Based on either the amount stolen, the media coverage given, or the method itself, I’ve complied the list of the biggest and most talked about robberies in history. With everything from mayhem, mystery, and deceit, these are the true stories that shocked the world.
Everyone has their own reason to act. And when it comes to stealing, some of the most common motivations include the need for money, the need for more money, the desire of an object, or just plain old exhilaration. Sometimes it can be truly difficult why someone would go through all that effort for things that actually can’t be sold. They say it’s just for fun, but it’s anything but that for the authorities.
Thieves mostly fail, but some that succeed can continue to live on as legends. They are often charming, exceptionally smart, and even good-looking; sometimes coming very close to their movie and TV counterparts. And then some are just bat-crap crazy.
Securitas Depot (2006), £52 million
Called the biggest cash robbery in the U.K., the guys who pulled it off, left with about £52 million of nothing but cold, hard notes. The incident took place on February 21, 2006, at Kent in South East England.
First, they kidnapped the manager of the depot, Colin Dixon. Then they kidnapped his wife and kids. The gang of robbers proceeded to the depot, armed with shotguns, handguns, a submachine gun (Škorpion), and AK-47s, forced their way in and bound and gagged the employees inside. They carried the cages full of cash to their truck and ran off. One of the reasons they took £52 million was because the truck couldn’t carry any more; it was full.
The police managed to get back £19.7 million by March 2006. It was later concluded that the mastermind of the entire plot was Lee Murray, a reputed mixed martial artist, who was then sentenced to 10 years in prison. Five others have also been arrested, with a few more still on the loose.
Two major things got in the crooks’ way: one was their lack of planning of what to do after they robbed the place, and the other was the Proceeds of Crime Act. They simply left too many clues that the cops just ate up. And even if they kept everything clean, there were very few ways they could have laundered the money. The Proceeds of Crime Act prompts any bank to flag any cash transfer or deposit beyond a certain amount (usually £10,000). So they had to leave all that cash hidden somewhere. Even though half the criminals have been nabbed, the other half, as well as a large sum of money still bathes in mystery.
Knightsbridge Security Deposit (1987), £60 million
Perhaps a story of box-office movie caliber, the life of Valerio Viccei was nothing short of excessive adrenalin-racing. Viccei was the son of a lawyer and would stop at nothing to fill his life with excitement. He found most of it when he stole things. Indeed, born in 1955, he came to London for the high life, after being wanted in his home, Italy, for 50 instances of armed robberies. Viccei would reiterate that he was not in it for the money, he just liked the rush of doing it, claiming that it was even better than sex.
Viccei’s crowning moment was at the Knightsbridge Deposit in the City of Westminster. He and an accomplice walked right in, asking about renting out a safe deposit box for themselves. When they were shown to the vault, the two pulled out their guns on the unsuspecting employees, the manager, and the guards. They put a message out on the front door saying that the vault was closed, while letting in more accomplices who were waiting outside. Of the few plausible explanations as to how the first two walked in with guns, one speculation is that it was an inside job, from as far inside as the people who ran the place.
Antwerp Diamond Center (2003), US$100 million
We’ve seen the playboys and the determined. But every once in a while, we come across this rare act that, in its core is bad, but we can only be flat-out impressed about the way it was done. This is one of the biggest reasons why crime is so glorified in movies, because it’s sometimes true in real life as well.
They opened as many safe deposit boxes as they could, gathering valuables worth around £60 million. They successfully ran off with the haul, as it took about an hour for anyone (outside the deposit) to figure out what had happened.
Viccei could possibly have gone scott-free, if it wasn’t for a fingerprint in blood that he left when he got nicked while trying to open a box. By the time the police confirmed that the print belonged to Viccei, he had left for Latin America. But he did come back later, which the police found out and made sure they got him.
Dar Es Salaam Bank (2007), US$300 million
It is incredibly frustrating when you have people that rob you after you’ve placed all your trust in them. That’s exactly what happened, when three guards at the Dar Es Salaam bank ran away with US$300 million. Well it doesn’t get more of an inside job than this! Apparently the crooks had connections with the militia in Baghdad, because they could make a clean getaway without any patrol stopping or checking them. Apart from speculations, not much is known about this heist, mostly because of minimal media coverage.
