NOTE: This article will remain at the top of the Home and blog pages with new information added periodically in hopes, someone will come forward with additional facts. Check back often as I will continue to research this cold case.
The Wells Fargo Armored shootout and murder on New Mexico Highway 6 are hidden well within the mists of time. There always seems to be that one unsolved murder, or that one case, that gets lost in the hustle of everyday life. Every town, road, and city has those deep-rooted dark secrets, and NM Highway 6 is not exempt. I have traveled NM Highway 6 more times than I care to count over the last few decades. I am constantly reminded of a single murder/robbery mystery that is yet to be solved every time I drive that road. It is incredible to note the number of housing subdivisions and large business complexes that are springing up along the highway. Back in 1994 though, it was a vast, open, and desolate landscape where it was easy to commit a crime and get away with it.
From a personal standpoint, I remember this one all too well. I began my employment as a driver/messenger guard for Wells Fargo Armored shortly after the following incident occurred. Everyone had their own opinions on the robbery/murder that had just occurred, and everyone eyed their co-workers with suspicion. There was always that sense of looming threat from everywhere it seemed.
To begin this story, Wells Fargo had this bad habit of using rental vans and sedans to haul money around. It was standard protocol to rent these vehicles if any of the armored trucks in the fleet broke down. The standard armored truck had bullet-resistant windows, gun ports, iron plating, storage bins, and racks to keep the money from flying around during transit. The rental vans and cars lacked all of these protective measures.
On August 25th, 1994, it started as a routine morning. Twenty-eight-year-old Jeff Oelcher was driving the rental van. Fifty-year-old Chuck Mills was the messenger guard riding in the passenger seat. They made the rounds in Los Lunas before heading out on New Mexico Highway 6. The van was carrying an estimated one hundred grand in cash, coin, and receipts.
They were making the routine run to Grants, New Mexico some eighty miles away to make additional cash drops and pickups for businesses and banks located there. Highway 6 is a thirty-four-mile long lonely stretch of road running northwest from Los Lunas I-25 exit 203 to exit 126 on I-40.
Just past 1030 am, near the halfway point to I-40, they approached a pickup truck parked on the side of the road. The back camper door was in the raised position facing the oncoming van. A barrage of gunfire broke out from inside the camper. A single bullet penetrated the rental van windshield and fatally struck Oelcher. Oelcher managed to hit the brakes and slid to a stop before perishing. Mills engaged the two suspects with his company-issued .38 revolver. He reloaded a couple of times before the two suspects broke contact and fled. Mills, despite being injured from a grazing shot, had thwarted the half-assed robbery attempt.
By the time the firefight was over, Oelcher was dead. With more than forty shots exchanged, twenty-eight of those hitting the rental van. The two suspects must have realized Mills was not going to go down without a fight. They broke contact and sped away northwest towards I-40. In the aftermath of the shootout, all that was left was an unsolved murder that is forgotten to time.
Why the suspects broke off the robbery attempt is a mystery. The reasons could be numerous. Perhaps they only had a certain amount of ammunition with them and they used everything they had. Maybe the rifle jammed during the brief, intense shootout. Or the suspects, being amateurs, feared that a witness was driving up the highway.
The suspects were driving a dark-colored pickup with a light-colored camper. Word around the campfire at the Wells Fargo house was that the pickup was either a Ford or Chevy, depending on who you talked to. The two male suspects are described as Hispanic or Native American. The shooter was wearing camouflage. It was said the rifle used was a .223. The make, brand, and type are unknown. I suspect the FBI was able to ascertain the kind of rifle via ballistics from recovered bullets and casings. There was also a rumor floating around that there were some 7.62×39 casings (possible AK-47 or SKS rifle) recovered from the scene. This would indicate that suspect number two was doing some trigger-pulling also. No one was sure on that aspect and the FBI wasn’t too giving on the info at the time of this article.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Wells Fargo was scrutinized for using the rental van. There was plenty of criticism from the media, employees, and the general public. Wells Fargo suspended the use of renting non-armored vans…at least until the following year when the dust settled a bit.
