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Greatest Heists in History Part 1

Posted on by Metro Lock & Safe Inc.
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Welcome to the first part of two in Metro Lock and Safe’s collection of the biggest heists in history. These larger than life cash, jewelry and art heists have such big payloads they deserved two posts of their own, taking place across the world.

From Nice, France to New York, New York to Brussels, Belgium, it’s no wonder how far some intrepid criminals go for ill gotten gains. Some of these plots are so fantastic in scope their scripts would be roundly rejected by any Hollywood studio worth its salt. Nonetheless, read on to learn more from Metro Lock and Safe’s list of the largest cash robberies and art museum getaways.

Société Générale Heist

Occurring in Nice, France, the Société Générale Heist of 1976 was the original “Heist of the Century.” It gave way to many similar strategies employed on high value targets.

Heading the operation was Albert Spaggiari, a thief and professional Frenchman with an impeccably Seventies sense for disguise. This heist featured a crew of 20 men composed of mobsters and political dissidents split into two teams all taking shifts to enter the French bank’s central vault.

Considered impregnable, the coffer had a complex locking mechanisms, multilayered walls of steel, no windows and 18 inches of steel-reinforced concrete. The thought that someone would even attempt to rob this secure room was ridiculous to entertain. However, the vault was built close to a sewer system and the teams leveraged the location by carving out a tunnel little by little each day. At the end of each day, the crew would cover up the entrance so no unsuspecting sewer worker might discover their plan.

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Contrary to popular belief, most modern heists are not held at gunpoint—they are done in the dark.

But what about those reinforced concrete floors? No problem, they still managed to drill through them. What’s even more impressive was their careful, circumspect movement of a heavily armored armoire in order to not tip off any guards. Even more spectacularly, they welded the vault door shut from the inside of the vault. Everything about this heist is a reverse Alcatraz gassed past the red line of believable storytelling.

This work might seem like a lot too, but the stolen money from the vault counted for more then chump change. Estimates range from $30 to $111 million USD depending on the publication. All of it stolen without a shot fired, an employee menaced or a manager notified. The bank wouldn’t even realize the heist had happened until the next day, presumably when security guards realized the door wouldn’t budge after unlocking it.

Fittingly, named “The Heist of the Century” at the time, many heists would come later to nab this title as well. At the time however, this would go down as the largest cash robbery ever. Even the estimates at the conservative end of the spectrum are bananas–about $143 million in today’s valuation–but if the high end of the the estimates are true, then Spaggiari and his crew made off with over $500 million USD to show for all their detail oriented planning and labor.

Unfortunately for Spaggiari, while his plan for nabbing the money was flawless, his plan for getting away with it all was not. Within a few months he was rounded up. Master of opportunity that he was, Spaggiari would escape from an open window in the police magistrate’s building. He would not be found until his death in 1989 from lung cancer at age 57.

Spaggiari’s methods however would live on to inspire other intrepid thieves, with the tunnel robbery method becoming a bit of a motif in the high-grade robbery industry.

Antwerp Diamond Heist

Antwerp, Belgium is often called the diamond center of the world with good reason. Eighty-percent of all diamonds are traded in the area called “The Diamond District” via suitcases handcuffed to traders and surrounded by the types of security guards you think you’d only see in movies.

Then again there’s a lot of stuff in this list that all reads like it should be happening in a movie. If nothing else we should all take away that truth is often stranger than fiction when it comes to the heisting profession. So naturally the most audacious diamond heist in the industry would be carried out in plain sight of all this security.

All in all, $100 million worth in diamonds would be stolen.

Led by Leonardo Notarbartolo, this capital name set up the job while posing as as an Italian diamond merchant–which is a funny synonym for thief. He is now known as a founder of the School of Turin, a trained, multidisciplinary A-team who used their skills to crack more and more lucrative targets.

By the time of this job, he had moved on from the School of Turin and committed to the deed just because he could. Living in a sparsely furnished apartment next to the diamond center, Notarbartolo would make frequent visits to his own safety deposit box inside the facility. The vault featured seismic sensors, motion sensors, infrared sensors, Doppler radars, two very specific combination locks (one with over 100 million combinations), an electromagnetic lock and an intricate foot long key lock.

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The Diamond Center’s security systems were said to be impenetrable. Which means someone was bound to try.

