Video: The great change robbery

By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 1/14/2005 7:27:30 PM ET 2005-01-15T00:27:30

The trail begins at the Federal Reserve building in East Rutherford, N.J..  In mid-December, a large tractor-trailer is loaded up and heads south, bound for the Fed in New Orleans. Sealed in back of the truck is $180,000 worth of newly minted U.S. nickels. They are in 900 bags and weigh nearly 23 tons.

That's 3.6 million nickels — and soon they would just disappear.

"Somebody actually went out and stole 3.6 million nickels," says FBI spokeswoman Judy Orihuela. "I mean, who would ever think that would happen?"

FBI agents and police are baffled over how it happened. The driver, Angel Ricardo Mendoza, a private trucker from Miami, has also disappeared.

"He's either a victim or a suspect," says Sgt. Richard Mestre of the Miami-Dade Police Cargo Theft Task Force. "We're not really sure."

Mestre is used to dealing with stolen cars and appliances, but he's never seen a case involving nickels.

There are very few clues. Investigators do know that after leaving New Jersey, Mendoza gassed up at a North Florida station on Dec. 19. They have the credit receipts. On Dec. 20, Mendoza called his boss, saying he was in Tallahassee and would soon arrive in New Orleans. He never made it and hasn't been heard from since.

On Dec. 21, the 18-wheeler turned up at a truck stop in Fort Pierce, Fla., with the doors unlocked and the keys in the ignition.

All those nickels in back of the truck? Gone! 

"There was no sign of violence whatsoever," says FBI spokeswoman Orihuela.

So, if someone steals 3.6 million nickels, how does he cash them in without attracting attention? Police say it would have to be done very slowly, in small amounts and at many different places, like grocery store counting machines. And even if he were able to cash in $500 worth of nickels every day, it would still take an entire year.

It's a mystery that has some people wondering if it could possibly be worth all the trouble.

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