The Matter of Timber Trickery

Steven C. Levi


Copyright 2020 by Steven C. Levi


Photo of toothpicks.


An impossible crime is one in which the detective has to solve HOW the crime was committed before going after the perpetrators. In this matter, the detective must figure out why anyone would want to steal 400 pounds of toothpicks.

Captain Noonan, the "Bearded Holmes" of the Sandersonville Police Department, was up to his ears in annual employee assessments. This is not to say he was having a difficult time. In fact, the actual writing would only take a matter of moments – not even minutes. He had an exemplary staff of four and that was as large a staff of detectives as Sandersonville needed. None of them were substandard so there was no need for a painful review of past errors or present shortcomings. He was, to return to his peril, up to his ears in listening to the woes and laments of other officers of the law from up-and-down the Outer Banks as part of the annual Homeland Security conference of preparedness. Everyone – and, in this case, every person – was expected to discuss the shortcomings of their individual departments and what magic administrative cures they were employing. As Noonan had an exemplary staff he had no need of any ‘magic administrative cure’ for shortcomings he and his staff did not have.

Woe was it that he, in a conference circle of law enforcement professionals who felt exactly as he did about Homeland Security in a geographic setting where the only terrorist activity was double parking on a two-lane road, was next to speak of the ‘magic administrative cure’ he had employed over the previous dozen months.

However, before it came his turn to dodge and weave, evil became blessed. Just as the captain of another police department began to speak, the tool of Satan began to vibrate in Noonan’s cargo pants pocket. There were only two people who had the number of his Beelzebubian device and one of them, the Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security, was present in the room. The other, his wife, was at a bridge tournament. When he slipped the execrable IPhone out of his pocket, the area code on the screen was one he had never seen: 406.


But 406 was good enough for an escape hatch!

Noonan gave a professional, law and order, duty calls look to the Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security who was birddogging the meeting and out of the meeting circle Noonan went. He did not stop in the front room, building entrance or parking lot. He was as gone as a grizzly bear in Alaska before the first snowfall.

“Noonan here,” he said as he sat in his slant six Dodge Dart whose speedometer had been frozen on 257,965.”

“Captain Noonan,” the voice was apologetic. “I’m sorry to call but we have a problem here and, well, uh, you have a reputation for solving the odd and unusual.”

‘I’ve been lucky,” Noonan dug around in his glovebox for a notebook. “Where is ‘here?’”

“Ellis, Montana. We are an unusual community. Even for Montana.”

“What makes Ellis unusual?”

“We aren’t a community the way most Americans view towns. We were formed to provide support for the growing Native American casino industry in Montana. 15 of them. Rather than deal with the rules, regulations and city councils in 15 different communities, the casinos came together, purchased remote property and built the support industries there.”

“What do you mean by support industries?”

“Everything casinos would need, from cards and chips to security and the actual cash for payouts.”

When the voice said, “actual cash,” a loud alarm bell went off in Noonan’s brain.

“Cash? What kind of cash are we talking about?”

“Millions. The casinos are required – by Montana law – to have twice as much cash available in the casino as is expected to be gambled. Any one of the casinos can see two, three million a week in gambling and twice that on weekends.”

Noonan wrote down “millions!!” in his notebook and underlined it. Then he said, “OK. Now, I need your name. I’ve got your number.”

“Thomas Meagher. Named for my grandfather, the first Governor of Montana.”

“OK, Mr. Meagher, are you in law enforcement?”

“Yes. I’m usually called Max. We’re a small community and want to stay friendly. I’m the Chief of Police.”

“OK, Max. What can I do for you?”

“Tell me why anyone would want to steal 400 pounds of flat toothpicks.”

* * * * *

“Toothpicks?” Noonan mouthed the word as he wrote it out in his notebook.

“Yes, sir, Captain. 400 pounds of them.

“If you’re Max, I’m Heinz. I’m only ‘captain’ when I’m at a crime scene.”

“No crime scene yet, Heinz. And, yes, 400 pounds of flat toothpicks.”

“Just out of interest, why are you calling me now?” There was a pause on the electronic link. Then Noonan added, “Just out of interest, no suggestion of impropriety here.”

