Greatest Heists in History
A good heist movie has a team of experts assembled by a mastermind, who has been working for months to break into a ridiculously secure vault. They'll have to bypass motion sensors, heat sensors, cameras and go on a mission with impossible odds to steal hundreds of millions of dollars.
In reality, heists are sometimes exactly like that. In fact, some of the biggest heists in history are so outlandish and mind-bogglingly complicated, you would probably call them unrealistic if you saw them on the big screen.
These are the world's greatest heists, ranked by how incredible they were.
15. The Seymour Train Robbery
Location: Seymour, Indiana
Date: Oct. 6, 1866
Amount stolen: $18,000 (approximately $300,000 today)
Bottom Line: The Seymour Train Robbery
The Reno Gang was a group of outlaws that operated in the Midwestern United States for just four years, from 1865 to1868. We have them to thank for a staple in American movies, TV shows, video games and books: train robberies.
Prior to Oct. 6, 1866, any train robbery had occurred when the train was stationary, like robbing a building. The Reno Gang changed all that.
John Reno, Sim Reno and Frank Sparkes boarded an Ohio and Mississippi Railway train at night. At that time, valuables were locked in iron safes and watched by a railroad company employee, who was there to move the contents of each safe between various stations.
This employee, called the messenger, wasn't a Pinkerton or anyone special. His name was Elam Miller, and he got the fright of his life when three masked men burst into his railcar demanding the safe keys.
Miller tried to say he only had the key to the smaller safe, which held considerably less cash and valuables. One of the robbers ripped the key from him and opened it. Inside, he found "$18,000 in cash, some jewelry, and several small packages," according to "The Notorious Reno Gang" by Rachel Dickinson.
The bigger safe couldn't be opened on the train, as the key would had to be opened by an Adams Express agent, and not the messenger. But the big iron safe was on wheels, so the gang shoved the box out of the moving train. Then they pulled the bell cord to signal an emergency stop, and as the train slowed down, they skidded out the train and into the darkness.
The big safe weighed far too heavy for the Reno Gang to run away with it, especially now that the law would be coming soon. They left the safe — and its $38,000— behind.
The Reno Gang continued to terrorize various areas around Indiana and Missouri, and four more trains, before three of the men were caught attempting to rob a fifth train. After they were taken prisoner, a lynch mob hanged them by a tree. Another three Reno Gang members were caught soon thereafter and were similarly hanged from the same tree. That site is known as Hangman Crossing, Indiana.
14. Central Bank of Iraq Heist
Location: Baghdad, Iraq
Date: March 18, 2003
Amount stolen: $1 billion
Bottom Line: Central Bank of Iraq Heist
The day before America bombed Baghdad, Saddam Hussein sent a note to the Central Bank of Iraq. It was for a mass deposit of some $900 million-$1 billion dollars, and the bank tellers obliged. There was no elaborate scheme, no guns, no explosives, no weapons. All it took was a signed note to pull off one one of the biggest heists in history
Three large trucks were loaded up with money and were driven away. Saddam said the mass withdrawal was to ensure the funds didn't end up in insurgent hands. He had the money flown to Kuwait, where it was found. But this was only the second stage of the heist. Now under the control of a completely different owner, the U.S. government decided the money should be doled out by the Coalition Provisional Authority, or the transitional government of Iraq.
Millions of dollars went missing. Some were stolen by U.S. service members. Some of them mailed it home to their wives. Others bought cars and other items when they got home to America. All in all, 35 service members were convicted of stealing various sums of the money.
13. Dresden Green Vault Heist
Location: Dresden, Saxony, Germany
Date: Nov. 25, 2019
Amount stolen: Up to $1 billion
Bottom Line: Dresden Green Vault Heist
Located inside the Dresden Castle in Dresden, Saxony, Germany, the Green Vault museum holds the largest treasure collection in Europe. Items date back to the 16th century. And since this was 2019, the museum had real security. But it was difficult for alarms to sound if the power was cut.
