features many of the same strategies: lengthy prep work, a cellphone jammer and a hole in the roof. But it isn’t nearly as smooth: When Murphy burns through the safe with a high-intensity torch, he accidentally sets much of the money inside on fire. He and his crew ultimately get away with only a few million dollars, mostly in coins.
Nonetheless, the case receives significant attention. Nassor, the “peek” in the E.A. Dion job, has already made a deal to talk about what he knows (“He was the rat in the case,” Murphy says), and when Morgan and Doucette agree to plead guilty in the Brinks heist, the U.S. Department of Justice’s case against Murphy for that robbery is solid.
The DOJ charges Murphy and brings him to Ohio to stand trial. He is found guilty in 2011. He receives a sentence of 20 years in prison, later reduced to 13 years on appeal. Before being sent to federal prison, though, he is returned to Massachusetts to be tried for the E.A. Dion case.
As he did in Ohio, Murphy largely represents himself in the E.A. Dion case. He files motion after motion and asks for delay after delay, even as he remains in state prison while he waits. It isn’t until December 2019 — almost a full 11 years after his arrest — that Murphy finally pleads guilty to the E.A. Dion job, for which he is sentenced to two years in state prison.
Later this year, when that time has been served, Murphy believes he will be released — “out completely in November,” he says. But federal prosecutors say that the 11 years Murphy spent stalling in state custody won’t count against his federal sentence, a contradiction that will likely play out in court in the coming months.
What is undeniable is that Murphy has been locked up in Bristol County jail for a long time. He doesn’t mind it much, he says, mostly because he sees it as an “occupational hazard.” His routine is static: morning workout, chores, his soap opera from 2 to 3 — “I’ve been watching ‘General Hospital’ for 35 years” — and law library time at night. Most evenings, “Star Trek” is on the prison TVs (Murphy likes “Voyager”), and on Saturdays he is able to listen to three hours of “House of Hair,” Dee Snider’s hair metal music show. It reminds him of going to see bands like Poison and Kiss in the 1980s.
Murphy also follows the Patriots from jail. In the years since his incarceration, New England has played in five more Super Bowls. The Pats lost twice, including another upset against the Giants (“I honestly thought it was a curse,” he says) but won three titles, including the miraculous second-half comeback from 25 points down to beat Atlanta in February of 2017.
Murphy watched that one from start to end, peering up at a TV mounted on a cement pole in the hallway outside his cell.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited on a game,” he says.
“I’m sittin’ there watchin’ the game right in front of my cell. And I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited on a game.”
Sean Murphy on watching Super Bowl LI in prison
When Costello, the FBI special agent, first heard about Sean Murphy all those years ago, he didn’t have any children. Now he’s got two, the youngest nearly a middle schooler — and he’s still talking about the E.A. Dion heist. The requests never stop: There is a book in the works about Murphy’s life. A documentary too. Other times, someone just randomly asks him about those Super Bowl rings that went missing once.
Costello gets it. Murphy didn’t actually end up stealing Eli Manning’s ring — the stash he got was for Giants staff and families (including, reportedly, one ring that was for actress Kate Mara, niece of the team’s owner). But the storyline is juicy all the same: Patriots fan steals Giants rings? The Giants beat his team … and now he takes revenge? It is a fanatic’s fantasy come to life.
Only it is also just that: fantasy. Over the course of several phone conversations — conducted by collect call and lasting 20 minutes per session, as per prison rules — Murphy talks openly about everything. His methods and his execution, his precision and his workmanship, his desires and affinities. And, at the end, he comes to the exact same conclusion as Costello and Zani and Campion:
Even if David Tyree drops that ball and the Patriots get their perfect season, this story ends the same way.
“I’m a crime dog,” Murphy says. “If it wasn’t that one, it was going to be another one.”
This was never about the Giants for Murphy, never about sticking it to Eli Manning or Michael Strahan or the Dion brothers. It was never even about sticking it to the police.
It was about craft. About dominance. About believing in his talent, and wanting to show it, over and over and over. At various moments, Murphy calls himself a “moneymaking motherf—er” or the “Saturday Night Bandit,” but most often he refers to himself as the “Master Thief.” For all the novelty of what was taken, E.A. Dion was just another job for Murphy, just another night where he slipped into his black coveralls and pulled on his mask. Some nights he stole pills or electronics. Some nights he stole gold. One night, he stole rings.
It was his work, just like it was the work of the police to stand in front of him. Zani and Costello and Campion — they didn’t have a grudge against Murphy. They didn’t think this case was more important because there were some Super Bowl rings in it. They didn’t care that Murphy loved Tom Brady as much as they did. They just saw someone trying to get away with something, and so they did what they’ve done their whole lives: They said no. In Zani’s garage, he’s got a cardboard box full of files about Murphy’s job, and it sits on a wooden shelf next to 50 other boxes just like it.
In the end, this case wasn’t special. It was inevitable.
“Patriots rings, Giants rings — it really didn’t matter,” Zani says. “He was robbing people. He was taking what didn’t belong to him.”
“We were going to catch him,” he says. “And we did.”