The story reads like a movie script: A nuclear reactor operator recruits a co-worker for an armored car heist, gets caught hijacking a vehicle, then flees to South America only to be recaptured amid allegations of money laundering and gun and steroid smuggling.
But this story allegedly played out in real life.
Michael J. Buhrman, a senior reactor operator at the Dresden nuclear plant near Chicago, is the alleged mastermind of the wild scheme, which was supposedly inspired by the 2010 Ben Affleck movie “The Town,” in which a group of Boston buddies rob several banks and Fenway Park. He was extradited from Venezuela late last month after a year on the lam and is serving a 40-year sentence for the carjacking.
He may face additional charges in connection with his international flight and alleged smuggling.
“I’ve been in investigations quite a bit of my career, and for someone like Michael Buhrman, who seemed to have a lot going for him, to be messed up in something like this, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Woodridge, Ill., Deputy Police Chief Tom Stefanson.
The case also sent ripples through the nuclear power industry, prompting the Exelon Corp. – which owns the Dresden plant and is the largest U.S. operator of nuclear reactors – to change how it trains its employees to spot and report behavior that might pose a security threat.
According to court and Nuclear Regulatory Commission documents, Buhrman tried to recruit co-workers at the nuclear plant, about 45 miles south of Chicago, and eventually succeeded in persuading colleague Landon Brittain to participate in the robbery of an armored car.
On May 9, 2012, Buhrman accosted a woman in a parking lot outside a Kohl’s store in Woodridge, about 30 minutes west of Chicago. Police said he was disguised as an old man in an elaborate latex mask and threatened the woman with a .45-caliber Beretta semiautomatic handgun before speeding off in her 2000 Pontiac Grand Am. But a witness followed and called police, who corraled Buhrman less than a quarter mile away.
Police say Brittain, another senior reactor operator at the nuclear plant, acted as a lookout during the carjacking – though he wasn’t arrested at the time. (See the indictments here in PDF.) According to NRC documents, the two men intended to use the stolen car in the armored car robbery.
Buhrman was released on bond, but police said they were alerted by a girlfriend that he had access to offshore bank accounts, had purchased $100,000 in gold and intended to flee to Chile. In June 2012, a judge added conditions to his bail, including a GPS ankle monitor.
That proved insufficient to keep Buhrman grounded. In September, police responded to an alert from the monitor and found it cut off in his Coal City home. An Illinois State Police sergeant testified later that there had been an attempt to make it appear that there had been a break-in and that Buhrman had been forcibly removed. Police also testified that $14,000 that had been deposited into Buhrman’s bank account from a foreign source was withdrawn three days before he disappeared.
Richard Blass, Buhrman’s attorney, told NBC News that there were signs of violence at the scene but that he had not been allowed to speak to Buhrman since he was brought back to the U.S. Blass did say that an appeal was being explored.
Brittain's attorney did not return a call seeking comment, Brittain has pleaded not guilty.
Melissa Gates, who divorced Buhrman in 2008, told NBC News that he came to see their son three days before he fled, but gave no indication that he planned to leave the country. She has been cooperating with authorities.
A month after Buhrman vanished, Brittain’s family reported him missing and started an online campaign to find him. At the time, he was a person of interest in the carjacking, said Stefanson, who added that he could not say more about Brittain because his case is pending.
Police suspected both men had fled to South America, and in April 2013, Buhrman was convicted in absentia in the carjacking. The bank robbery plot emerged a month later at another hearing at which he was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
By then, Buhrman and Brittain were reportedly living the high life in Venezuela. An independent journalist who has covered the case cited police sources in Venezuela as saying the former power plant operators made their way to the South American country, rented an apartment in a luxury high-rise building in Caracas and frequented a nearby gym.
They might be there yet had they not gotten involved with a man who was under suspicion of drug trafficking, illegal weapons trade and money laundering by authorities there, said Lucas Hixson, who writes for the Enformable website, which covers the nuclear power industry.
According to Hixson’s sources, the Venezuelan intelligence agency SEBIN soon grew interested in Buhrman and Brittain as well. Hixson reported that the sources told him that agents discovered that Buhrman conspired with the Venezuelan man to ship $500,000 in cash into Venezuela in a shipment of nutritional supplements. Once there, the Venezuelan took the money and tried to betray the men to police, the sources told Hixson, adding that SEBIN also investigated Buhrman and Brittain in cases involving smuggling of illegal arms and steroids.
In the end, Buhrman and Brittain, the Venezuelan man and a number of other Venezuelans all were arrested and both Americans were deported, Hixson reported.
Brittain was sent back to the United States in July. He is being held in lieu of $1 million bail and is next scheduled to appear in court in December, said Paul Darrah, a spokesman for the DuPage County state’s attorney.
Buhrman was arrested in Venezuela in September and was extradited to the U.S. at the end of October, Darrah said. He was handed over to state custody to begin serving his 40-year prison term.
Stefanson, the Woodridge police deputy chief, said he could not comment on whether Buhrman and Brittain were under investigation in connection with other crimes. A spokeswoman for the FBI office in Chicago declined to comment on the case.
Of the reports about Buhrman during his time in Venezuela, Blass, his attorney, said: “Anytime anybody is convicted of something and leaves, what’s said about them is going to be sensationalized.”
The NRC also examined the security lapse at the Dresden plant and said in a letter to Exelon, the plant’s operator, that its investigators concluded another plant worker had been approached by the plotters to join in the robbery. Exelon Generating spokeswoman Krista Lopykinski said that employee dismissed the plot as not credible but failed to report it to supervisors. The employee no longer works for the company, she said.
In addition, the letter said, another senior reactor operator learned about the plot after Buhrman’s arrest but delayed telling a supervisor for several hours. The NRC found the delay unacceptable, said Bob Osgood, site communications manager for the Dresden plant, but the operator still works for Exelon.
After mediation with the NRC, Exelon agreed to revise its “Behavioral Observation” training program to include “an expectation to report offsite illegal activity.” It also conducted a company-wide briefing on the issue; and trained personnel at the Dresden plant. Exelon representatives pointed out that the recruiting, planning and execution of the carjacking didn’t occur at the plant. Asked if safety at the plant was ever compromised, Lopykinski said: “Absolutely not.”
The NRC banned Buhrman and Brittain from ever setting foot at a U.S. nuclear plant again. In letters dated Oct. 28, 2013, the NRC told the men that agency investigators believe both were involved in the plot. (See the letters to Buhrman and Brittain in PDF. See the NRC orders for Buhrman and Brittain in the Federal Register.)
“The NRC has concluded that your criminal activities related to both the carjacking and the planning of an armored car robbery have demonstrated a lack of trustworthiness,” the letter to Buhrman says.
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