“Well, Heinz. We are a small community with a lot of money – as in cash – in very few places. Usually everyone knows everyone and there are no secrets. Then, suddenly, 400 pounds of flat toothpicks vanish and no one knows diddly. It raises eyebrows, so to speak.”

“I can see why you called. Tell you what, let me give you a bunch of questions and I’ll work on the theft. Do you have a piece of paper?”

“Yup. Shoot.”

“OK, just off the top of my head. Using baby steps, tell me the exact procedure of the transfer of money, the cash, from the bank or vault to the casinos. 15 of them means the money has to go by truck or plane, do I have that right?”

“Airplanes. Small ones because they casino-hop on small landing strips.”

“Fine. How many planes are we talking about, how often do they go, how much does the cash weigh in the planes, is the cash recycled in the sense that, say, on Monday morning a lot of cash from the weekend goes back to Ellis? How big is Ellis, how many officers in the police force, how large is the fire department, what are toothpicks used for in Ellis, how do you know they are missing, could they have been misplaced rather than stolen, how many dentists are there in Ellis, how many restaurants in Ellis, can you gamble in Ellis and, and, and, that’s all I can think of right now.”

“I’ll get these answers to you as soon as possible. Do you want some answers now?”

“Nope. All at once. How long will it take to get the answers?”

“Suppose I call you tomorrow about this time?”

Noonan looked up from his pad, through the windshield at the building where the two-day Homeland Security conference was being held. “Tomorrow at this time will be just fine.” He paused. “But here’s my office phone.”

* * * * *

History, as Noonan had discovered long ago, was not the story of the past. It was the study of the future. If you wanted to know what was going to happen, all you had to do was read history. This wasn’t because history repeats itself, but the same forces for dissembling are never gone. There will always be someone looking for a fast buck, peso, franc or chunk of gold. Humans are the same the world over. There will always be thieves and they never sleep, the reason they have the proverbial ‘lean and hungry look.’

When it came to that ‘lean and hungry look,’ the history of Montana was loaded with far more than its fair share of greed and avarice. Perhaps all would have been well had no gold been discovered in 1860. Thereafter, alas and historically predictable, it was only a matter of time before the Native Americans were forced out and the moneygrubbers moved in. It was a tale as ancient as civilization. There was only one aberration and that was the Battle of Little Big Horn when a United States Cavalry unit was wiped out by a contingent of Indians. Usually it was the other way around.

Ellis, interestingly, was named for Fort Ellis. Or what used to be Fort Ellis. The original Fort Ellis was long gone, of course, but it did leave a bloody legacy. The 2nd Cavalry had been stationed there in the 1870s. The 2nd Cavalry had originally been formed by Andrew Jackson and had fought in the Seminole War and the Mexican American War. Then it was sent into the frontier to protect settlers from Indians in the lands America picked up from Mexico by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In an oddity of the history of the frontier, in 1857, the 2nd Cavalry was order to fight the Mormons in what would become Utah. The Mormons were resisting federal authority so the Cavalry was ordered to resolve the situation. The Mormons had a long history of being treated both poorly and violently in the eastern states and were not inclined to let the United States tell them what to do in the middle of nowhere. So the Mormons raised an army to fight the Cavalry. Known as the Utah War – as well Buchanan’s War and the Mormon War – it lasted less than a year. The best summation of the war was published by the New York Herald on June 19, 1858: "historisized: – Killed, none; wounded, none; fooled, everybody.” The only causality, so to speak, was Brigham Young who was replaced as Governor of the territory by Alfred Cummings. In an Executive Action, President Buchanan, gave "a free pardon for the seditions and treasons heretofore by them committed” to any and all Mormons who had participated – or not – in the Mormon Wars.

The 2nd Cavalry did not leave Montana and within a decade was involved with the Marias Massacre in which over 200 Indians, mostly children and elderly Indians, were slaughtered – 2nd Cavalry loses were one killed and one injured – and the Great Sioux War of 1876-1877, best remembered because of the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Just out of historical interest, Noonan pulled up Max Meagher’s grandfather: Thomas Francis Meagher. Historically, he was a fascinating character. Born in Ireland he was ardent nationalist who was captured by the British and sentenced to life in prison. Sent to Tasmania, he was able to escape and make his way to the United States. He studied to become a lawyer and then became a solider when the Civil War started. By the end of the war he was brigadier general. After the war, President Andrew Jonson, appointed him as the Montana Territorial Secretary and Acting Governor.

