Truly Spectacular Real-Life Heists
We're not looking to glamorize criminals or anything, but we do like to applaud people who are good at what they do. That's why movies such as Ocean's Eleven exist -- we all appreciate the brilliance of a fictional master thief because thieves, in real life, usually end up getting tackled by loss prevention associates in the parking lot of Walmart. It's sad more than anything.
So, when we relay the following stories of spectacular real-life heists, we're not saying we approve of what they did, nor do we suggest you try it. It's just nice to see someone who takes a little pride in their work. That's all.
London Crime Bosses Pull Off a Reservoir Dogs Heist by Barricading the City
Meticulously orchestrated diamond heists tend to only exist in movies such as Reservoir Dogs. This is possibly because drug running and extortion have a better effort-to-profit ratio than hiring six random contractors with color-coded nicknames to rob a jewelry store. And yet, in 2009, a London mob managed to pull off a jewelry heist that made Hollywood villains look like a bunch of freaking amateurs.
Ah, London mobs. They make other rioters look like mere lollygaggers.
The plan, which was funded and planned by unknown crime bosses, involved two burglars, Craig Calderwood and Aman Kassaye, who hired a professional make-up artist to use latex effects to make them look like much older men. The two "old men" then waltzed into the Graff Diamonds store, pretending to be high-rolling businessmen presumably shopping for their wives, their mistresses, or a Ma$e video. When the diamond cases were opened, the two men pulled out their guns and demanded the clerks clean out the drawers of approximately $65 million in jewels -- making it the biggest gemstone heist in British history.
Not counting, of course, jewelers robbing their customers every day.
Of course, actually getting away with your loot is the most important part of any robbery, and that's where the duo's mob connections came in. When police tried to reach the scene, they found that several hired vehicles had been inconveniently parked in a way that completely blocked access to the store. The mob had essentially built a wall of cars to cordon off part of the city, giving the diamond bandits a pretty strong opportunity to get away clean. The thieves immediately seized the chance to crash their getaway car into a London taxi cab. (Note: Even sophisticated real-life criminals are kind of stupid.)
The criminals escaped to another car, but one of them left his cell phone on the seat of the abandoned vehicle. The police traced it back to Calderwood and Kassaye, who were arrested, but the diamonds were never recovered. It's believed that they passed the loot off to another guy on a motorcycle at some point during the getaway, who delivered the diamonds to the mob and/or their waiting buyer.
Who took off by hang glider, to meet his buyer in a hot air balloon, who flew it to a submarine ...
In the end, only four people out of the presumably dozens involved were convicted, and nobody got shot or had an argument about tipping.
A Real-Life Ocean's Eleven Cleans Out the World's Most Secure Vault
The most laughably unrealistic portrayal of a heist, in Hollywood history, has to be Ocean's Eleven. As we saw above, even sophisticated thieves tend to prefer brute force over slick, convoluted schemes that play out like a magic trick. But, that brings us to Leonardo Notarbartolo, a man credited with pulling off the greatest heist of all time from the Antwerp Diamond Centre in Belgium in 2003.
He's also credited with using the most blatantly fake name ever.
At the time, the Antwerp Diamond Centre was one of the most secure locations on earth, a facility in which a large percentage of the world's diamond supply was protected by several layers of vaults, magnetic fields, seismic sensors, motion sensors, heat detectors, and Doppler radar. Presumably noticing that a direct Mission: Impossible-style break-in would be about as successful as trying to boost the Technodrome, Notarbartolo started putting a more complex plan in motion -- starting a full three years before the actual heist. So, in 2000, he successfully rented an office in the building and stored some of his own property in the vault.
Now, since this isn't a movie and we can't show you a planning/training montage, we have to fast forward to a weekend in 2003, when nearly $100 million worth of uncut diamonds disappeared overnight from the most secure vault in the world. It was the biggest jewel heist in the history of mankind (at the time), and, to this day, police still aren't entirely sure how the hell he did it.
"Hey, I got it. What if there never were no diamonds? I never saw no diamonds."
According to Notarbartolo, he and four other teammates with fantastic code names (including The Genius and The Monster) broke into the vault in the middle of the night, using an elaborate series of truly ingenious hacks, such as coating the vault's body heat alarm with hair spray, covering the security cameras with black bags so it would still appear that the building was dark, and redirecting the vault's magnetic field alarm with a piece of aluminum.
