Run-of-the-mill robberies happen every day, but some criminals want to do a little more. The "big job" is almost mythological for career crooks who want to get out of the business. The idea, obviously, is to set themselves up for life, but things never seem to work out as planned. Here are 10 of the most audacious heists ever, where crooks made off with seriously big prizes.
Antwerp Diamond Center, 2003
The Belgian city of Antwerp is one of the world’s leading diamond markets, and it’s not surprising that it would be an attractive target for crooks. The massive Diamond Center had serious security precautions, including a vault two stories below the floor with several alarms, magnetic field sensors and a lock with 100 million possible combinations. The robbery took three years to prepare, with ringleader Leonardo Notarbartolo renting an office in the building and posing as a diamond merchant for that whole time. He and his gang made off with more than $100 million worth of gold and gemstones, but were caught because of DNA evidence from a half-eaten sandwich at the crime scene.
Central Bank of Iraq, 2003
The largest bank robbery in recorded history took place at the Central Bank of Iraq. Wartime is often a great opportunity for lowlifes to loot, but few pulled it off quite as daringly as these guys. During the U.S. bombing of Baghdad, a staggering $1 billion went missing from the Central Bank, the institution that stored the nation’s treasury. The kicker here is that these were no ordinary criminals; they were working under direct orders from Saddam Hussein to liquidate the bank and hand $920 million over to his degenerate son, Uday. $650 million was later found stashed in the walls of Hussein’s palace, but that figure still leaves $350 million unaccounted for.
Beirut Bank of the Middle East, 1976
Did you ever wonder how Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) got money? They didn’t have fundraising telethons. They robbed banks. In 1976, one of the most audacious robberies of all time happened in Beirut. On January 20, 1976, 20 members of the elite Force 17 group blasted into the bank through an adjoining wall and took the bank hostage. Two days later, a team of safecrackers from Corsica arrived and started working on opening the main vault, which held thousands of gold bars and millions of dollars in Lebanese currency. The haul was so great that it had to be carted off in trucks, and the PLO came away with $400 million.
Kent Securitas Depot, 2006
One of the most amazing bank robberies to ever occur in the free world happened in Kent, England. The 2006 robbery of the Securitas depot was a perfectly planned operation from start to finish. It began with the depot manager being pulled over by what he thought was a police car, only to be handcuffed and taken to a farm where his family was already being held hostage. Another gang of robbers took the depot, tying up the employees. At the end of the day, the crooks got away with over $110 million in cash. Some of them have since been apprehended, but less than $40 million of the stolen cash has been recovered so far.
Gardner Museum, 1990
Stealing cash is all well and good, but truly bold crooks go for grander prizes, and they do it in style. When two police officers came to the front doors of Boston’s Gardner Museum of Art early one March morning, they told guards they were responding to reports of a disturbance. The guards let them in, only to be handcuffed by the fake cops and left in the basement as 13 paintings were stolen, including major works by Vermeer and three Rembrandts. The market value of the stolen art has been estimated as high as $500 million, and none of them have been seen since.
Agricultural Bank of China, 2007
The massive Agricultural Bank of China was robbed by its own manager, a man named Ren Xioafeng, who first swiped about $31,000 from the bank’s vault and spent it all on lottery tickets. Amazingly enough, he won on his gamble and was able to replace the money before anyone even noticed it was missing. Of course, criminals seldom know how to quit when they're ahead. Xioafeng tried repeating his scheme, this time enlisting a confederate to swipe $7 million. The pair tried the lottery gimmick again, but lost everything other than $15,000. They panicked, bought cars and tried to flee, only to be captured and given the death penalty.
Great Train Robbery, 1963
Robbing a bank is relatively simple. Banks at least tend to stay in one place. Try robbing a moving train. In 1963, a group of daring bandits did just that. The evening mail train heading into London from Glasgow on August 7, 1963 was special because it carried a “HVP” or High Value Packages car. This heavily-guarded coach was full of almost $5 million in cash due to a bank holiday delaying the shipment. The robbers rigged a signal light to stop the train, and when crew members got out to investigate, they were knocked unconscious by the crooks. The bad guys then moved the train a half-mile farther down the track to unload the cash. They had planned incredibly well, cutting every single phone line in the area to make calling the police harder, and most of the money was never recovered despite almost all of the crooks eventually being caught.
Leave it to the Mafia to pull off a heist this audacious. Still considered the biggest cash theft in American history, the robbery of a Lufthansa plane at JFK Airport in New York brought $6 million right into La Cosa Nostra's pockets. The genius of this heist was that the money was basically untraceable. Every month, a shipment of cash used by servicemen in West Germany was flown back into the states. These loose bills weren’t marked or organized in any way, so the crooks wouldn’t even need to launder it. An airport worker who owed gambling debts helped plan the job, and six men in ski masks stormed the loading dock and took guards hostage, forcing them to open the vault. Minutes later, the job was done. Most of the perpetrators and associates were killed and none of the money was ever recovered.
Carlton Hotel, 1994
Jewelry is a very tempting target for many robbers, as it’s easily portable and hard to trace. So who can blame the trio of machine-gun-toting criminals for bursting into the Carlton Hotel in Cannes in August of 1994? The men entered the store just as it was closing and had been emptied of customers, firing several shots into the ceiling to show they meant business. They swiftly filled their bags with more than $43 million worth of jewelry and fled into the night, never to be seen again. Even worse, cops later discovered that their big scary guns had been firing blanks the whole time.
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Banco Central, 2005
The key to a successful heist is preparation. Crime may seem like easy money, but when you amortize out the hours you might as well work at McDonald's. The criminals who broke into the Banco Central in Fortaleza, Brazil in 2005 spent over three months just digging the tunnel that gave them access to the vault. Inching their way through solid rock and finally penetrating the concrete floor of the bank, they made off with over $70 million. Hilariously enough, the mastermind of the crime was promptly kidnapped by a rival criminal gang and held for ransom. When the ransom was paid, he was killed anyway, because that’s how they do it in Brazil. Even though some busts have been made, $60 million has still not been recovered.