With the suppression of the Indians and the coming of the railroad, Montana became a haven for homesteaders. Not that many, as Noonan noted, because the state had less than a million residents a century later. It was a typical small, agricultural state with the only economic fillip being mining. The Anaconda Copper Company was a powerful economic and political powerhouse in Montana and, perforce, was the focus of union resentment. The faceoff between the miner’s union and the company during the First World War led to a lynching. On August 1, 1917, Industrial Workers of the World labor organizer Frank Little was dragged of his bed in Butte by vigilantes and lynched. The subsequent violence was so profound the National guard had to be called in to quell the disturbance.

The Anaconda Copper Company survived until 1983 when it went under. But the mining frontier in Montana was still profitable. In addition to copper and gold, there was also silver, coal, lead, zinc and manganese. By the turn of the 21st Century, the ‘mining’ turned from minerals to pockets and purses. Gambling came slowly as long as you were talking about games of chance off Indian reservations. On the reservations, gambling was on steroids. And it was profitable. Noonan counted 15 casinos and none seemed to be having a hard time staying in the black. He also noted they were geographically scattered which, for Montana, made sense as the population was scattered as well. Afterall, Montana was geographically the fourth largest state, preceded only by Alaska, Texas and California. Three times the size of North Carolina! As Max had told him, clearly there was a need for the supply center to service the scattered casinos. Thus Ellis was created, quite literally, out of thin air.

Because Montana had so few people in large cities, it’s transportation network was hardly a spider web. There were only two interstates and about 15 highways. Unlike states like Alaska where half the population lived in one city, in Montana there were no cities, just communities. The largest one was Billings at just over 100,000 – a very small city by American standards. The next largest city was Missoula with 67,000 and thereafter Great Falls with 60,000. Bozeman rounded off the top four with 38,000. Compared to North Carolina, Montana was miniscule. North Carolina had more than nine million residents and the largest city, Charlotte, had more than 730,000 of them. The two top cities in North Carolina, Charlotte and Raleigh, had more people than all of Montana.

The history of Montana was similar to that of Alaska, Noonan mused. Both states were vast, remote from the rest of America with few people and no time-honored hard and fast rules of how things ought to be done. Residents solved problems as they came along rather than being consistent. If it worked, everyone did it even though it was a bad idea – in New York. But then again, this was Montana where everyone made their own rules – whenever rules had to be made.

Unfortunately for Noonan, Ellis did not have a newspaper. Noonan had always found local newspapers to be a wealth of information for crime fighting. But, understandably, Ellis did not want to publicize its existence.

For good reason.

Next Noonan researched toothpicks. As expected, there wasn’t much. Implements for the removal of pieces of food from between the teeth have been around since the cave. But it was only within the past century that toothpicks became an industry. They could be bought almost anywhere and came in a variety of sizes – a fact which Noonan did not know – but were most popular in a round or flat form. They could be purchased in amounts of 100, 250, 500, 1,000, by box, carton or case. If what Max had told him was accurate, 400 pounds of flat toothpicks were into the millions of pieces.

Toothpicks?’ Noonan kept thinking. ‘What was the link between toothpicks and some robbery?’

He didn’t have even a remote hint to a good answer when Max called back the next afternoon.

“I have to ask,” Max began. “Can you tell me why someone would steal more than a million toothpicks?”

“Not a clue so far, but I’m working on it. Hopefully your answers will help.”

“Hope so. As to your questions, here’s what I’ve got. The cash we have here in Ellis is in three banks. The money itself is in vaults. The banks do not need to get more cash from the federal government because the casinos simply circulate it. I mean, the banks have enough cash to support all of the casinos even over holidays.”

“So cash never leaves the loop of borrowing and returning from the federal government, is that what you mean?” Noonan was scribbling in his notebook.

“Correct. There are no cash deliveries from, say, a federal depository. I’m assuming old paper dollars are replaced at some point, but not on a regular basis.”

“OK. Go on.”