Once inside the vault, the thieves emptied as many boxes of gold and diamonds as they could, working in the dark from memory after having practiced countless times on an exact replica of the vault -- which you might recognize as being literally the exact thing they did in Ocean's Eleven. Considering the police's official explanation for the heist is "magic," we have no choice but to accept Notarbartolo's version of events.
"Arrest Clooney and Eisenberg just to be safe."
Notarbartolo and three of the four men were arrested after a stack of circumstantial evidence was discovered in a garbage bag on the side of a country road (including several envelopes and videotapes from the Antwerp Diamond Centre, and a receipt showing Notarbartolo as having purchased a low-light surveillance system). However, Notarbartolo only served part of his 10-year sentence before being paroled (his alleged accomplices were given even shorter sentences), and the diamonds were never recovered. This has a lot to do with the fact that stolen diamonds are notoriously difficult to trace. So, even if the police found Notarbartolo rolling around in a bathtub full of them, there's almost no way to definitively prove that those diamonds aren't his.
A Real-Life Sherlock Holmes Villain Steals the Most Valuable Jewel in the World
Back before the First World War, London was home to Joseph Grizzard, a criminal mastermind as eccentric and theatrical as any Sherlock Holmes villain, albeit with a much less dazzling name. Grizzard (who has been compared to Holmes' nemesis Professor Moriarty) liked to pull off incredible heists just to mess with the police because he had an enormous amount of free time and his interests were very specific.
Of course, that also describes every person reading this.
Supposedly, the police once raided Grizzard's home in the middle of a dinner party, in order to search for a bunch of diamonds they were pretty sure he had stolen. They couldn't manage to find anything, though, and were eventually forced to admit defeat and leave -- at which point Grizzard produced a pile of diamonds from the bottom of his soup bowl to the applause of his guests, who we assume were all Batman villains.
He would also occasionally use a 68-ounce gold trophy stolen from a winner of the Ascot Cup (a British horse racing championship) to serve cocktails to dinner guests because he apparently loved to steal things that he could combine with food.
Pretty classy, considering the other ways he could have defiled it.
But, by far, his most renowned evil deed was the theft of the most valuable piece of jewelry in the world at the time: a pearl necklace worth more than the modern world's most valuable diamond. If that sounds strange, keep in mind that pearl cultivation hadn't yet been invented at the time, so pearls still had to be harvested from wild clams, and finding one was incredibly rare. So, an entire necklace of pearls was like finding every one of Willy Wonka's Golden Tickets and then making a necklace out of them.
How did Grizzard manage to steal such a priceless item? Well, as strange as it sounds, back in those days, it was common to ship cosmically valuable pieces of finery in the regular mail. The reasoning was that a billion-dollar necklace would be way more difficult to intercept if it was just one anonymous package among a million other identical (but worthless) packages, rather than in a bedazzled lockbox being carried by armored transport. The owners of the necklace thought they were being clever when they sent it from Paris to London via standard mail, but Grizzard was hell-bent on finding something else he could hide in a bowl of soup.
"Pearls! They're the croutons on the sea!"
After bribing a bunch of postal inspectors, Grizzard managed to locate the prized envelope and "relocated" the pearls, replacing them with clippings from a French newspaper and a few lumps of sugar. Grizzard correctly assumed that the inclusion of French clippings would lead police to believe that a Frenchman had stolen the necklace, since police at that time assumed the real world worked like an episode of Blue's Clues.
The ruse worked for a while, but, eventually, the authorities suspected that Grizzard was behind it on the basis that only he would be that fucking annoying. They set up a surveillance operation to nab him when he tried to sell the necklace. However, Grizzard had anticipated this and used his organized crime connections to set up his own surveillance operation on the police.
"I- I really fucking hate that guy."
"Let it go, Stevens."
After some time, this ridiculous cat-and-mouse game ended with Grizzard's goons having to abandon the necklace in a gutter, where it was found by a random passerby, who handed it in to the police. Although, we can't help but wonder if that, too, had somehow been part of the plan.
A Master Forger Sells Fake Masterpieces to the Nazis
If you really want to up the tension in your crime movie or TV show, you have the hero rip off some bad guys -- the cops might arrest you, but stealing from the mob can get you killed. Now, imagine the price of screwing over the freaking Nazis, and you'll begin to understand what kind of man Han van Meegeren was.
Pictured here. Not Pictured: The bean-bag-sized testicles he is sitting on.
Meegeren was a Dutch painter who never achieved much success with his own work because, by all accounts, it was about on par with the paintings they hang above the juice station at IHOP. However, van Meegeren was secretly a brilliant forger, who could expertly recreate famous works of art that were all but indistinguishable from the real thing. When the Nazis (who had an affinity for "collecting" European artwork) began their occupation of Holland, van Meegeren saw a unique opportunity to make a huge profit ripping off the shittiest bunch of assholes in the history of creation.
