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The heist, for all intents and purposes, had failed. Glass exploded around Larry Lawton and his brother as they rushed out the door, bullets ricocheting around them. Carrying what they could, the duo made a frantic rush to the getaway car that was waiting outside. They jumped in, started the engine, and were almost in the clear when a figure appeared. A shot rang out. Lawton’s brother, sitting in the back seat, was hit. Things then got very, very real.

This was the heist that marked the beginning of the end for Lawton, but central to all of his robberies was the getaway car. Getaway cars are some of the most iconic vehicles in American movies. Everyone knows what they are: Fast, spacious, and able to tackle whatever the law throws at them. What sorts of vehicles get used in actual heists, though? It’s far from what most people think. 

We had a chat with Lawton, the prolific reformed thief who stole an estimated $15 to $18 millions’ worth of valuables from jewelry stores all over the east coast of the United States in the 1980s and ’90s. After spending more than a decade behind bars for his crimes, he’s out now and made it his mission to advocate for prisoners, work with police to prevent the sort of crimes he committed from happening in the first place, and share his experiences with the world. It’s been a while since Lawton has stolen anything, but his experiences make it clear: the real world of robberies and getaways isn’t anything like The Italian Job.

[Join us and our sister site, MEL Magazine, for Cars & Crime Week. It is a 10-story team-up between both sites that explores stories through the lens of cars and shows that true crime isn’t all serial killers and senseless murders (for the most part).]

The Real Deal

Lawton is, needless to say, an authority on the topic, having completed dozens of escapes from the law in his time. He was a pro, and how he sourced vehicles for his heists will put to rest the idea that professional criminals need a specialized ride. All were simply rented from a company like Hertz under somebody else’s name with Lawton listed as the co-driver. They were picked up as normal and simply returned when the job was done. Lawton and his accomplices would pay for the car, case the store they planned to rob, and then use it in the actual robbery. Critically, he always rented cars in Florida, partially because the state only requires a single license plate (of course, you’re never guaranteed to get a rental tagged by the state you’re renting in). That made it easier to swap it out for a different one the day of the heist—Lawton got legit plates from his otherwise straight-edge neighbor—and change them back to normal once it was done.

Rental cars were perfect because they were easy to obtain and return with almost no trace—I say almost because being listed as a co-driver is what eventually got Lawton caught—and because they were boring. Getting distance between himself and the site of the crime wasn’t the only important thing, Lawton told me. “You want to blend in,” he said. “That’s the getaway. You’re not gonna outrun the cops, this is not Baby Driver.”

“Less is more” when it comes to the art of the getaway, Lawton said. Common vehicles of choice for Lawton at the time were bare-bones sedans from Chevy or a plain-Jane Mitsubishi Diamante. As long as it had four doors, boring paint, and space for the goods, it was a candidate. 

Today, Lawton agreed that the times have changed, and if you really want to disappear, you need a crossover. “Back when we were around it was the ’90s, it was like the Chevy [sedans],” he said. “I would get maybe a Toyota RAV4 or something like that today. I would see what’s out there.”

Of course, if Lawton did his job right, victims generally never saw the getaway vehicle at all. He and his crew, which often included his brother, didn’t just drive up to the front door of a jewelry store and run in and out wearing ski masks, a fat bag full of diamonds slung over his shoulder. “If you rob a store, you park in the back of the store,” he explained. “Most people never even knew the car.” Not being noticed was the name of the game.

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