Hail to the Thieves: Famous Heists We Love


If you thought George Clooney's Ocean's Eleven character was smooth, check out the velvet finish on criminal mastermind Leonardo Notarbartolo. In February 2003, Notarbartolo and his gang, known as The School of Turin, pulled off one of the stealthiest heists in history. Daring to break into the famous World Diamond Center in Antwerp - where more than half of the world's diamonds are traded - the group made out with $100 million in jewels and other loot.

HOW THEY DID IT: Not ones to rush into something this big, the Turin boys began laying the groundwork for the project three years prior. Posing as a company owner, Notarbartolo rented an office in the Center in 2000 and proceeded to obtain copies of master keys and learn how the alarm system worked. Then, the group waited for the perfect distraction - the Diamond Games tennis tournament on February 15-16, 2003. As Venus Williams wowed throngs of spectators (many of them Diamond Center employees and security guards), Nortarbartolo's crew used their duplicate keys to sneak into 123 of the building's underground vaults. Simply riding the elevator down to the basement, they deactivated a motion sensor and taped over light detectors. Then, instead of just covering the lenses of the CCTV (closed circuit television) security cameras, they avoided suspicion by replacing the tapes with previously recorded footage.

Of course, the biggest hurdle was getting past the vault's 12-inch thick doors. Knowing the doors were equipped with internal magnets that would set off alarms if they detached, the robbers drilled through the bolts, carefully taped the magnets together, and moved them out of the way so that they wouldn't separate. After that, all they had to do was break the locks to the safety deposit boxes, rake in the diamonds, and then quietly flee the scene. To escape undetected, they memorized the surveillance patterns of the 24-hour police patrols outside the building. (Hey, they didn't have nicknames like “The King of Thieves” and “The Magician with the Keys” for nothing.) Amazingly, even though the heist took place early Sunday morning, authorities didn't discover anything suspicious until Monday.

HOW THEY GOT CAUGHT: Here's a tip for would-be thieves: If you leave the crime scene with a bag full of diamonds and then dispose of the bags on the road leading out of the city, make sure you don't leave your half-eaten sandwich in one of them. Inspectors used DNA evidence found on the food to nab Notarbartolo, and further DNA traces in the vault to arrest two other gang members. In 2005, he was convicted, sentenced to 10 years in prison, and fined $1.3 million. Meanwhile, none of the diamonds have been recovered. Some have microscopic inscriptions on them that would reveal their identity, but only if the thieves ever decide to sell them legally.

(Photo and a very interesting in-depth story by Joshua Davis at Wired Magazine)


February must be a good month for crime. In February 2006, three years after the Antwerp diamond heist, a Securitas money depot in England was robbed by a band of thieves who coordinated simultaneous kidnappings. They made off with a jaw-dropping $92.5 Million (US) in cash - most of it unmarked. Today, it's considered the largest cash robbery in British history. (Photo: PA, via Telegraph)

HOW THEY DID IT: Picture this: You're driving along a road in Stockbury, England, when the whirring sirens of an unmarked police car startle you from your evening commute. You roll down your window and chipper police officer tells you he needs to speak with you - in his vehicle. Oops, you've just been kidnapped. That's how Colin Dixon was unwittingly reeled into one of the biggest heists of the century. The crooks handcuffed Dixon - a manager at the Securitas cash collection and money transport company - and told him his family would be killed if he didn't comply. Meanwhile, fellow gang members abducted Dixon's wife and son, posing once again as police offices with a fake story about “an accident involving your husband”. The manager led the thieves to the Securitas depot in Tonbridge, where the criminals- wielding guns and cloaked in knit caps - accosted another 14 employees and made off with a giant trick full of loot. While the event was certainly traumatic for all the victims, fortunately, no one was injured.

HOW THEY GOT CAUGHT: Good old-fashioned police work. Apparently, it takes a lot of accomplices to stage multiple kidnappings. In total, investigators have arrested about 30 people in connection with the crime, including drivers, face police, a car dealer, a salesman, a roofer, and a hairdresser named Kim Shackleton. Guess where she's headed?