FBI investigators interviewed all the employees soon after this incident. No new information came to light. There were plenty of grumblings of discontent and a ton of questions. The primary questions that hovered over everyone like a thick black cloud:
- How did the suspects even know that the van was coming down that road at that point and time? It seemed obvious that the suspects knew as the shooter was hidden inside the bed area of the truck. It would be safe to assume the shooter calculated beforehand to keep all expended shell casings within the enclosure of the truck bed/camper enclosure with each shot fired.
- Did they even know it was going to be a rental van? It was strange that the opening shots had killed Oelcher like the suspects knew it was a rental van and not the normal armored one.
- Did someone within the ranks tell the suspects route details for a cut of the money? Or did someone at Budget rentals tip off the suspects?
- Did the suspects follow Oelcher and Mills during the days and weeks leading up to the robbery attempt to establish their routine? According to various reports, a red sedan passed Oelcher and Mills several minutes before the shootout. Was it possible this was the third suspect?
To add another note to this saga, the employees resorted to carrying personal firearms after the robbery attempt. Who could blame them? They were gunslingers from the era of the old west going up against a modern world filled with AR15s or AK47s. Wells Fargo frowned on this practice of carrying your personal sidearm but turned a blind eye to it. They had no plans to upgrade their weapons or ballistic vest systems. Several years later they merged with Loomis and became Loomis Fargo & Company. Eventually, it faded into history. But the stain of the murder mystery remains.
An Inside Job?
As has been mentioned before, there is the theory that the murder and the botched heist were potentially inside jobs. It certainly had indications of it being so. The media and local and federal law enforcement were looking cautiously down that dark avenue. Everyone working at Wells Fargo Armored eyed each other cautiously and with suspicion. New hires were also potential suspects in the employee’s eyes.
Wells Fargo was not immune from thefts and losses.
On December 23, 1993, just four days before Christmas, eight months before Jeff Olcher would be brutally murdered on Highway Six, another robbery occurred at Wells Fargo Armored that was never solved. An employee of Wells Fargo Armored drove his assigned armored van and made his usual stop at Luby’s Cafeteria on Mongomery near San Mateo.
He locked the doors and went inside to make the daily money pickup. But when he returned to his van, he saw it was gone as also the $143,000 that was inside the van’s safe.
When the van was found, there were no indications of forced entry into the van or to the safe inside. It was as if the perpetrator who committed this crime had the keys to access everything.
But somehow this case went cold up until later in 1994 when Albuquerque Police found a potential suspect. The unnamed suspect (as of 1994 research data) had flown to Dallas and paid $25,000 for a Nissan 300ZX a day after the van theft and stolen $143,000.
Could this be a connection to the later robbery and murder that would follow in August?
As I researched this angle, I noted from a September 10, 1994 article by the Albuquerque Journal (Page 11), that this same suspect had purchased a 1991 GMC truck for the sum of $21,537 six days after the van theft. There are red flags raised in the article with just the mentioning of this GMC.
It is mentioned that the suspect had blown through approximately $60,000 within six months after the 1993 robbery. He was under investigation but was still free at the time of Oelcher’s murder. The suspect was a former Wells Fargo Armored employee. He had intimate knowledge of Wells Fargo Armored security and route details. He likely knew the habit that Wells Fargo Armored had of using rental vans. It is very possible he still had keys in his possession after his employment with Wells Fargo had ended. We will discuss these keys and the rash of internal thefts that plagued Wells Fargo Armored next.
Ironically, on this same page, is a small article also written by Steve Shoup about the Jeff Oelcher murder on Highway 6.
Is there a possible link between the two incidents? Although there are suspicion and red flags, there is no real evidence to support this theory unless additional facts are found.
After the suspects fled the scene, they disappeared onto the nearby Laguna/Acoma Reservation. They managed to evade local and state law enforcement officials who have no jurisdiction over those Sovereign Nations. Even though the Laguna Reservation Police were assisting in the search and setting up roadblocks themselves, they may have just missed the suspects before being thrown into action. The thing to keep in mind is this was before the internet and cell phones.