You see, by the time the Nazis showed up, the quality of van Meegeren's forgeries had earned him a reputation as a fabulous art dealer (even though the art he dealt was 100 percent bullshit). He then began to strike up deals with prominent Nazis to sell his "totally legit" paintings, including a deal with Hermann Goring, who is literally the highest-ranking Nazi after Hitler (the Diddy Kong to Hitler's Donkey).
A fitting metaphor as this story is bananas.
He sold Goering a newly-discovered painting by the 17th-century artist Johannes Vermeer, although, if you've been paying attention, you've probably guessed that what van Meegeren actually sold Goering was a picture he had painted himself, in Vermeer's style. Van Meegeren's original intention was to come clean after tricking the #2 German into buying one of his knockoffs, thus proving that the Nazis were a bunch of gullible idiots. But, instead, he went mad with power and built himself a career producing Vermeer forgeries and selling them, while becoming an alcoholic and a morphine addict in the process. His sudden change of heart might have also had something to do with the realization that "taking a joke" was not something the Nazis were known for.
Eventually, the Allies won the war, and the Nazis' stolen artwork was recovered, but this created a new, incredibly ironic problem for van Meegeren: His forgeries were so realistic that the Allies assumed that he had stolen them for the Nazis, and they arrested him for art theft. Despite admitting that he had forged the pieces, his forgeries were so good that art appraisers hired by the Allied prosecutors didn't believe him, assuming he was lying in order to reduce his sentence. Only after being plied with enough alcohol and morphine to successfully replicate a Vermeer painting was van Meegeren able to prove his innocence. Or, at least, prove that he was a different kind of guilty.
"It is true -- I cheated Hitler. I accept one year in prison and/or the key to the city."
A Gang of Robbers Steal all of Stockholm's Cash and Escape via Helicopter
One of the most memorable sequences in the history of action movies is the heist scene from the 1995 Michael Mann film Heat, in which a robbery by Robert De Niro's gang escalates into a full-blown war in the streets of Los Angeles, complete with machine guns, explosions, and the last time Tom Sizemore was ever taken seriously. The scenario is so over the top that it's almost a spoof of an action scene, but a group of Serbian bandits pulled off an even more brazen robbery in 2009 in Sweden, in what came to be known as the "Swedish helicopter robbery," for reasons that will soon become spectacularly clear.
Hint: The gang doesn't escape through the sewers.
Despite the robbery's unofficial title, a helicopter was not the most valuable thing that was stolen. A gang of 10 thieves merely used the stolen chopper to land on the roof of a cash-handling depot in Stockholm and, armed with explosives and submachine guns, proceeded to demolish their way in through the ceiling like a high-octane reboot of Dig Dug.
A SWAT team was called in, but the criminals had already laid down caltrops (those portable road spikes you see in the movies) to disable any incoming vehicles. In the meantime, the bandits blasted their way into the safes and began hauling hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of cash into their chopper. Then, they took off with their substantial bounty while police were still trying to figure out how to get to the building ... because life is occasionally a Grand Theft Auto mission with all of the cheats turned on.
Cheats that turn all dialog to "orn desh, dee born desh, de umn bork! bork! bork!"
"But cops have helicopters," you're probably musing to yourself. "Why didn't they just use their flying instruments of justice to chase the robbers down?" We are so fucking glad you asked because that means we get to type this next sentence: Before the heist, someone (either a burglar or a subcontracted loyal henchman) had planted a bag marked "bomb" at the entrance to the police helicopter hangar. The bomb was fake (the bag might not have contained anything but a VHS copy of The Adventures of Ford Fairlane), but it delayed the authorities in accessing their own aircraft long enough for the thieves to escape.
Some of the burglars were later arrested and sentenced, but not all of the cash was recovered, which was a bigger deal than it might seem -- Swedish authorities remained tight-lipped on that matter, but they did release a warning after the fact that Stockholm ATMs might run out of money due to the incident. That's right -- the roof-jacking helicopter bandits stole so much cash that a major European city almost ran out of money.
Zachary Frey is currently a student at Greenwich High School, and you can read all his other crazy articles and (not) be his friend here.
For more stories straight out of a movie, check out 6 Real Heists More Badass Than Any Movie and 7 Real World Heists That Put 'Ocean's 11' to Shame.
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