Sometimes there's a light at the end of the tunnel, other times, there's $72 million (US). Such was the case in August 2005, when a group of criminals in Fortaleza, Brazil, used their 260-ft. long secret passageway to make off with some serious loot. The trick: Spending three months excavating the thing and tediously sneaking vanloads of dirt past the thousands of workers in the busy urban area above. (Photo: AP, via SMH)

HOW THE DID IT: For the 23 or so suspected gang members involved in this operation, the first step was posing as a company that was renting an office building- which just happened to be located near a bank. Cleverly enough, the crooks set up an artificial business as an artificial turf com - called Grama Sintetica, complete with artificial employees and fancy logo. For weeks, a group of men worked around the clock digging a tunnel leading two city blocks over to the Central Bank building Somehow, the process was so shrewdly executed that Grama Sintetica's neighbors failed to notice that a van was transporting several loads of dirt away from the building each day. And if their stealthy moves don‘t seem impressive enough, consider the tunnel itself: In it, the gang installed electric lighting, air conditioning, and wood-paneled walls (to make sure the tunnel didn't collapse).

To pull off the heist, the gang managed to break through the bank's three-and-a-half-foot-wide vault floor, using (as police later discovered) a bolt cutter, a drill, an electric saw, and a blow torch. Over the course of the weekend, they eventually removed five containers full of bank notes, weighing nearly 7,700 lbs. Unbelievably, nobody discovered the theft until that Monday. All told, the heist required experts in electrical engineering, global positioning systems, excavation, and, of course, theft. The most brilliant idea, though? Picking a crowded, noisy area in Brazil for the heist, reasoning that no one would notice the sound of tools and digging in the daily commotion.

HOW THEY GOT CAUGHT: The thieves did a good job of covering their tracks (they used a white powder at the crime scene to hide fingerprints), but apparently, tunneling underneath nations is a little trickier. Attempts to transport the money out of the country using truck transports and chartered planes failed, and the assumed mastermind behind the theft, Luis Ribeiro, eventually turned up murdered. So far, the police have arrested a few dozen suspected members of the gang.


In 1978, Lufthansa Airlines employee Louis Werner knew two important things: First, that a Lufthansa airplane occasionally transported unmarked bills from West Germany to New York's Kennedy Airport, where they were temporarily held in nothing more than cardboard boxes locked inside a vault. Second, that he owed about $20,000 in gambling debts to his bookie.

HOW THEY DID IT: The wrong way - with brute force. Even though it became source material for the 1990 film “GoodFellas” (plus several books and even a few copycat crimes), the Lufthansa Airport Heist was a brutal affair. Using a few helpful tips from Werner, infamous crime lord Jimmy Burke put together an operation that involved several phases - breaking into the airport's cargo terminal, handcuffing employees, and subduing guards. Once inside the vault, they found 72 boxes of cash and jewelry totaling about $6 million (instead of the $2 million they'd expected). As for the getaway, the gang used bloody force to make sure no employees reported the crime until long after they'd left the airport. The entire robbery took only 64 minutes, but it became one of the most complex and lucrative heists in U.S. history.

HOW THEY GOT CAUGHT: Unlike the other heists, in which some gang members fled the country to hide, the Lufthansa Airlines gangsters stuck around. Not only that, but they made the mistake of displaying their newfound wealth a bit too obviously. The police had a pretty good idea who was behind the crime, and it wasn't long before snitches implicated Werner and a few others. Many of the participants were murdered before they could squeal, while still others became informants and joined the Witness Protection Program. Werner, who organized but didn't participate in the actual theft, was the only one convicted for a role in the heist.

The article above, written by John Brandon, appeared in the Jan - Feb 2007 issue of mental_floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

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Very interesting stories. Small correction from the THE SECURITAS DEPOT story - In total, investigators have arrested about 30 people in connection with the crime, including drivers, *face* police, a car dealer, a salesman, a roofer, and a hairdresser named Kim Shackleton. Probibly should be *fake*.
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If you are interested in the 2003 Antwerp diamond heist, a book on the subject is coming out in February called "Flawless: Inside the World's Largest Diamond Heist."
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Wow, I can't believe after all that work and years of planning on the first story, they are dumb enough not to dispose of the evidence properly!

As for the rest, it seems like brute force, large numbers of people involved, and having the ego to spend what you stole on extravagant stuff are always a surefire way to screw things up. I prefer smart heisters. :P
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lol Lloyd. I love the intricate details these theives go through just to screw it up. Of I beleive these are the only crimes that get repoted. You never hear the details of the one who got away.
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