There was the sound of a ruffling of papers over the line. “The banks were leery about talking about their transfers, which I can understand. Collectively I got what is generally happening. On a predictable schedule, probably every Thursday a certain amount of cash from each bank is put in an armored car and transferred to the airport where it is put in a vault. In the ten years since the operation started, not a single dollar has been missing. And there is a contingent of security personnel in the airplane hangar – different from the armored car security team.”

Noonan asked, “Do you know if the money from the bank is actually the bank’s money? That is, under most circumstances, when a casino needs cash, it puts in an order. The bank fills the order. The instant the actual cash goes into whatever transportation container is being used, the money is no longer the bank’s money. It’s the casino’s money. So any bank would not know if any money was missing since the responsibility of the bank only extends to the packing of the container.”

There was silence from Max for the moment. Then he said, “I don’t have an answer for that question. I’m in the law enforcement business, not the banking business. For those of us in blue, what matters is the actual cash. As long as it makes it from Point A to Point B, all is well and good. If even one scrap of paper disappears, someone will file a police report. In ten years I have not seen one police report of any money missing regardless of who owns it.”

“True,” Noonan added. “But you would only know if the police report was filed in Ellis. If a casino in, say, Missoula ended up short dollars, the casino would file a report with the Missoula police, correct?”

“True, true,” Max said. “But you are in North Carolina, right?”

“Yes,” Noonan replied.

“Well,” Max replied. “This is Montana and we are a small state. There are no secrets here. Every law enforcement agency in the state knows everything about every other law enforcement agency in the state. And, anticipating your next question, even if a casino wanted to keep a robbery quiet, every insurance company would still want a police report. A couple of hundred dollars disappearing in a casino is to be expected. But there’s too much paperwork tracking the money for thousands to disappear.”

“I see,” Noonan said. “Go on with the money.”

“OK,” Max said as he shuffled the papers on his end of the line. “The transfer facility, that’s what we call it, was a lot more forthcoming with information. The cash from the banks is transferred under guard to the facility. At some point after the guards who brought the money to the facility and put the money in the vault are gone. Then another team of team of guards will open the vault and parcel out the cash in crates for each casino. The crates are then locked in the airplanes. The facility has a key to each plane cargo hold and so does the casino. No one else.”

“So when the cargo hold is locked, only the casino has the other key.”

“Yes. Anticipating your next question, which crates go in which airplane is not consistent. That is, the same planes are not used to deliver the cash to the same casino every week. Not only are the planes scrambled as to location, so are the pilots. As pilots arrive the next morning, Friday, they choose their flight plans from a box at random. No pilot knows ahead of time which plane he will be flying. Takeoff times are scattered as well, but this has more to do with geography than security. The plane delivering cash to the farthest casino leaves first. The cash for the next farthest casino leaves next.”

“I think you said earlier there was some hopscotching of planes?”

“Yes, but only for the casinos that are close to Ellis. If the plane is flying across the state to make a delivery, it only makes one stop that day. If, say, three casinos are relatively close to Ellis, yes, the pilots will hopscotch to the three casinos. And again, anticipating your question, the hopscotching schedule is set by the facility, not the pilot.”

“Can I assume the same security arrangements are followed by all casinos when the cash arrives.”

“The security is the same because the insurance companies require a lockstep procedure. There are guards when the plane lands. The cash is transferred to an armored truck and driven directly to the casino where it placed in a vault.”

“Has any armored car been robbed?”

“Nope. Not a one. The armored usually has an escort.”

“OK, back to the facility in Ellis. Cash goes into the facility on Thursday but flies out on Friday. What kind of security is there at the facility Thursday night?”

“There’s a single guard inside the hangar. There’s not a lot he can do because the cash is already locked in the cargo hold of the planes. There are guards around the outside the facility 24/7. But remember, the facility is not just the hangar. It’s a transportation hub. This means there is more inside the guarded area than just the airplane hangar. There are two or three warehouses, storage, for everything a casino will need: forks, napkins, maid uniforms, poker chips, card decks.”

“Is that where the toothpicks were stolen?”

“Yes. Out of one of the warehouses. It was odd. The toothpicks ordered were round. But somewhere in the process, the round toothpick order was changed to flat toothpicks. When the error was discovered, another order was place for round toothpicks. The flat toothpicks were pushed aside. The transportation cost to send them back was more than the toothpicks cost so they were simply warehoused.”