Banco Central, Fortaleza (2005), US$71 million
The robbery of Banco Central in Fortaleza, Brazil, has to be one of the most deviously orchestrated heists in history. More than 20 criminals have been suspected, with only 8 of them arrested. One creepy speculation was that a lot of those people were not really crooks, just kidnapped people who were made to work for the real crooks. They got away with a total of R$164 million (US$71 million at 2005 exchange rate). Here’s how.
They rented out a vacant house two blocks away from the bank three months before the robbery. They started digging a hole from their house to the bank’s floor. Now I don’t know which Looney Toon they got this idea from, but in real life, all that dirt and gravel has to go somewhere right? They even had that covered, by posing as a gardening company! They would literally put the dirt into vans and throw it all far away, while the neighbors would think that was all a part of the gardeners’ ‘job’. Meanwhile, the team of crooks included skilled excavators, mathematicians, and drivers to get the real job done. They planned to strike on August 6, the day they knew the bank would be closed. On that day, they broke in through the floor, and took whatever they could before anyone could find out and raise an alarm. They were so meticulous that when the cops first inspected their house, it was covered in burnt lime to destroy any evidence like fingerprints and DNA.
Cops have recovered only about R$8.9 million. Which means a lot of the crooks are out there, enjoying any weather they want, with all that cash to make it more pleasant.
Northern Bank (2004), £26.5 million
This was a bank heist with supposed links to Irish political parties, namely the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). Although they vehemently denied any connections, the media and Government officials still blamed them, claiming that a robbery of such high scale could only be carried out by them. No concrete proof against any individual, let alone the IRA itself, has been found to date. But the detailing in the plan can be denied by no one.
Bank employee Chris Ward gets some uninvited ‘guests’ over, who force their way in and tie up him and his family. One guy takes him away, while the others stay with the rest of the family till the robbery is completed. Chris is taken to the home of his superior, Kevin McMullan, who was also bound by the other crooks. The two bank employees are then given specific instructions and made to go to work the next day as if everything was fine.
The first haul is what the cops called the trial run. The two bankers withdraw £1 million, put it in a bag and hand it over to one of the criminals. The police say that this was done just to ensure that nothing stinks for the robbers.
The big one came after closing time, for which the two captives were told to stay back at the bank. They quietly let the robbers in, who made off with more than £25 million.
Sinn Féin is the other political party accused for the heist. But to date, no one has been successfully caught for the heist. A lot of people were arrested, but had to be let go for lack of evidence.
The Great Train Robbery (1963), £2.6 million
This is the biggest train robbery in history, which happened on Bridego bridge in Ledburn, England. £2.6 million was stolen from the traveling Post Office train that night, which is more than £40 million by today’s standards. Most of the money has not been recovered because they were unmarked bills.
The train’s driver Jack Mills was prompted to stop at 3 AM by an odd red light. When he stopped, he found out that the phone cables have been cut. But by that time, the masked robbers were already making their way into the engine. One of them hit Mills on the head with a cosh, knocking him unconscious. The robbers then uncoupled the engine and the first two carriages from the rest of the train. The first two carriages had only a supervisor and a couple of unarmed employees, while the security was left in the carriages that they had uncoupled.
The train was stopped at the Sears Crossing, which the robbers realized was too steep to operate the theft on. They traveled to Bridego Bridge, under which they kept a van. They quickly formed a human chain from the train to the van, and transferred all the sacks and boxes there.
The idea of the robbery was put forth to the group by an unknown individual who went by the name (or possibly alias) Ulsterman. The group was led by Bruce Reynolds, who fled to Mexico with his wife and son. He tried returning to England, at which point he was caught and jailed.
Brink’s-MAT Warehouse (1983), £26 million
One of the biggest gold bullion robberies in history happened at Brink’s-MAT warehouse, London. The robbers intended to steal £3 million cash, but changed their mind when they saw the three tons of gold bullion. Their final haul was worth £26 million.
