The Great Cocoa-Bean Heist (or How The FBI Spoild My TV Career)

By Gary F. Williams

Although it happened over 25 years ago, it’s still so clear to me that it seems as if it were a favorite old movie that I’ve watched over and over through the years. It hasn’t diminished with time. And this year, with all the media attention on chocolate shortages and higher prices, it flashed back brighter than ever. Because that’s what started the adventure all those years ago – high chocolate prices.

Cocoa beans had been cheap forever. Then suddenly in the early ‘70s, a combination of unusual circumstances occurred that took bean prices from 25 cents a pound to almost $2.00 a pound! The news media jumped all over this and the stage was set. Everyone knew that chocolate and the cocoa beans you use to make it were “gold.”

Now enters one of the great criminal minds of history into our story. If the FBI has the means to measure criminal genius and they keep a list, then his name is on it – at the absolute bottom! He hijacks two 40,000-pound truckloads of cocoa beans, eighty thousand pounds of beans worth about $150,000 at the time. Big dollars! Big news! Really stupid!!

 Since it involved interstate commerce, the FBI entered the case immediately. And showing far more intelligence at the beginning than at the end, they took about one hour to call all 17 chocolate companies in the U.S. thus reaching in minutes all possible customers for the stolen beans.

As production manager for one of those 17 chocolate companies, I had been told to be on the lookout for any “unusual” offers of cocoa beans for sale. Of course by then the jokes were flying fast and furious about “the mob” and their cocoa beans. But since I was about 1,800 miles west of Chicago in Burlingame, California, I laughed and wondered where the beans would turn up. Certainly nowhere near me.

 Several days passed and I had forgotten about the stolen beans. Then early one morning, I received the call that started my adventure. It was the kindly voice of an older man who just “wondered if I’d be interested in some cocoa beans” he had for sale? My adrenaline shot through me and I took a deep breath before I spoke. I didn’t want to blow this before it even began. I decided not to act too excited even though with the shortage of beans I had to have some interest. As we talked two things became clear to me – he knew nothing about cocoa beans and he couldn’t possibly be behind the heist. He was too nice! And one other thing was crystal clear: these were the stolen beans! There were “two truck loads” and they “ weren’t nearby” but they could be here “in a couple of days.” We decided we would talk the next day after I’d talked to my boss and we could settle on a price. He admitted then that he was representing another person and he would contact him also. The game was afoot!

We called the FBI and they came right in for a meeting. I was advised how to handle the next call. We were to come to an agreement on price after a little dickering and set up the delivery. I told them that I was sure the old man was innocent. They were impressed with my instinct. They didn’t believe me. I guess I could be wrong. These guys were the FBI. And they were impressive. So far.

I talked to the old man, who I now thought of as “Santa,” the next day. We settled on $50,000 for the beans. If I hadn’t already known they were “hot” that price might have tipped me off. We agreed that the delivery would take place two days later at 10:00 a.m. and I would have a check for $50,000 to hand over to the man he represented. Now it was getting exciting! Now my fantasy world and reality began to intermingle.

For the next day and a half I thought mostly about losing some weight so I would look better on television.  The TV series, The FBI, was still going strong and I knew that this story would be too good to pass up. It had to be an episode for next season and I would play myself, obviously.

The day arrived. The two agents in charge and four of their buddies were there bright and early, dropped off so their cars wouldn’t cause any suspicion. Smart! My phone rang. It was “Santa.” He was so excited about the deal and his commission that he was about to get on a plane and come up from his office in L.A. just to make sure everything went okay. I tried to talk him out of it. I was still sure he was innocent. But it didn’t work. He was coming. I told the agents and they scrambled some more agents to the airport. “Santa” was going to have a bad day. My phone rang again.  It was “Mr. Big.” A nervous “Mr. Big.”  “How are you?” he asked. “Oh, it’s crazy around here.” I said. “Whatta ya mean!? What’s wrong?” he asked, his voice rising.

This was fun but I couldn’t blow it now so I calmed him down. “I’m short handed, two guys sick. I’m trying to keep it all running.” I sounded perplexed enough to be believable. He calmed down.  It was about 9:30 a.m. We agreed that the trucks would pull up in the back of the plant at 10:00 a.m. He would arrive just before then and go to the front office.

By now I was at least six inches taller and much faster than any of the FBI guys. I thought about telling them I didn’t need them any more, but I wasn’t sure that they would take that suggestion well. My phone rang! It was the receptionist. “Mr. Big” was in the lobby. The trucks were pulling up in back. It was time. We headed out of my office at a run, with me in the lead; six FBI agents following. Really! By the time we reached the back of the plant I had a pretty good idea about the best camera positions. I was beginning to think about directing also. We burst out the back door. The trucks were just pulling into the parking area. In seconds the two drivers were dragged out of their cabs and thrown against them. They were wetting their pants. I thought they were innocent too. But my job was to identify the beans! We whipped open the back doors on the two trailers. It was them. I yelled, “It’s them!” and turned and headed back into the plant, the FBI in tow.

