Former FBI agent haunted by heist, fugitive family slaying
LAS VEGAS (AP) — FBI agent Henry Schlumpf had no formal crisis negotiation training when he was handed a telephone early Aug. 29, 1999.
On the line was Timothy Blackburn, a man Schlumpf arrested in December 1998 in Las Vegas following a $1 million bank robbery, and then hunted after Blackburn’s armed escape from jail with the help of his wife, Puthea “Sophia” Lim.
Now Blackburn was armed and the couple was holed up with their two young daughters inside a short-stay apartment in east Las Vegas.
For as long as it took, then-agent Henry Schlumpf’s job was to keep Blackburn, one of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives, on the phone.
“Because if he’s on the phone with you, he’s not shooting anybody,” Schlumpf recalled being told by crisis negotiators coaching him at the time.
Twenty years after the story began, Schlumpf, now an investigator at the Nevada state attorney general’s office, can’t forget the largest bank heist in Nevada history or the events that left Blackburn, Lim and their girls, ages 5 and 4, all dead.
“And that was it, you know? It’s all over. And it was just devastating,” Schlumpf said in a recent interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal .
The overnight robbery of a bank repository on Dec 21, 1998, left a guard wounded before two masked men grabbed a shrink-wrapped bundle of cash and escaped, tires screeching.
Authorities weren’t sure how much was taken until Schlumpf found a receipt.
“I pull it out of there, and it says $1,088,000,” he recalled. “And it’s like: Wow, that is the biggest bank robbery in Nevada history right there. A million dollars in cash.”
Investigators started with little information, but a $50,000 reward brought a tip from a woman who used the code name “Foxfire.”
“She goes, ’Well, I got a friend who’s got a friend who knows somebody who says that her boyfriend’s brother has a laundry basket full of money at his house,” Schlumpf remembered. “Who’s going to make something like that up?”
Foxfire got her reward. She gave a phone number that led to a strip club dancer who lived in a trailer where an agent spotted a man getting into a white pickup truck similar to a vehicle that had been seen near the bank repository.
The license plate belonged to Timothy Blackburn.
When authorities arrived at Blackburn’s house, he ran toward a minivan driven by his sister-in-law, Seila Lim. She ended up crashing.
Blackburn was found hiding under a porch. Authorities found most of the money the next day, New Year’s Eve, under a doghouse in Blackburn’s backyard.
Eight months later, Blackburn escaped from the now-closed North Las Vegas Detention Center, trading gunfire with corrections officers as he fled.
Multiple attempts to reach members of the Blackburn and Lim families for this story were unsuccessful.
Authorities said Sophia Lim had given Blackburn the gun. Over the course of a week, she had smuggled in an electric screwdriver to remove plexiglass in a visiting room. She wedged a shoe in a door to facilitate the escape.
“So now we’re looking for him. Everybody in Vegas is looking for him,” Schlumpf recalled.
But Timothy Blackburn had left Las Vegas.
Authorities arrested Seila Lim for allegedly lying to the FBI. Blackburn’s brother, Terry Blackburn, was arrested for allegedly leaving a driver’s license for his brother in their mother’s mailbox.
The FBI learned that Timothy Blackburn had called his best friend, Dewey Cooper.
Schlumpf told Cooper to tell Blackburn that he would keep arresting people until he turned himself in.
Cooper delivered the message when Blackburn called a week later from Tijuana, Mexico.
Days later, the FBI heard that Timothy Blackburn’s family was at a budget apartment in Las Vegas.
Schlumpf was skeptical. But a security guard knocking on doors prompted Sophia Lim to stick her head out the door of one unit.
“It’s like I could not believe it,” Schlumpf said. “I could not believe it.”
A crisis negotiator telephoned to tell Blackburn that the unit was surrounded and SWAT was coming.
Blackburn said he wanted to talk to Schlumpf.
For the next three hours, trained negotiators coached Schlumpf as he talked with the fugitive, his wife and their daughters, Tiana, 5, and Tiara, 4. Tiara told him she wanted to be a ballerina.
Meanwhile, Las Vegas police put chain-link fences around the buildings, positioned SWAT officers and brought in helicopters.
On the phone, Schlumpf balanced trying to coax the family outside and trying not to upset the armed fugitive.
“He did not want to go back to jail and have his daughters visit him in jail,” Schlumpf recalled.
At 6:19 a.m., Schlumpf was speaking with Sophia Lim when he heard a shotgun blast.
The phone went dead. A SWAT team burst into the Blackburns’ apartment.
“I hear somebody say ’419,’” Schlumpf said, referring to a police code number. ”‘Dead body. They’re all dead.’”
The gunfire had started after a Las Vegas police officer guarding the perimeter accidentally fired his shotgun while slinging it over his shoulder, according to testimony at a 1999 coroner’s inquest.
Timothy Blackburn, Schlumpf now knows, heard the blast and fatally shot his wife and daughters before turning a revolver on himself inside the apartment bathroom.
SWAT officers heard those gunshots and shot Blackburn’s falling body, but the coroner determined that Blackburn was killed by his own gun.
Having had nearly 20 years to reflect, Schlumpf doubts he could have changed what happened.
Accidental shotgun blast or not, he said, the person ultimately responsible for the outcome was Timothy Blackburn.
“Somewhere it would be Blackburn who was going to end the thing the way he wants to end it, either coming out, or the other way,” Schlumpf said. “And I don’t think he was going to come out.”
Information from: Las Vegas Review-Journal, http://www.lvrj.com