The robbers could get in with the help of a security guard, who was the brother-in-law of one of the thieves. When they entered, they subdued the employees and the other guards by pouring petrol over them and threatening to set them on fire if they did not comply. Upon gaining entry to the vaults, they were surprised to find all the gold, and decided to steal it along with the money.
The repercussions of the robbery were quite serious. Most of the gold has not been recovered, and it is speculated that almost all of it was melted off and put into consumer circulation. The guard Black, his brother-in-law Brian Robinson, and a Micky McAvoy, were all caught and jailed. The police believe that about 15 people were involved in this robbery. The next few years after this, about 6 murders have been connected to the Brink’s-MAT heist somehow. A movie (Fool’s Gold, 1992) and a documentary were made about the robbery.
It has been said that anyone who wore gold after 1983, was probably wearing Brink’s-MAT gold.
The gem district in Antwerp, Belgium, is the place through which 80% of the world’s rough-cut diamonds go through. More than 2-3 billion dollars of trade happens here every year. So it goes without saying that the place is heavily guarded. State-of-the-art security, the best guards from the best private sector security firms in the world, the works. The main vault of the Diamond Center is located two floors below the ground. It is protected by devices and systems that make the CIA headquarters security fantasy shown in Mission Impossible look like cute little plastic toys. The room is covered by Doppler sensors, magnetic fields, seismic sensors, IR heat detectors, and probably even more stuff that they haven’t told us. And even if you want to get across all of this, you’re still to start out with a lock system with 100 million possible combinations. All of this, of course, surrounded by an elite security patrol.
But the crooks did it. Led by Leonardo Notarbartolo, a five-man group infiltrated the vault and got hold of gold, diamonds, and jewelry worth more than US$100 million. They did it with such precision that no one could even figure out exactly how they broke in, until Notarbartolo was interviewed personally in jail.
E.G. Bührle Art Museum (2008), US$162 million
Three robbers forced entry into the E.G. Bührle Art Museum on February 10, 2008 and ran off with four of the most valuable paintings in the world. The paintings by Van Gogh, Cézanne, Degas, and Monet, have been valued at a total of US$162 million.
One of the biggest quandaries of art theft is that regular connoisseurs don’t buy stolen art. The underground art dealing world has been valued at billions of dollars annually, but the deals have to be carried out with the tightest of lips and the most firm of handshakes. Anything lesser is instantly rejected. Which is one of the reasons why all the four paintings have been recovered by 2012 with little to no damage.
Gardner Museum (1990), US$500 million
The theft that happened on March 18, 1990 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is easily the biggest art theft, as well as the biggest theft of property in all of criminal history. The thieves stole a staggering US$500 million worth of art, which has never been found. The robbers dressed up as police and gained entry to the museum on St. Patrick’s Day, claiming to have gotten reports of disturbance in the area. They tricked the guards to step away from their desks and the alarm button, handcuffed, gagged and tied them, then left them in the museum’s basement. The theft marks the loss of some of the most iconic artworks ever made, including those of names like Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet, and Degas.
The Scream (1994 and 2004)
The figure in the painting looks scared for good reason: it is so popular that thieves can’t keep their grubby hands off it.
The first time the painting was stolen was in 1994, during the Winter Olympics. The painting was in quite a vulnerable place (for better public viewing) and was thus stolen. The thieves demanded a ransom of US$1 million, which the museum refused, while aiding a police sting operation to successfully recover the painting.
The second time was in August 2004 when masked gunmen stole The Scream along with Munch’s other painting, Madonna. The paintings were feared burned off, until they were recovered in 2006, with repairable damage.
The Mona Lisa (1911)
The most famous art theft has to be of the most famous painting in the world: the Mona Lisa. In a way, it was the painting that made the criminal famous, and it was the theft itself that made the painting even more popular.
The theft was first noted by Louis Béroud, a painter. He notified the security who later concluded that the painting was indeed stolen. Fingers were pointed, and one of those was straight at French poet Guillaume Apollinaire and his Spanish painter friend, Pablo Picasso. Both were held for questioning but were later exonerated.