“Then they went missing?”

“Inventory is done every month or so. That’s when they knew the toothpicks were gone.”

“How did the toothpicks get out of the facility? Is security so lax 400 pounds of something can just disappear?”

“Nope. Security is snakeskin tight. The toothpicks were either taken out piecemeal, say, a box at a time in someone’s pocket or they are still somewhere in the facility.”

“Wouldn’t it be hard to hide 400 pounds of anything in the facility?”

“Not really. If you scattered the crates, you could put them behind other crates and they’d disappear.”

“Good point. So, as far as the facility is concerned, there is a single guard inside the hangar and a contingent on the outside. Now, let’s take the plane that’s going to Missoula. If the casino in Missoula needs cards, maid uniforms or poker chips, are they loaded on the same plane that has to cash that is going to Missoula?”

“No. Planes with cash go with cash. They are loaded on Thursday evening and locked down. If the casino in Missoula needs anything else, it is delivered separately.”

“On the same day?”

“Maybe. Those flights are scheduled as needed. Only the cash flights are scrambled by plane, pilot, route and takeoff time.”

“And no pilot knows on Friday morning which plane he will be flying or where he is going.”


“How about the answers to my other questions?”

“Odd ones, I must admit. Total number of planes flying to casinos with cash are eight. The weight of the cash varies by casino but 800 pounds is the maximum load allowed on the planes by the insurance companies. It’s more of a fuel thing than safety. The planes have two pilots each and, say, 400 pounds of cash. That’s the max weight.”

“Go on.”

“Ellis has a police force of seven, six of us on the street. The fire department is full service for a city ten times the size of Ellis. The fire department is large because of the tonnage of casino supplies, we use toothpicks in Ellis to dig food particles out from between our teeth, there are six dentists in Ellis, five restaurants and a dozen what I would call eateries. Can you gamble in Ellis? If you mean do we have a casino, no. If you mean pull tabs and horseracing over the Internet, yes. If you mean high stakes poker games in private residences, I, speaking as the Chief of Police, have absolutely no idea what you are talking about.”

“Even in a town as small as Ellis?” Noonan laughed when it he said it.

“If I don’t see it, I can’t make an arrest.”

Noonan chuckled. “Just a couple more questions. I’ve got a brother-in-law in Alaska who’s a bush pilot. That’s someone who flies little planes over hundreds of miles of nothing.”

“Just like Montana.”

“He’s told me a lot of stories, some of which I believe.”

“Just like Montana.”

“He told me the biggest predictable problem with flying was fuel. You could not predict the weather but you had to accurately determine how far you could fly. So you had to have more fuel than was necessary for the trip. You would usually refuel at your destination. No pilot want to run out of fuel while they were in the air. “

“Seems reasonable.”

“But there is a difference between what is happening in Alaska and in Ellis. See, in Alaska, when you fuel plane, it’s outside. In Ellis, all of the planes with the cash are in a hangar. If there are going to fly out on Friday morning, those planes have to be ready to fly. They are not going to be fueled before they fly. That’s a lot of avgas in a lot of fuel tanks. That’s dangerous. I’m assuming there is some kind of super ventilation system in the hangar . . .”

And, that instant, a loud and powerful gong clanged in Noonan’s brain.

* * * * *

Noonan was sitting comfortably in his office and smiling. He was smiling because his tool of Satan was undergoing surgery – his term – for new apps – a term he did not use – and he was thus incommunicado. But only for the moment which, with each passing second, grew smaller. As he was chuckling over his good luck, his administrative assistant, Harriet, came in with a newspaper. It was rolled in a tube and she snarled as she gesticulated the tube toward the ceiling tiles.

“Have you seen what his lordship said yesterday?” Her eyes drifted up. But not to the heavens, just the third floor where the office of his lordship, the Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security, had his throne room.

“Let me guess. Toothpicks and robbery.”

“Toothpicks and robbery! How clever you are! I can see your fingerprints all over this story.” She jabbed the newspaper tube at him. “Give!”

Noonan smiled. “Let me tell you a story.”

“No, I want the skinny on this!”

“It’ll take a story. Did you know airplanes get lighter as they fly?”

“What? How is that possible?”