In the early hours of Monday morning on Nov. 25, thieves set a fire at an electrical distribution point nearby, cutting the museum's power and turning the area dark. Immediately, thieves smashed through a small corner window near the museum's historic jewelry collection, the Grüne Gewölbe, which "consists of 10 rooms with about 3,000 items of jewelry and other recognized masterpieces," according to the Guardian.
Wearing headlamps, they smashed glass and stole priceless jewels (CCTV footage of the crime was released and is on YouTube). It's not entirely clear how much those are worth. Initial reports said 1 billion euros ($1.2 billion) while later reports say the items' value had "fallen short" of that billion-dollar figure.
The thieves were in and out, fast, as police were called to the museum not long after the initial break-in. They fled the scene in an Audi A6 sedan, then lit it on fire in an underground parking lot, presumably jumping to another getaway vehicle.
Police and the museum's operators fear that the thieves will melt down the gold and silver treasures and pull out their diamonds, erasing them from the world. Four suspects have been arrested as of December 2020.
12. The Hatton Garden Job
Location: London, England
Date: April 2, 2015
Amount stolen: £14 million (about $19 million)
Bottom Line: Hatton Garden Job
It might not be one of the biggest heists in history, but it's certainly one of the greatest. The Hatton Garden robbers weren't your ordinary criminals, either. Half of them were senior citizens, looking for one last score before cashing into the big casino in the sky.
They had multiple names. The Guardian called them the "Diamond Wheezers" while the French press dubbed them the "Grandads' Gang." And they would have gotten away with it if it weren't for those meddling kids.
Hatton Security Deposit Limited is located in a shared building. The thieves used an elevator shaft to reach the basement, where they forced open shutter doors and used a heavy-duty drill to bore into a vault, which was six-and-a-half feet of reinforced concrete. Prior to the robbery, the gang's alarm expert tampered with the security system, using a 2G mobile phone jammer to block the alarm signal.
Once inside, they tore open about 70 deposit boxes. Initially, it was believed that £200 million ($279.9 million) was stolen, but that number has since dropped to £14m ($19 million).
The heist was carried out by six elderly ringleaders, ranging from their late 50s to their late 70s. Another four people were also convicted in connection with the crime.
11. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Theft
Location: Boston, Massachusetts
Date: March 18, 1990
Amount stolen: $500 million
Bottom Line: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Theft
For over 20 years, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist has fascinated and frustrated the FBI and the art world.
In the early hours of March 18, 1990, two men disguised as police officers approached the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. The museum guards on duty that night were two young men. One of them, Rick Abath, broke protocol and let the fake cops in through the employee entrance, believing that there had been a disturbance of some kind.
While the thieves surveyed the grounds, they asked the guard who let them in if anyone else was in the museum. Abath called his fellow guard, Randy Hestand, down. The thieves (who had not said they were thieves yet) then told Abath to come from behind the desk to prove his identity because they might have a warrant for his arrest.
It's worth noting that the museum, despite holding countless treasures of art, had only a single panic button. And it was at that desk.
The thieves handcuffed Abath and, when Hestand arrived, handcuffed him as well. Then the thieves announced they were there to rob the museum. And so they did. In 81 minutes, the two thieves stole 13 works of art, including three pieces by Rembrandt, several by Degas, a Manet, a French Imperial Eagle from the Napoleonic Wars and an ancient Chinese ritual vessel.
Then the thieves simply disappeared into the night. None of the pieces have been found.
That's just the basics. Check out "This Is A Robbery: The World's Biggest Art Heist" on Netflix for an in-depth look at this insane heist.
10. Banco Central Burglary at Fortaleza
Location: Fortaleza, Brazil
Date: Aug. 6, 2005
Amount stolen: 160 million Brazilian real (approximately $70 million at the time)
Bottom Line: Banco Central Burglary
The Banco Central heist took months of planning.
Several months before the burglary, the criminals set up a landscaping company in a commercial building, where people wouldn't notice the tons and tons of soil being moved off-site.
Where did all the soil come from? A 256-foot long tunnel leading from the building to below the Banco Central vault, that's where. After they reached the vault, the thieves had to bust through 3.5 feet of steel-reinforced concrete.
Several tons worth of Brazilian reals were lifted from the vault. It's unknown just how many people were involved in the heist. Several have been arrested, including a former security guard, but only $7 million has been recovered.