The Mona Lisa was not to be seen for another two years, when the real thief tried to sell the painting to the Uffizi Gallery out of desperation. The thief was Vincenzo Peruggia, an employee at the Louvre. He later claimed a patriotic cause, stating that the painting belonged to Italy, and was hailed for his act. The painting bore no damage in its two years of disappearance, during which time the Mona Lisa stayed with Peruggia at his apartment.
Nazi Looting During WW II (1933 to the end of WW II)
Hitler’s appetite for destruction knew no bounds. One of his biggest qualms against art came when he was rejected by the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts as a kid. After he rose to power, he focused on ‘collecting’ as many paintings and other artworks as he could. He hailed the works of painters of Germanic descent and the classics of the Old Masters, while derogated and even ordered to remove or destroy a lot of Modern art, or even art that he didn’t like.
He ordered the formation of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), which was controlled by Hermann Göring. Their primary aim was to destroy any and all Jewish art and books. Then, for Hitler’s self-proclaimed artistic taste, the ERR was to “collect” basically anything culturally important that was present in the occupied countries.
The ERR has recorded to claim more than 21,000 artwork, most of which was kept in Museum Jeu de Paume in Paris. Hitler, Goebbels, and Göring frequently visited the museums.
Robbing from Royalty
Richard of Pudlicott (1303)
People who have nothing to lose (and maybe a little on the kooky side) often come up with the most ingenious things. Sometimes they involve robbing their own king’s most valuable treasures.
Richard of Pudlicott was a commoner and a wool merchant by profession. He went broke and ended up owing a lot of money to people (mostly the crown itself) who wanted it back. He therefore decided to rob the treasury of King Edward I (Edward Longshanks), who was up against the Scottish resistance led by William Wallace (as shown in the movie Braveheart). Richard took help from the clergy to deal with the guards, then gained entry to the treasury room and made off with about 100,000 pounds. By the standard of that time, that money was almost equal to an entire year’s worth of tax collection for the entire Kingdom of England! This is how he did it:
Turns out Richard had already stolen from the crown once; a small loot that didn’t last long. It didn’t cover his debt completely, and surely not his desire to live lavishly. He therefore dared to steal from the inner crypt of the treasury. But to get there, he would have to either gain entry through its entrance (and have to face the entire Royal Guard), or somehow go through the wall that protected the loot. Which is exactly what he did. He simply started drilling a hole in the thirteen-foot wall! This of course he did alone, which required months of hard work through the nights of winter and into early spring. But there was still the problem of people seeing the large gash in the castle wall. He solved this problem by sowing hemp seed near the wall. The hemp grew quite fast, helping to not only cover the wall, but also lay thick on the ground for him to hide the loot in, while he went back in for more. To carry this loot out, he either took the help of the clergy which he bribed, or possibly friends of his. He claimed that he was the only one involved in the crime and took the full ‘credit’ for the act himself.
When the King heard of this, he ordered the crown officials to search for the valuables. They soon started to find those treasures with prostitutes and even in the fishing-nets on the river Thames! Most of the treasure was recovered, and after about half a dozen people were wrongly hanged and many more arrested and tortured and questioned, they finally caught Richard, who was quite boastful about it. He was later hanged for his crime.
Colonel Thomas Blood (1671)
Thomas Blood, or Colonel Blood as he liked to call himself, was a devious man. He turned against his own king to win favor from King Charles II during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. By the time he committed this particular crime, he was already wanted for quite a few others, as well as acts of rebellious discontent.
Blood and a female accomplice posing to be his wife entered the Tower of London under the pretext of viewing the Crown Jewels. There, they gained the friendship of Talbot Edwards, the Master of the Jewel House. Edwards was new to the job, and was possibly taken by Blood’s deceitful charm. Blood then frequented the Tower to meet his ‘new friend’ Edwards, who started inviting him to his house for dinner. Blood made the offer of having his cousin marry one of Edwards’ daughters, promising her quite a decent income by virtue of marriage and thereby gaining complete trust of the Edwardses.
