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NH special effects artist helps police capture armed robber

New Hampshire Sunday News

March 01. 2014 10:55PM
Jeremy Oneail, who creates custom-designed silicone masks in his Goffstown studio, helped federal agents track down a man who bought one of his masks late last year. The man allegedly wore the mask when he held up banks and post offices in Pennsylvania and Delaware in January. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

As an artist who creates special-effects makeup for movies and theme parks, Jeremy Oneail is content to work behind the scenes.

But he recently stepped into the hero's role in a real-life whodunit that led to the capture of a man who allegedly held up two banks and two post offices in Pennsylvania and Delaware in January.

The man wore a lifelike mask, with heavy, dark eyebrows, hair and mustache.

Oneail made the mask.

Oneail, 41, owns and operates Oneail FX Studios in the basement of the Goffstown home he shares with his fiancee. Over the past year, he started concentrating on custom-designed, lifelike silicone masks, which he sells on eBay.

After he designed a mask for a theme park in Mumbai, India, last year, Oneail dubbed it "Raj" and started selling versions of it online.

Last month, the feds called.

They were trying to solve a series of armed robberies and wanted to know whether Oneail recalled selling one particular mask to anyone in Pennsylvania; it turned out to be his "Raj" mask.

"I'd only made six of them," Oneail said.

A quick check of his records turned up a Blair Thomas Jr., who in late December had paid about $400 for a "Raj" mask and had it shipped to an address in East Landsdowne, Pa.

The buyer used his real name and address; even his email address was a combination of his real name and birthdate.

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service got a search warrant for the address, where they found the mask, a semiautomatic handgun and about $3,000 in cash, according to court records.

"After Thomas was advised of his rights, Thomas admitted that he had, while wearing the 'Raj' mask, attempted to rob the United States Post Office" in Darby, Pa., according to an affidavit by a federal agent.

Oneail, who has a degree in studio art from the University of New Hampshire, is a native of Seabrook. He said most of his mask customers are actors who "want to do skits for YouTube."

But it is something special-effects artists acknowledge and even joke about - that someone will use their handiwork someday to commit a crime, he said.

"I guess it's like if you make ski masks, you know at some point someone might do something weird with it."

At a sci-fi convention last summer, he even joked with some customers that "our masks pay for themselves in their first heist."

"It used to be a joke," he said.

Oneail said he prefers to think the man who bought his mask had "the best of intentions" at first. "Maybe he figured he was going to be the next Internet superstar or ... go do magic tricks for kids in the burn unit.

"I would like to think that," he said. "And then life gets in the way and people make bad decisions sometimes."

According to court documents, Thomas has two prior felony robbery convictions in Delaware, "one of which involved his wearing a mask."

On Jan. 22, according to court records, a man entered the Darby post office just before noon and demanded 10 $1,000 money orders at gunpoint. The clerk told him he (or she) "could not print money orders without an official transaction," and the man fled.

The clerk did notice something unusual about the man. His skin was odd and "almost waxy-looking," like he was wearing makeup or a mask.

And the robber forgot one key detail: "When the male drew the gun from his waistband, the skin on his belly was black, which the clerk thought was odd because his masked face was tan or white."

Thomas was indicted last week by grand juries in Pennsylvania and Delaware on felony charges, including two counts each of attempted robbery of a postal employee, bank robbery, and using and carrying a firearm during a crime of violence; and one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

Thomas is due to appear in U.S. District Court in both states on Thursday.

According to the federal indictments, Thomas attempted to rob a post office in Yeadon, Pa., on Jan. 22, at gunpoint. And the following day, he allegedly robbed a Wells Fargo Bank in Springfield, Pa., and the M&T Bank in Wilmington, Del. In each case, the robber was wearing the mask, authorities said.

Oneail said federal investigators were surprised at how forthcoming he was with the information he had; they told him people are sometimes reluctant to get involved.

But he said, "I want to get a guy off the streets that's doing this type of thing. I'd rather do what I can to make the world a better place."

He did ask one agent about a $50,000 reward offered by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the bandit. But apparently because they contacted Oneail, not the other way around, he's not entitled to the reward, he was told.

That's OK, Oneail replied; it wasn't about the money. "It was my civic duty to do that," he said.

The agent did a double-take. "We'll do what we can," he told Oneail.

Reginald Wade Jr. is public information officer for the Philadelphia Division of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. He said the information Oneail provided "played a big role" in catching the robbery suspect.

And Wade noted an ironic twist in how Thomas got caught: "Here he is trying to use that mask to disguise himself, and we were able to use the mask to track him down and apprehend him."

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