The center of the plant is a wide aisle almost 300 feet long. Here is where my speed would make the difference. I led the way. They followed. For just a split second before we got to the office the thought passed through my mind that the guys behind me had the guns. And they were drawn. But that was just for a second. I went in first, the FBI guys bunching up behind me as we entered the lobby. Now our lobby wasn’t big. It still isn’t. So it was easy to see that he wasn’t there. I turned to the receptionist. “Where’s ‘Mr. Big’?” my voice beginning to rise. She looked up. “He was sitting right there a second ago,” she said, pointing to one of the four chairs.

I turned and looked out the window that his chair was facing. There was a police car parked in the first spot right outside and there was an officer casually heading up the walk towards the lobby. “What the Hell!?” I said not at all calmly. The officer walked into the lobby. I was wondering why the FBI agents hadn’t said anything. “Hi! Someone from the FBI called for a photography car for evidence photos. Is that you gentleman?” the officer said with a smile. With that it sunk in just how much of a screw up they had made and they burst out the door screaming into their radios.

Within minutes they had a helicopter, police cars, police dogs, sheriff’s cars and a dozen FBI cars searching the industrial area surrounding our plant. They didn’t seem to be having any luck. They were also avoiding me like the plague. I was the only outsider who knew what really happened. I’m sure they prayed that no one from the media would show up and interview me. And so far no one had.

As every available law enforcement officer in a ten-mile radius searched for “Mr. Big,” I sat at my desk pondering “what if?” I had my line all ready: “Mr. Big, I’d like you to meet the FBI.” Keep it simple. After a line like that they’d cut right to commercial. Of course, the camera would be locked on me as it fades out. At the point where I was trying to remember what an Emmy looked like, the phone rang. It was one very distraught “Santa.”

“I just had the worse day of my life. I stepped off the plane and two FBI agents grabbed me and took me to a small room. They spent the next two hours grilling me about the cocoa beans. They thought I’d stolen them!” he said. “I tried to talk you into staying home but I couldn’t say any more than I did. And I told them you didn’t know what was going on,” I said.

It turned out he had never met “Mr. Big.” He was just a food broker who had gotten an offer he couldn’t refuse. A food broker who never watched TV or read the paper, apparently. Anyway, without “Mr. Big” he was just going to be an embarrassment for the FBI. So, until they found “Mr. B.” he was free to go. I told him how sorry I was and wished him well.

By dark they had stopped the manhunt for “Mr. Big.” I’d given up on the TV news people and gone home several hours earlier. My only consolation was thinking up ways they would pay for their screw-up. But it turned out their boss was even more creative than I thought he could be, as I found out early the next morning when the two lead agents showed up with sheepish looks on their faces.

 “What are you guys doing here? The arrest was supposed to be made yesterday. Oh, wait a minute. That’s right. You were here yesterday. That’s right! You got those sneaky cocoa beans. Nice work.” I wasn’t going to let them off easy. And besides, I was having fun. They weren’t.

 “How can I help you fellows now that my TV career is ruined?” I said.

They looked at me funny. My irony was lost on them. “We’re going to be here for a few days. We have to go through both trailers of beans and identify each bag as evidence.” He tried to say this with a sense of importance, as if this was normal. I knew better. And all of a sudden I felt much better.

I left them alone until about mid-afternoon when the temperature had climbed above 80 degrees. And inside the trailer where they were working, it was probably closer to 110.  It was time. I quietly approached the trailer and peeked into the back. It wasn’t a pretty sight. Their jackets were off and folded neatly near the back. But their ties, although loosened, were still on. And of course their guns were both in small belt holsters. And both of them were stretched out flat on sacks of cocoa beans looking near death. It was perfect! I took the large block of wood I’d brought out with me and went to the side of the trailer right where they were both almost passed out. Now, wood on metal doesn’t do any damage but it can sure make some noise. I pounded three times on the side and then yelled, “Now I know why Patty Hearst is still free!”

As I was running through the doorway into the plant I looked back. They had both made it to the back of the trailer looking somewhat dazed and had their hands on their guns. I waved as I disappeared inside.

It ended up taking them a week to go through all the sacks of beans. And strangely enough we actually became friends. Besides, if I couldn’t remember what an Emmy looked like, how important could it be? I mean, it’s not an Oscar.

About six months later, after awards ceremonies had finally faded from my dreams, I got a phone call from one of the agents. He just wanted to let me know that they had caught up with “Mr. Big” in Florida running a jewelry scam. In exchange for all the jewelry information they had dropped the cocoa bean charges. It was probably the appropriate ending for the whole adventure. After all, I’ve made a very nice living for 38 years in the chocolate business. I shouldn’t have any second thoughts.

 But I do think I would have looked good next to Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. with my slightly graying hair. And he really did need a new partner. The show might have lasted more than one more season with a change like that. And that spot on my mantle? That funny looking gold statue would have looked okay.

Oh, well, I left the plant a few years later. I’ve been selling chocolate ever since. Can I send you a trailer-load?

 Copyright 1999 by Gary F. Williams

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