Blood had Edwards arrange a grand dinner party for him and his ‘cousin’ (another accomplice) along with some other ‘family members’ (more thieves). Between dinner preparations, Blood convinced Edwards to show his guests the Crown Jewels. When they entered the Jewel Room, the thieves covered Edwards with a cloak, struck him down, bound and gagged him, then stabbed him to keep him quiet. They forced open the metal grille that protected the Jewels. Blood had to flatten the Crown to hide it under his clothes, and cut down the Sceptre and Orb to make them fit into the small bag.
The plan was foiled by Edwards’ son, who just got home after finishing his military service. The son gained entry to the house, while Talbot Edwards managed to free himself and scream for help with all his strength.
The thieves made a run for it, but were caught after a horse chase. Blood was arrested, but he refused to speak to anyone except the King.
Blood was a devious man. He was calm, collected, charming, and devious. After his ‘talk’ with the King, he was not only pardoned, but was given a land in Ireland and £500 a year. The reasons as to why the King did this are not really clear, and is a mystery. He lived the rest of his life as a legend and died in 1680. His body was exhumed just to confirm that he had died, and not pulled a trick to escape his recently acquired debts to the Duke of Buckingham.
King Tut Tomb Robberies
Before Howard Carter discovered the Tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, the tomb had already been broken into twice. The outer door and its seal was open, and Howard found the insides in complete disarray. He had concluded that more than 60% of the valuables had already been removed from the tomb. Despite that, it took Howard and his team eight years to document and carefully remove the remaining contents of the tomb, then transporting it to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Theft of the Irish Crown Jewels (1907)
The Regalia of the Order of Saint Patrick was one of Ireland’s most prized possessions. So when they went missing, all of Ireland was in an uproar.
Arthur Vicars, the Officer of Arms at the Dublin Castle, was the first suspect in the case embroiled in mystery and confusion. The Viceregal Commission which was looking into the matter, blamed Vicars for the theft. Vicars on the other hand, denied all claims of the theft and openly blamed Francis Shackleton, his second in command. Vicars even refused to show up for the trial by the Commission, making matters worse. He claimed to be made the scapegoat by high-ranking officials. Vicars was still blamed for failing to act promptly when he received the message that the regalia was missing from its safe.
The authorities received a note in 1931, demanding ransom for the return of the regalia. The investigation went cold later, although efforts were still made even into the 1980s.
Circus Circus (1993), US$3 million
You can’t have Vegas without the dapper crooks and the gold-digging beauties. One such crook was Roberto Solis, the mastermind behind the movie-like Circus Circus theft of ATM cash in 1993.
Solis had just gotten out of prison for a robbery attempt, in which he shot and killed a security guard. He apparently seduced the young Heather Tallchief, who did all the work. She was working as a driver for the Loomis Armored Car Company. She and her crew were supposed to refill the ATMs around the casino in preparation of a busy weekend. The truck was filled with more than US$3 million in cash. Her co-workers took some out to fill an ATM and told her to get the van out in the back of the casino. She agreed, but didn’t comply. She simply drove off with all the money straight to Solis.
The FBI could only track them down to Denver, which happened to be just a pit stop. Twelve years after the incident (September 2005), Heather appears out of nowhere and turns herself in. She had long left Solis’ company after becoming pregnant with his child, and wanted to support his life.
Stardust (1992), US$500,000
One of the quietest robberies in any casino’s history, suspected crook William John Brennan simply walked off with $500,000 worth of cash and chips from the Stardust Hotel and Casino. William was a sports book cashier at the hotel. The money has never been recovered, and William is still reported missing.
Bellagio ‘Bike Bandit’ (2010), US$1.5 million
Anthony Carleo walks in to the Bellagio one day and demands the operators of the craps pit to come up with all the chips they have. He wore a full black attire with a black helmet. Carleo left with US$1.5 million worth of chips.
Collar-bomb Robbery (2003), US$8,700
One of the weirdest true incidents of robbery comes from a pizza delivery guy called Brian Wells. It’s one of those plots that just keeps getting thicker and thicker the deeper you get. The basic story is something like this:
On August 28, 2003, Brian Wells was sent to deliver pizza. When he got to the place, three men attacked him, subdued him, and put a metal collar around his neck. The collar had a metal box attached to it, which the assailants claimed was a bomb. They gave him a rather ingenious contraption of a sawed-off shotgun that looks like a relatively harmless walking stick. They gave him specific instructions about robbing a bank in Erie, Pennsylvania.