Security cameras were placed in the interior and exterior of the vault. Some even pointed at the sky because of what we can only assume to be a Belgian national fear of Tom Cruise airdropping into the vault for his next Mission Impossible film. These sensors were all monitored by a security force ready and armed with automatic weapons and a license to kill should the need arise.

It turns out this fear of Tom Cruise should have been a fear of familiarity. Security guards became so used to Notarbartolo’s face and mannerisms they didn’t even think twice as he set up his own systems. He posted security cameras to record combinations, used aerosol cans to muck up the guard’s own detectors and memorized the steps needed to avoid others. His team even bugged a fire extinguisher to assist in monitoring the target.

The heist’s mysterious sponsor had even reconstructed the district’s diamond vault from recordings provided by a camera pen used by Notarbartolo. Said sponsor brought in team of names including The Genius (for cracking codes), The King of Keys (for duplicating that foot long key) and the Monster (for a massive stature). Notarbartolo would monitor police scanners and keep the rented getaway vehicle ready. His friend Speedy was also in on the job despite objections.

Despite everyone else playing their part to perfection, Speedy would break down and leave evidence all over the place in an unmarked location. Israeli and Belgian bills and countless small diamonds were thrown into the mud. Notarbartolo would have to spend two hours cleaning up the evidence and instead of burning it, they just try to cover it with leaves and other natural disguises. This facade wouldn’t last long, as the farmer who owned the land would call the police, mention envelopes from the diamond center and provide them with their first lead.

From there it was all downhill. While the rest of the team went their separate ways, Notarbartolo would serve a 10 year sentence. While the diamond robbery was also called the heist of the century but we would like to note that it occurred in a different century than the Société Générale Heist of 1976. So technically, both are true.

The Lufthansa Heist

The largest robbery ever committed by the mafia in American history, the Lufthansa Heist made off with $5 million USD and nearly a million USD in jewelry. Today it would total at some $24.5 million. All of it was stolen from an air cargo bay in JFK airport in New York. The cargo hold was owned by the German airline Lufthansa, hence the name.

Over forty years later almost none of the stolen valuables in this 1978 heist have been found and only one person was convicted: Louis Werner. The cargo agent for the keep would tip off his book keeper who then informed Henry Hill. Hill then passed the information along to Jimmy “The Gent” Burke, who planned the hit at his bar. Burke was an associate of the Lucchese crime family and all around ruthless mafioso who would go on to order the deaths of his crew

If these names all sound familiar, it’s because the events surrounding the heist were dramatized in Martin Scorsese’s cinematic magnum opus, Goodfellas. The film starred Joe Pesci as Tommy “Two Guns,” Ray Liotta as Henry Hill and Robert De Niro as James Conway, an analogue character for Burke. The film was based off of mafia associate Henry Hill’s testimony in the Nicholas Pileggi penned publication, Wiseguy.

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The Lufthansa Heist was nearly undone by a careless driver. Then Burke decided to tie up loose ends.

Both the book and film ascribed the decision to whack most of the crew because of two reasons: their sloppiness in disposing of evidence and their inability to refrain from splashy purchases so soon after the crime. Both Burke’s decision and the aftermath would go down as some of the best scored scenes in cinematic history.

Despite the ruthless cleanup, the heist actually went down without a shot fired. With an inside man unlocking the gate, the larcenists simply drove in, tied up the employees, loaded up the van and drove right out. The only complications were two employees who went unaccounted for but were quickly tied up, albeit quite roughly. Before leaving, the bandits told them not to call the authorities until later that morning.

Though Burke still ended up in jail and passed away in 1996, the Lufthansa Heist remains his greatest haul and it is yet to be fully recovered.

Metro Lock and Safe Knows How To Safeguard Your Space

If you’re worried that people are only here to steal your stuff via extraordinary means, don’t feel like you need to refurbish your floors with titanium tiling. Most of these amazing heists occur because of the amazing security defenses around them. This encourages equally ambitious bandits to break in. The common cat burglar will only go for easy pickings, however. In order to keep your possessions safe, the best way is to increase the deterrents and keep mum about it all.

Thieves can’t steal what they don’t know exists and the better the safe, the less valuable the payout. With Metro Lock and Safe, our expert technicians can help you find that right safe in order to safeguard your space. Come to one of our locations in the Phoenix area and talk with our expert associates about all your home security needs from key duplication to home security installation. Contact us today!

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