The mystery of what kind of pickup truck the suspects were using will probably remain unknown. At least until new information comes to the surface. I believe the two suspects are still alive today. They have managed to skirt the law this far. The disturbing reality though is they are living in plain sight somewhere. Even if the robbery suspects got away with no money, they did rob Jeff Oelcher of his life.
There were many personal theories on who the suspects were. One co-worker believed they lived around the area or further west toward Grants. The suspects disappeared too quickly which led him to believe they lived around nearby Laguna, Cubero, or Budville.
He believed the suspects used the back roads and avoided the main highways. State of New Mexico police and multiple counties had set up roadblocks all across the area. Only local residents would know these back dirt roads that crisscrossed over reservation lands. He believed the suspects worked at a car lot, salvage yard, mechanic shop, or towing company. The fate of the truck was obvious in his mind. While this is an interesting viewpoint, nothing supports this theory.
There are just too many questions that never have enough answers. On the question of was the robbery an inside job? For me, it is debatable. I am leaning toward the fact that it is a possibility that someone, somewhere passed off some information. Whether it was intentional or accidental remains unanswered.
I never met Oelcher, but I don’t like the idea of the tentacles of time covering up a murder mystery. Someone out there knows something, they know a small detail. Someone remembers something that one of the suspects said in the weeks or years following the aftermath. I’m sure there is someone out there who remembers the day the two suspects left their homes or job in the truck and returned without it. Maybe those relatives or friends were asking the suspects what happened to their truck. Why did they come home without it? I am positive someone remembers. No one keeps this kind of thing quiet for years without making some kind of admission to someone. If anyone has information, hit the link below.
New Mexico State Police
Do you have relevant information or correction recommendations?
Sources & References
- Albuquerque Journal, February 10, 1994 (Metropolitan, Page 1, Section C)/ $143,000 Theft From Armored Van Stumps Cops, Steve Shoup, article author
- Albuquerque Journal, August 26, 1994 (Pages A1 & A2)/ Killers of Wells Fargo Driver Avoid Manhunt(A1), Wells Fargo Killers Likely out of Area (A2), Arley Sanchez, Rebecca Roybal, article authors/Dean Hanson, Alexandria King, Photographers.
- Albuquerque Tribune, August 27, 1994 (Page 8)/ Wells Fargo Posts $10,000 Reward for Gunmen, Macario Juarez Jr.
- Albuquerque Journal, August 27, 1994 (Pages A1 & A4)/Victim Loved Lure of Sirens-Phil Casaus-Author/Ambush May Be Inside Job, FBI Says-Donna Olmstead, Arley Sanchez
- Carlsbad Current-Argus, August 27, 1994/ Wells Fargo Driver Killed in Ambush (Page 3), AP News
- Albuquerque Journal, September 10, 1994 (Pages A1 & A11)/ DA Reviewing $113,000 Heist(Big Spender May Be Indicted)(A1), Steve Shoup-Journal Staff Writer, Ex-Worker May Be Indicted in Armored Van Heist(A11) / FBI Still Seeks Driver’s Killer(A11), Steve Shoup
- Carlsbad Current-Argus, December 1, 1994 (Page 2)/ Armored Car Hijacked, Driver Slain (Glendale, AZ), AP News
- Albuquerque Journal, December 8, 1994 (Page 30)/ FBI Eyes Link in Wells Fargo Slaying– AP
- Albuquerque Journal, August 23, 1997 (Page 36)/ Reward Offered in ’94 Robbery Attempt– Metro Watch/AP
- Albuquerque Journal, November 18, 2012/Murder Mystery Lingersin Lonesome Road Shootout(Pages 1 & A12), Leslie Linthicum
- Audio Repository, Cold Case Murder, Attempted Robbery in Albuquerque /August 27, 2012/ FBI.gov