Police officers arrived at a Walmart parking lot in Northeast Philadelphia early Thursday around sunrise to respond to a call about a possible theft from a tractor trailer.
As they looked around the lot, they saw a startling sight: thousands of pennies scattered across the pavement, glittering in silver clusters that stretched far and wide.
The tug was transporting $750,000 worth of pennies from the US Mint in Philadelphia to Florida. Officers continued to collect the coins, police said, and calculated the amount that was stolen by a group of about 10 men at about $200,000 — or roughly two million pennies weighing about 10,000 pounds.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Officer Miguel Torres, a spokesman for the Philadelphia Police Department, said Friday night as the department continued its investigation into a daring theft that raised several puzzling questions.
Among them: How did the men, whom authorities are still working to identify and arrest, stash so much cash in their white Chrysler 300 and dark pickup truck? Did they know the vehicle was carrying such loot?
And how do they plan to cash in such a huge amount of dimes, America’s smallest widely used coin, since workers probably won’t take kindly to being paid wads of change with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s face on it?
“That’s the strange thing about this case,” Officer Torres said. “How do they expect to use it?”
Investigators are reviewing security camera footage from the parking lot. Detectives have questioned the tow truck driver, but it is unclear what they may have learned from him.
Capt. Jack Ryan of the Philadelphia Police Department told NBC 10, a local television station, that the driver parked the tractor-trailer in the Walmart lot overnight Wednesday and slept elsewhere before the long day of driving south. When he returned early Thursday, Capt. Ryan said, he found the tractor-trailer had been wrecked.
He said it is “normal in the trucking industry” for drivers to pick up a load and then sleep because of rules that dictate how long they can be on the road in a day. Capt. Ryan added that his department has seen other cases of cargo theft from tractor trailers where other goods, such as televisions and alcohol, have been stolen.
Officials believe the group of thieves brought with them a pair of bolt cutters to break the lock on the tractor trailer, Officer Torres said. It’s possible, he added, that the men didn’t know the vehicle was carrying millions of coins, which are 1.35 millimeters thick and 0.705 inches in diameter. It is not clear how the pennies were packed into the tractor trailer.
The coins originate from the US Mint Philadelphia Facility, which also produces congressionally approved commemorative coins and medals. The U.S. Mint did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Friday evening.
Aaron J. Chalfin, a professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, said it “seems unlikely that it was a random crime and was probably committed by a person or people who knew the money would be there.”
“Millions of pennies is a lot of money,” he said, “so it doesn’t seem so stupid.”
A photo from above of the parking lot shows the pennies scattered across the parking lot near the back of the tractor trailer, glimmering faintly as the daylight fell. The video also shows two trash-like bins, as well as police officers standing nearby.
Officers spent hours tediously picking up the scattered pennies, collecting the change in buckets to get a full account of the theft later, Officer Torres said.
As the department continues its investigation, it offered some advice to those who may be hiding stuffed piggy banks.
“If for some reason you have a lot of pennies at home,” Officer Torres said, “this is probably not the time to cash them in.”