Diamond heists and bank robberies are common plots for some of the most popular movies. They are seemingly tailor-made for the silver screen. The story line of any sophisticated caper allows for plenty of subplots, double-crosses and high-intensity escape scenes.
Moviegoers’ fascinations with these stories, though, are a little harder to explain. Perhaps it's the complexity of the plan, or the fantasy of trying to pull of an adrenaline inducing burglary on our own that makes them so enticing. Maybe it is the idea that we, too, could stick it to a big bank and make off with millions.
For some, the big heist has been no fantasy. The is no shortage of historic bank robberies or high-profile thefts. With millions of dollars at stake there should be no doubt as to why.
For professional criminals a big score is typically just a business proposition. There is a planning phase, there is typically an investment in resources and, as in all business deals, there is a risk. That risk, of course, involves not only a loss of the resources invested but also a risk of spending the rest of one’s life in prison or maybe even getting killed.
The risks are high, but so are the rewards.
Rewards are also high for movie producers who cash in on a good story, though they don’t have to worry about going to prison or getting killed for their trouble.
The following is a list of five of the more elaborate heists in history. International intrigue, shadowy figures, double-crosses, code names, government conspiracies and high-tech gadgets are all the stuff of film, we think. Not so. The following capers include some, or all, of these great movie ingredients. Each story has been (or will eventually be) made into a movie.
5 The Pink Panthers
Amount Stolen: $448 million (And Counting)
The Pink Panthers is the name given by international law enforcement officials to a criminal organization that has been operating since 1999.
They are suspected of pulling off more than 300 robberies on multiple continents. The most famous being the 2007 robbery of a Dubai jewelry store in which bandits made off with $4 million worth of merchandise.
Authorities describe that incident as a “smash and grab” robbery but videotape of the crime shows that it was no convenience store stick up. The robbers backed a car, at high speed, through a shopping mall in order to demolish the front door of the jewelry store. They leapt from the car, quickly grabbed the jewels and then sped off into the night. The whole thing was obviously extensively planned. After seven years, authorities were finally able to announce that they made one arrest in the case.
The Panthers earned a mention here because they have operated for 15 years as a secretive, organized criminal group. That’s elaborate in its own right. But they also prove that, for criminal masterminds, these types of operations are simply a way of life and a way of business. A recent BBC documentary portrays them as any movie would portray such an organization; shadowy, with members not even knowing each other’s names or the true source of their orders.
The Dubai heist is impressive, but a cumulative haul of $448 million over 15 years is awe-inspiring.
4 The Great Train Robbery
Amount Stolen: $70 Million
There have been many train robberies throughout history. They are the stuff of Hollywood westerns, but the most famous and probably the most lucrative happened in England in 1963.
That year, a group of about 15 professional criminals robbed a British postal train carrying large sacks full of bank notes. After an extensive planning process, the robbers were able to fake a railway signal to get the train to stop, uncouple the needed cars, and move the train to an area where the money could be transferred to getaway vehicles.
From there they returned to the safe house where they had planned the whole thing and divvied up the money. The score was roughly $70 million in today’s dollars, larger than even the thieves expected.
It took British authorities over five years to arrest all those involved.
Last year the BBC made a miniseries about the heist and the police investigation.
3 Banco Central Heist
Amount Stolen: $90 million
There have been a few movies made about criminals digging a huge tunnel to break into a secured location and make off with some loot. One of those movies, Assalto ao Banco Central, was made in 2011. Few have seen it, but it is worth mentioning because it was based on an actual heist that captivated the minds of many once it was discovered.
In 2005 a man named Paulo Sergio set up a fake landscaping business in the Brazilian town of Fortaleza. It is difficult to say if the location was good for business. But what authorities soon discovered was that it was a great location from which to dig an 80-meter tunnel that ended directly beneath the vault of that city’s branch of Brazil’s Banco Central.
Police still have no idea how the criminals broke through the one-meter thick steel and concrete floor of the vault. But break through it they did, before making off with $90 million in cash.
To this day only a small portion of the money has been recovered, and only a handful of the suspected 20 criminals have been arrested. It is widely regarded as one the most lucrative bank robberies in history.
2 The Baker Street Robbery
Amount Stolen: $55 million
Banco Central wasn’t the first robbery in which thieves used a tunnel. In 1971 a group of criminals dug a 50-foot tunnel to break into the vault of Lloyd’s Bank in London.
They succeeded in stealing money and valuables from safe deposit boxes totaling $55 million in today’s dollars.
There are two things to note about this bizarre robbery aside from the elaborate tunnel.
The first is that radio communications between the robbers and their lookout man were intercepted by a local ham radio operator who notified police. Authorities then searched numerous banks in London that night, but were unable to pinpoint the source of the communications before the robbers got away.
The second is that in the days after news of the robbery broke, the British government issued a “D Notice” that prevented the press from reporting any further on the story. That prompted numerous conspiracy theories as to why authorities wanted to kill the news of the robbery.
The most popular — or at least the most sensational — theory is that the whole thing was orchestrated by Britain’s secretive MI5 in order to recover compromising sex photos of Princess Margaret.
1 The Antwerp Diamond Heist
Amount Stolen: $100 million
The Antwerp Diamond Heist of 2003 was once considered the largest diamond heist in history. In February of that year, $100 million worth of diamonds and jewelry disappeared from one of the most secure vaults in the world.
The vault, two stories below the Belgium’s Antwerp Diamond Center, was protected at the time with at least 10 layers of security, including including infrared heat detectors, Doppler radar, a magnetic field, a seismic sensor, and a lock with 100 million possible combinations.
It sounds like something out of the Ocean’s Trilogy. To this day, authorities don’t really know how it was compromised.
They believe the whole thing was planned by Leonardo Notarbartolo, a shady character with links to Italian crime families, who posed as a diamond trader and leased an office in the building for two years prior to the robbery. He is serving a 10-year prison sentence for his involvement in the crime.
Notarbartolo recently told the story of the heist’s plan. He claims that a group of thieves made up of individuals with names like the Genius, the King of Keys, and the Monster planned the heist. Notarbartolo, who had access to the vault as a tenant of the building, mapped the layout of the room using a pen camera he wore in a breast pocket during numerous visits. Videos from the camera were used to make a full scale mock-up of the vault in an abandoned warehouse so the thieves could rehearse. The same camera was used to secretly record guards entering the vault’s combination so the King of Keys could further disable other security measures.
Once the heist was completed, $100 million in jewels disappeared.
Notarbartolo claims an unnamed jewel trader was the true mastermind.
When the thieves returned to a their safe house, they discovered they had only stolen $20 million in loot, and not the reported $100 million. Working in the dark, the criminals didn’t realize they were boosting empty safe deposit boxes.
Notarbartolo claims he was a basically a patsy and the whole thing was an elaborate insurance scam. Traders on the inside, he says, had removed their jewels prior to the robbery so they could file huge insurance claims.
That’s disputed by authorities, but it would make a heck of a movie. There are reports that one is in the works.