The roadworks were bogus but there was nothing fake about the guns or loot, making the Richmond road gang hold-up one of Victoria’s most infamous true crimes.
On June 22, 1994, underneath the Nylex clock, a gang of men posing as road workers hijacked an Armaguard van and the three guards inside and stole $2.32 million in a robbery police acknowledged was meticulously planned, sophisticated and well executed.
Pasquale Lanciana, pictured outside the County Court, has been found guilty of armed robbery and other charges.Credit:Justin McManus
Now, nearly 27 years on, police finally have one of their men, as Pasquale “Percy” Lanciana was on Monday found guilty of armed robbery and other charges by a County Court jury. The guilty verdict came two years after another jury was unable to reach a verdict.
Lanciana’s conviction over the heist is a coup for Victoria Police’s Operation Tideland, which for years investigated the Richmond hold-up and two other major robberies.
Over 12 months in 2015-16 police charged three men with committing the three brazen heists: the Richmond hold-up, a half-million-dollar theft from Myer’s Melbourne store in 1993 and a robbery involving another Armaguard van, in Sunshine in 2006.
Police examine the abandoned Armaguard van after the 1994 armed robbery in Richmond.Credit:John Woudstra
During Lanciana’s retrial, heard over the past month, Wladimir “James” Babaeff and Paul Fyfield were named as suspected members of the five-man gang responsible for the Richmond hold-up. They were not charged, but Mr Babaeff was in 2017 acquitted of the Myer robbery and Mr Fyfield was in 2019 found not guilty of the Sunshine theft.
All three trials featured the evidence of insiders who cannot be named.
On that cold Wednesday morning in 1994, the Armaguard crew picked up new plastic $20 and $50 notes from the Reserve Bank in Melbourne’s CBD and were heading to Carrum Downs when the driver had to slow in Richmond in Harcourt Parade, which led onto what was then the South Eastern Arterial [now the Monash Freeway].
Ahead was a gang of road workers, wearing overalls and hard hats, and a row of orange witches hats. One man used a stop/slow sign to halt the van and another started a loud concrete-cutting saw, which distracted the Armaguard driver.
As this happened, two others opened the back doors of the Armaguard van and climbed in, while a ute behind blocked the view of other motorists.
“Don’t f—ing move, this a robbery. Just do as you’re told and no one will get hurt,” said a man in overalls with a ginger moustache, pointing a gun at the guard seated near the cash.
The bandits ordered the two guards seated in the front to clamber into the back and get on the floor.
“Do as we tell you and you won’t be hurt. We don’t want to hurt you,” one said.
Paul Fyfield was acquitted of stealing $1 million from an Armaguard van in Sunshine in 2006.
The guards were handcuffed, had rubbish bags put over their heads and and lay in panic as a bandit drove the van through Richmond’s industrial area, with the ute and a white van behind, to Walnut Street. There the back doors were opened and the guards heard the crates of money scrape over the floor.
In eight minutes the road gang pulled off one of Victoria’s most audacious heists, without firing a shot, and disappeared, leaving a cash-less Armaguard van, three bewildered guards and many unanswered questions.
“How the f— did they get in the back of the truck?” one guard asked as they shook off the plastic bags and yelled to a passer-by to raise the alarm.
Police found a distinctive key inside the van, which raised suspicions of an inside job, but were unable to pinpoint how the gang obtained it.
A detective later suspected one guard of an involvement because he barely squeaked when the bandits climbed in, and his gun was not loaded.
Wladimir Babaeff leaves the County Court in 2017 after he was acquitted of the Myer armed robbery.Credit:Jason South
The case remained unsolved for years but police had a long list of suspects they thought could be involved and in 2016, after another appeal for information, they charged Lanciana, a former kickboxing champion.
Over the preceding year, Lanciana’s friend and fellow fight industry identity, Mr Fyfield, was charged with stealing $1.1 million from an unattended Armaguard van outside Sunshine Plaza in 2006, and Mr Babaeff was charged over a 1993 armed robbery at Myer, where crooks stole $500,000 from the cash room. Both were later acquitted at trial.
Lanciana was accused of either masterminding or participating in the Richmond stick-up and in 2019 a jury couldn’t reach a verdict after his then lawyer, Mark Gumbleton, nominated a long line-up of alternate suspects.
Lanciana’s recent retrial heard police suspected Mr Fyfield and Mr Babaeff were part of the gang that hijacked the Armaguard van in 1994. Neither were charged.
Pasquale Lanciana following his arrest in 2016. Credit:Jason South
A Lanciana associate, Witness O, told the retrial the accused man admitted in early 1995 that he and Mr Fyfield did the Richmond job and that years later Lanciana declared: “I just organised it. I didn’t do it.”
Witness O’s evidence of the alleged admissions and visits to banks to swap stolen notes for “clean” ones was powerful, prosecutor Jim Shaw told the jury in his closing address, while other details emerged of Lanciana paying $400,000 cash for a Williamstown property. [Lanciana’s solicitor friend, John Anile, was last year jailed for money laundering over the property deal.]
But Lanciana’s current lawyer, Nola Karapanagiotidis, said Witness O only helped the prosecution when faced with being charged with money laundering, having been put under enormous pressure by police and the Office of the Chief Examiner, which can compel people to give evidence in crime investigations.
Witness O was “spoon-fed information” by authorities, Ms Karapanagiotidis told the jury, and “gave them what they wanted to hear” which resulted in evidence that was not credible. The lawyer said there were up to 15 other suspects who had a stronger connection to the crime than Lanciana did, and there was “not a scintilla of evidence” he was involved.
On Monday the jury found Lanciana, 63, guilty of armed robbery, false imprisonment and seven counts of money laundering after deliberating across seven days.
Judge Michael O’Connell revoked Lanciana’s bail and ordered him to be remanded in custody for a pre-sentence hearing on August 9. Lanciana spent 2½ years in custody from his 2016 arrest before he got bail after the 2019 hung jury.
Mr Fyfield was in 2019 found not guilty of the Sunshine theft after prosecutors alleged an accomplice, another Armaguard officer, said “let’s do something, let’s take some money” and weeks later deliberately left a door unlocked, enabling someone to bypass the van’s security system.
The guard told Mr Fyfield’s trial he signalled the van door was ajar by stopping to tie his shoelace as he walked into the shopping centre. When he and another guard returned they found a rag over the van’s camera and crates of cash missing.
But Mr Fyfield’s lawyers argued the inside man couldn’t be trusted as he turned prosecution witness to avoid jail, having lied to police and fled from Victoria during the initial investigation.
The defence lawyers also argued police didn’t adequately investigate other suspects such as several men who did drugs with the guard and rang him in the days after the theft.
Mr Babaeff was in 2017 found not guilty over the Myer robbery when his lawyers raised concerns over the evidence of a security guard who claimed he was the insider who provided crucial information.
Prosecutors had alleged a bandit posing as a security guard tricked his way into the Myer building at 2.30am on August 23, 1993, let his accomplices in and handcuffed a real guard. The group raided the cash room and left with money and cheques stuffed in Doona covers.
But Mr Babaeff’s trial collapsed when information surfaced that cast doubt on the insider’s claims and pointed to other potential suspects, such as former police officers who wanted Myer’s security contract.
Lanciana’s conviction means police finally got their man after the enormous resources devoted to trying to crack the case. But the jury’s verdict comes years too late for the three Armaguard crew members, who all died in the years after the robbery without ever knowing who caused them such fear.
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