9. Dunbar Armed Robbery
Location: Los Angeles, California
Date: Sept. 12, 1997
Amount stolen: $18.9 million
Bottom Line: Dunbar Armed Robbery
The Dunbar Armed Robbery is the largest cash robbery in American history.
Allen Pace masterminded the heist while he was working for Dunbar as a safety inspector. During his time, he plotted out the facility's layouts, its cameras and its guards. No one suspected him. He was a fun-loving guy on the surface. But if he could rob this place blind, he would be set for life.
Pace recruited five childhood friends to perform the heist. He plotted out exactly where and when he needed to step in the hallways to avoid the cameras in order to get to the vault. They had the codes and knew where to go, so they expertly waited and maneuvered around the building until they happened upon the camera they couldn't avoid. So they went and tied up the security guards. They took the VCR tapes, too.
When it was all done, the crew loaded up a U-Haul with $18.9 million without firing a shot. They would have gotten away with it, but two years later, one of the robbers gave a real estate broker a stack of marked bills. That broker went to the police. Hill cracked and named names.
Only about $5 million of the stolen money was ever recovered.
8. Northern Bank Robbery
Location: Belfast, Northern Ireland
Date: December 20, 2004
Amount stolen: £26.5 million ($37.11 million today)
Bottom Line: Northern Bank Robbery
On Sunday, Dec. 19, 2004, two groups of armed men stormed into the homes of two different employees of Northern Bank. Both of the employees, Chris Ward and Kevin McMullan, were taken from their homes to the bank. Their families were held hostage, and the robbers told Ward and McMullan to continue work as usual throughout the next day.
The robbers kept in contact with the two via mobile phones, and had the two steal £25.5 million ($35.7 million) after the bank had closed. They also forced Ward to transport £1 million ($1.4 million) to them at a bus stop during work hours.
No one was ever charged with the crime itself, although two people convicted of laundering some of the stolen money were jailed. The IRA is heavily suspected to be behind the heist.
Ward, the innocent employee thrust in the middle of the whole thing, seemed to get the worst of it. He was put on trial on suspicion of being in on the job, and it took four years to clear his name.
7. Nokas Robbery
Location: Stavanger, Norway
Date: April 5, 2004
Amount stolen: 57.4 million kroner ($6.8 million)
Bottom Line: Nokas Robbery
The Nokas robbery is the biggest heist that ever happened in Norway. On the Easter weekend of April 5, 2004, 11 robbers, armed to the teeth with military-grade body armor and automatic assault weapons, stormed the Nokas Cashing Handling bank building.
As a distraction, one of the robbers drove a truck to the Stavanger Police Station, set it on fire and tossed some tear gas outside the station's main entrance. Spike strips were laid out as well.
Meanwhile, the other robbers entered the bank via a side entrance and attempted to break through a bullet-proof glass window with a battering ram but failed. One of them emptied about 120 rounds from an automatic battle rifle, shattering it. They stuffed duffle bags full of cash and made their exit.
Meanwhile, outside the bank in the Cathedral Square, police arrived and were met with gunfire. One policeman was shot in the head and killed, and the criminals escaped.
But not for long — 13 people were charged and convicted in connection to the robbery. About 51 million kroner ($6.2 million) was never recovered.
The 2010 Norwegian film, "Nokas," is about this notorious robbery.
6. Knightsbridge Security Deposit Robbery
Location: London, England
Date: July 12, 1987
Amount stolen: $98 million
Bottom Line: Knightsbridge Security Deposit Robbery
Valerio Viccei, an Italian criminal, was 32 and already wanted for 50 armed robberies when he decided to make the biggest smash-and-grab of his entire life.
This heist was relatively simple. Two well-dressed men with briefcases posed as potential clients looking to open an account at the Knightsbridge Safe Deposit Center. Conning their way inside, they produced handguns — which were hidden in their briefcases — held up the manager and chained up two security guards.
They made their way through 113 of the center's 4,000 deposit boxes, hauling off millions and millions of dollars worth of goods. Outside, a third man dressed as a security guard turned away customers. The Knightsbridge Center's managing director provided some inside help.