He was made to demand US$250,000, but the cashier gave him far less. The bank had already called for the cops, who got there by the time Wells was out of the bank. They captured and handcuffed him. Wells kept telling the bank employees as well as the police about the bomb around his neck. The police called for the bomb squad 30 minutes after the first 9-1-1 call was made. By the time they got there, it was too late. The bomb had exploded, leaving a giant gash in Wells’ chest. He died right there.
As the cops probed further, they found reason to believe that Wells was in on the robbery as well. According to their statement, the thieves had planned to put a fake bomb on his neck, just to provide enough room for him to escape. But one accomplice switched the fake with a real bomb, supposedly as a means to kill Wells so he wouldn’t blow the whistle on them.
Two accomplices were arrested and sentenced to prison. They supported claims of Wells’ involvement.
One-dollar Robbery (2011)
This is what happens when a man tries to manipulate the system for gains when he is unable to provide for it himself.
James Verone had lost his job as a Coca-Cola delivery man after 17 years of working for them. He tried doing other jobs, but couldn’t keep them. At the same time, his physical condition was getting worse. With a host of medical issues like Carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis, and a growth on his chest, Verone was an ailing 59-year-old with zero cash to treat himself. So Verone did the thing that – according to his self-proclaimed ‘logical mind’ – he should have done – rob a bank.
So old James gets into a bank with nothing but a note that says, “This is a bank robbery. Please only give me one dollar.” He then took the dollar and told the cashier that he will sit in a chair next to him and wait for the cops to arrive.
Verone thought this was a good idea, and on paper it may have seemed good to him – rob a bank for a small amount of money so the prison term won’t be too long, then go to jail and get medical attention paid for by the Government. It would even have worked if it wasn’t for one minor glitch; Verone didn’t have a gun.
For taking one dollar without a gun, the judge charged Verone with larceny of a person, not robbery. He won’t get to spend much time in prison, so he probably won’t get the full medical attention that he wanted.
The Reichsbank Robbery
Very little details about this robbery are known, although speculations arrive at a robbery of £2.9 billion. And that was the number in 1984. But it should be noted that because of little or no media coverage or even official documentation, the numbers are all basically gross estimates.
The German Reichsbank held most of the Nazi gold and treasures during World War II. When Germany collapsed, the bank became a sitting duck for anyone who knew about it. It’s not certain exactly who robbed it, or how many robbed it, or where the gold went. An argument is that most of the gold was stolen by Germany from other countries anyway, so they really can’t claim anything. Nevertheless, this was one of the weirdest robberies in history, with some who still believe that there are mountains of sacks filled with gold hidden somewhere in Germany, that belonged to the Reichsbank.
London City Bonds Robbery (1990), £292 million
The money broker firm Sheppards got their knots twisted really hard in 1990, when a common mugger managed to loot £292 million from them. That’s more than £500 million by today’s standards.
The Biggest Bank Robbery Ever
Central Bank of Iraq (2003), US$1 billion
You know, with all the other robberies that you’ve read about above, you’ll quickly figure out how exasperatingly simple this one was. No guns, no gangs, no killing, no planning, no nothing. All it was, was a president and his son, and a piece of paper.
Saddam Hussein was the President of Iraq at the time, and had complete control over the state activities and assets. This included the Central Bank of Iraq. When he realized that the Coalition forces were about to bomb Iraq, he ordered his son, Qusay, to go to the bank. Qusay gave them a hand-written note from Saddam, that asked for the withdrawal of $920 million. He oversaw the entire transfer, which was boxes of US$100 notes put into vans.
We’ve always admired human determination and ingenuity, even when it was used for all the wrong things. With everything ranging from movies to media coverage or rumors to political cover-ups, our view of crime becomes a bit skewed. So love it or hate it, human greed, ambition, and adventurism will always attempt to reach new heights.