“Because a plane burns fuel. The farther it flies, the more fuel it burns. The more fuel it burns, the less fuel there in onboard. So the plane is lighter.”

“Where’d you get that?”

“I have a brother-in-law in Alaska who’s a bush pilot.”


“So, he told me an interesting story once.”

“Just once?”

“He’s an Alaskan bush pilot and I’m surprised he told me one story that was probably true.”

“I’ll bite.”

“Well, there was a legendary pilot in Alaska by the name of Mudhole Smith.”

“Really? Mudhole?!”

“Actually, that was his nickname. His first name was Merle.”

“How’d he get the name Mudhole?”

“I’m getting to that. Patience! He was flying out of a mining town on a dirt runway that had turned to mud because of the rain. As he was starting to take off, the front wheel of his plane dropped into a pothole and the plane flipped up on its nose. Then the propeller dug a hole in the runway. A mudhole. That’s how he got his name.”

“And you are telling this because?” She stalled for a moment then shook the newspaper tube at him. “This had better be good and have something to do with toothpicks.”

“Sure does. About 30 years after he got his nickname, Mudhole ran a flying operation out of Cordova. That’s where my brother-in-law got his start. He started flying for Mudhole.”


“One day he was clearly overloaded.”

“Because the plane was going to get lighter as he flew?”

“I presume so. Anyway, my brother-in-law struggled – and he told me he struggled with agony in his voice – to get the plane off the ground. He said the plane didn’t fly; it lumbered. I’m guessing when a bush pilot says the plane lumbered, it was a bear to fly.”


“When he got back, Mudhole was furious.”

“Because the plane was overloaded?”

“Naw. Mudhole yelled at him, ‘You had another 500 feet of runway! You could have loaded on another 100 pounds of cargo!’”



“What does this story have to do with toothpicks?”

Noonan tapped the newspaper roll with the forefinger of his right hand. “The key to the robbery his holiness supposedly foiled was weight.”

“Weight? Toothpicks?”

“Correct. Everyone was focused on the toothpicks as theft. The thieves knew what they were doing. This was an inside job. And it was well planned. Well ahead of the robbery, someone jiggled the order of toothpicks. They needed flat toothpicks, not round ones. So someone changed the order of round toothpicks for flat ones. When the flat toothpicks came in, someone, probably the inside person, noticed the alleged mistake and reordered the round toothpicks. It was too expensive to send the flat toothpicks back so they were just mothballed. Then they were forgotten.”

“Except for the thieves.”

“Yes. The thieves took the cartons of flat toothpicks and hid them around in the warehouse. The toothpicks never left the warehouse.”

“Why use them at all?”

“Weight, Harriet, weight. That was the key to the entire operation. Somehow the guard inside the hangar could figure out which planes were going to which casino. Maybe by the number of crates of cash aboard. As soon as the planes were loaded with cash on Thursday evening he was locked in for the night. The keys to the individual cargo hold in each plane were in the hangar so he would have had no problem opening any cargo hold. The hangar has a massive ventilation system because there are so many airplanes loaded with avgas. The perps outside tapped into the ventilation system and dumped in the flat toothpicks. Inside the hangar, the guard made sure the toothpicks were blasted into the cargo hold of the plane that was going to be robbed. They had eight hours to get the 400 pounds of toothpicks into the plane. When the cargo hold of the plane was loaded with the 400 pounds of toothpicks, the ventilation system was put back in order.”

“So the plane was overloaded. Wouldn’t the pilots know that?”

“No way they could have known. The cargo hold was locked. They just got in the plane and flew. They expected to have enough fuel for the trip but came up short.”

“Because of the extra weight.”

“Yup. The thieves knew what they were doing. They put enough weight into the plane to force it to run short. Running low on fuel is not unexpected. Usually it is because of weather. The plane was too heavy for the fuel it would have had normally so the plane had to make a landing for more fuel. That’s where the thieves were waiting.”

Harriet wiggled the newspaper. “And that’s where they were caught. Clever!”

“Crime doesn’t pay.”

“Sure it does,” Harriet said she jabbed the newspaper roll – again – at the ceiling tiles. “His lordship is making the big bucks up on the third floor and we’re down here.”

“You can always work on third floor.”

“Not a chance! Doing nothing is hard. And you never know when you’re done.”

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