Viccei left behind a bloody fingerprint, which led to his capture. Only £10 million ($14 million) of the £60 million pounds stolen ($84 million) was ever recovered.
Viccei was given 22 years in prison, but was extradited to Italy, where "he was strolling the beachside cafes on his way to work at a publisher's office, visiting his flat and returning to jail at 10.30 every night," according to The Guardian.
He died in 2000, blasted dead by a submachine gun. Viccei had shot a cop in the leg with a .357 magnum during his day release from prison. The policeman unloaded on him before Viccei could finish the job.
5. Société Générale Bank Heist
Location: Nice, France
Date: July 19, 1976
Amount stolen: 30 million-100 million francs ($33.3 million-$111 million)
Bottom Line: Société Générale Heist
The Société Générale bank heist was been dubbed "The Heist of the Century," and for good reason (although other, subsequent heists have taken that mantle). The Société Générale had a bank vault that was practically impenetrable from the outside, with an extremely thick layer of steel and a complicated locking mechanism. There were no windows in the vault. If you couldn't go in through the door, then where could you go through?
If you said "the floor," the vault designers would scoff. It was 18 inches of reinforced concrete. It would take days to break through it. And that's exactly what these thieves, led by a French criminal named Albert Spaggiari, did.
The bank vault was built somewhat close to the sewer system. Spaggiari assembled a crew of 20 men — a mix of mobsters and Spaggiari's political dissident friends — and split them into two teams. For every single night for two months, using two tons worth of equipment, they dug a tunnel, blocking up the entrance every morning in case a sewer worker found it. When they broke through the floor, they had to carefully, painstakingly, move an armored armoire so it would lay just right without flopping on its face and causing great noise.
Once inside, the thieves carefully ransacked the vault, taking countless millions. A 1976 article from The New York Times estimated $10 million was stolen, while other estimates put it at 30 million francs or even 100 million francs. The thieves welded the vault door from the inside, and it wouldn't be until the following afternoon that bank officials discovered the theft.
However, authorities apprehended Spaggiari within a few months. But after he claimed he was ready to name names, he escaped through a window in a magistrate's office, and lived the rest of his life in hiding. He died at the age of 57 in 1989, ostensibly from lung cancer. His body was left outside of his mother's house in Hyeres.
On the walls of the vault, the thieves left this message: sans armes, ni haine, ni violence — "without weapons, hate or violence." The money was never recovered.
4. The Wilcox Train Robbery
Location: Wilcox, Wyoming
Date: June 2, 1899
Amount stolen: $50,000 (about $1.6 million today)
Bottom Line: Wilcox Train Robbery
The Reno Gang may have conducted the first train robbery, but the Wild Bunch perfected it.
Grindstone Jones and his Union Pacific train were chugging along at 3. a.m., somewhere near Wilcox Wyoming, when a red lantern appeared in the distance, over the tracks. As soon as Jones stopped the train, three masked men armed with six-shooters boarded the locomotive, ordering Jones and the other fireman out of the cab. Jones tried to resist and was rewarded with a pistol whip to the skull.
The robbers ordered the cab to be detached from the train and driven a mile down the line, over a wooden bridge. After it cleared the bridge, the structure exploded, having been rigged with dynamite beforehand.
Now with the train at their total mercy, the robbers attempted to get into the messenger's cab (which held the vaults), but the messenger shot back through the door. So the robbers blew it open with a stick of dynamite. Upon breaching the cab, the outlaws used dynamite once again to blow open the safe, which nearly destroyed the entire cab (pictured).
The initial newspaper report said six outlaws rode off with whatever they could get their hands on. A bounty of $3,000 was put on each of their heads, for a total of $18,000. In 1904, a Union Pacific superintendent wrote that the railroad had lost over $50,000 in relation to the robbery.
It was believed that Butch Cassidy participated in the train robbery, but it's unlikely that he was actually part of the heist (he had been released from jail under the condition of never stepping foot in Wyoming again, so he may not have wanted to risk it). However, according to History Net, Butch apparently did receive his share of the loot.
The money was never recovered. Within 12 years of the robbery, every outlaw from the Wild Bunch was dead anyhow.
3. United California Bank Burglary
Location: Laguna Niguel, California
Date: March 24, 1972
Amount stolen: $30 million
Bottom Line: United California Bank Burglary
In 1972, a group of criminals and safecrackers from Youngston, Ohio, reportedly received a tip from Jimmy Hoffa that Richard Nixon was storing $9 million in dirty campaign money in a bank in Laguna Niguel, California.
The criminals hated Nixon, and of course, they wanted money, so the seven men headed on over to the bank. They cut a hole through the roof, bypassed an alarm and dropped onto the concrete vault. From there, they drilled holes in the vault and lined it with explosives, then covered it with sacks of dirt to muffle the explosion, which blew a hole straight through.
The group's leader, Amil Dinsio, claims there wasn't $30 million in there, but they did help themselves to $12 million worth of bonds, jewelry, coins and cash.
Unfortunately, Dinsio's gang had hit another bank the exact same way in Ohio not long before that, which gave the FBI enough information to link the burglaries and find the criminals three months later. Dinsio served more than 30 years in prison.
The 2019 movie, "Finding Steve McQueen," is based on this heist.
2. Nationalmuseum Robbery
Location: Stockholm, Sweden
Date: Dec. 22, 2000
Amount stolen: $30 million-$55 million
Bottom Line: Nationalmuseum Robbery
A bit before 5 p.m. in Stockholm, Sweden, two cars exploded at two hotels near Stockholm's Nationalmuseum. At the same time, three men, one wielding a submachine gun, entered the museum's lobby. The place was still open. The man with the gun instructed staff and visitors to stay down while the other two men ran upstairs.
The men took off with three paintings — a Rembrandt self-portrait and two Renoirs. Police were on their way, but the thieves weren't running away by car. Instead, they hopped in a motorboat and sped off. To aid their escape, they threw nails down in front of the museum, hoping to tear up pursuing police car tires.
As Hollywood-sounding as this heist was, it wasn't foolproof. These pieces of art were extremely expensive, sure, but it would also be nearly impossible to peddle them on the dark market.
The following month, police received ransom notes demanding a few million krona (Swedish dollars) along with photographs of the stolen paintings. But the museum refused to pay up, and by 2001, several people involved in the crime were arrested.
In 2001, police found one of the Renoirs during an unrelated drug raid. In 2005, an arrest of a Bulgarian crime syndicate boss in Los Angeles led to the discovery of another Rembrandt, as well as information on the last remaining one. That painting was recovered after an FBI posed as a buyer. The sellers were attempting to offload the $42 million painting for just $100,000, because they couldn't find a buyer.
1. Antwerp Diamond Heist
Location: Antwerp, Belgium
Date: Feb. 15-16, 2003
Amount stolen: $100 million
Bottom Line: Antwerp Diamond Heist
An Italian man named Leonardo Notarbartolo led a gang of thieves to pilfer at least $100 million worth of gold, diamonds, jewels, and other valuables from one of the most advanced vaults in the entire world.
The process took 18 months, first beginning with Notarbartolo posing as a diamond merchant so he could surveil the Antwerp Diamond Center for information about its main vault, located two floors down and protected by infrared heat detectors, Doppler radar, a seismic sensor and a three-ton steel door housing a lock with 100 million possible combinations.
The theft was brilliant, and more clever than anything you'd find in a Hollywood film. The thieves snuck a small camera above the vault door, which could spy on the combination guards used to open it. This camera would broadcast the data to a sensor which was hidden in a fire extinguisher in a nearby storage room.
Notarbartolo sprayed hair spray on the thermal-motion sensors in the vault itself, to be used as a kind of timer, while the heat sensors were blinded by tape and Styrofoam. He also said they practiced on a life-sized replica of the vault itself, designed by a diamond insider.
The story of how Notarbartolo performed the heist is absolutely fascinating. When it was all done, the robbers had so much loot they had to leave some behind. Notarbartolo and his gang of five were arrested — all except for one man — but they were given relatively light sentences. The majority of the diamonds were never recovered.
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