The 6 Most Utterly Insane Bank Heists In History

The 6 Most Utterly Insane Bank Heists In History

Is there a bank robbery that isn’t at least a bit bizarre? Consider the “Geezer Bandit,” who’s held up at least 16 banks and is either an elderly man, or doing a convincing job imitating one. That’s kind of weird, right? But it’s small potatoes in the realm of bank-robbing. Here are six of history’s most mind-boggling heists.

Top image: Customer eats ice cream in a Baskin-Robbins store that was damaged in the “Bank Shootout” in North Hollywood in 1997. AP Photo: Nick Ut.

1) Banco Central robbery, Fortaleza, Brazil

In 2005, a group of enterprising thieves rented a property conveniently situated two blocks from a branch of Brazil’s central bank. They pretended to be a landscaping company so neighbours wouldn’t be suspicious of the truckloads of earth seen leaving the building. It all came to a head the weekend of August 6, when the tunnel they’d really been working broke through the bank’s concrete-and-steel vault. The take? Over $US65 ($85) million in uninsured and unmarked bills that were being inspected for wear by the bank’s circulation department.

The world’s banking community was shocked by the crime; a veteran Brazilian consultant noted that “This is the type of thing we see in movies.” Some of the money has since been recovered, and some of the culprits caught (dead and alive). But it remains the country’s most expensive bank robbery to date, and one of the world’s boldest. Image via AP/Tuno de Vieira, Diario do Nordeste.

2) Knightsbridge Security Deposit robbery, London, England

The year was 1987, the place was London, and the mood among those who’d stored valuables at the safe-deposit boxes in the Knightsbridge Security Deposit facility was decidedly somber. The so-called “most secure building in the world” had been targeted by a slick trio that would made off with some $US16 ($21) million in cash, jewels, gold bars, and other items.

A news article written soon after the incident, evocatively titled “Wealthy Mourn After $US16 ($21) Million London Holdup,” recalled the events:

Two well-dressed robbers, posing as prospective clients of the private center across from Harrods in fashionable Knightsbridge, got away with valuables and cash estimated at up to 10 million pounds ($US16 ($21) million), police said. A third robber posed as a guard and turned customers away at the door.

Some reports said the loot might be worth $US32 ($42) million. One officer said that “any figure that comes to mind could be accurate” because some box renters were believed to be stashing cash and bonds to hide them from tax authorities, a practice that police said was not uncommon.

“I have lost everything … I am finished,” said a sobbing woman from the Philippines after learning that her safe-deposit box had been rifled.

On Sunday, the two men walked into the center and persuaded managing director Parvez Latif to show them around. Once inside the downstairs vault, they pulled a pistol and sawed-off shotgun from briefcases and chained two security guards while they went through 113 of the vault’s 4,000 safe-deposit boxes.

The robbers, whom one police official described as “very cool customers,” left about two hours later with cash, jewellery, bonds and gold bars.

One of those “cool customers,” it turned out, was the crime’s mastermind, Valerio Viccei, aka “the Wolf,” a colourful Italian gangster who modelled himself after Scarface and died in a police shootout in 2000. Between the time of his capture for the Knightsbridge robbery and his dramatic death, however, he became something of a folk hero for his oversized personality and exploits. He titled his autobiography Too Fast To Live.

3) Central Bank of Iraq robbery, Baghdad, Iraq

In what was probably the ultimate inside job, Saddam Hussein removed what was estimated to be $US1 ($1) billion from his country’s central bank just days before it was invaded in 2003. His aim, according to a handwritten note, was to “protect [it] from American aggression.”

A New York Times article written at the time recalled the massive heist, still considered to be the world’s largest:

The removal of the money … was performed under the direct orders of Mr. Hussein, according to an Iraqi official with knowledge of the incident. The official, who asked not to be identified, said that no financial rationale had been offered for removing the money from the bank’s vaults, and that no one had been told where the money would be taken.

“When you get an order from Saddam Hussein, you do not discuss it,” said the Iraqi official, who held a senior position in a bank under Mr. Hussein’s government. He said he had been told about the seizure of the cash by the Iraqi financial officials who had turned over the money to Mr. Hussein’s son and the adviser.

The allegations provide a glimpse into the final days of Mr. Hussein’s rule — which, with its emphasis on family connections, has been compared to the mafia — and perhaps a clue about how he intended to finance his escape and survive out of power.

Qusay Saddam Hussein, Mr. Hussein’s second son, presided over the seizure of the money, along with Abid al-Hamid Mahmood, the president’s personal assistant, the Iraqi official here said. The seizure took place at 4 a.m. on March 18, just hours before the first American air assault.

The two men carried a letter from the president, bearing his signature, authorizing the removal of the money, the official said.

The heist was so physically enormous it required three tractor-trailers to cart off the loot. Part of the haul was later recovered in a palace formerly occupied by another of Saddam’s sons, but the rest remains unaccounted for. Image via World Finance

4) Kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst helps rob the Hibernia Bank, San Francisco

The haul from this 1974 crime was nowhere near as great as those listed above, but the headlines certainly were when sheltered newspaper scion Patty Hearst — who’d been snatched from her Berkeley apartment four months earlier — appeared on surveillance footage during a San Francisco bank heist toting a machine gun. An apparent victim of brainwashing by the militant group that had abducted her, Hearst, who began referring to herself as “Tania” during her captivity, was later arrested for her role in the robbery, among other crimes. She spent two years in prison until her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter; she was later given a full pardon by President Bill Clinton. These days, Hearst is as well-known for her campy acting roles as she is for her sordid past. Image via

5) North Hollywood bank robbery and subsequent shootout, Los Angeles

When two excessively well-armed men robbed a Bank of America branch in North Hollywood in February 1997, the ensuing melee turned violent. Scary-violent. Both robbers were killed, 11 LAPD officers and seven bystanders were injured, and the amount of property damage was enormous; some 2,000 rounds were discharged. And, since this is Hollywood we’re talking about, every tense moment of the entire battle was captured on film. Watch the raw footage, captured by an aerial news camera, below.

6) Agricultural Bank of China robbery, Handan

The North Hollywood bandits died while committing their crime, but the men involved in the biggest bank heist in Chinese history were tried and executed for theirs. There were no ski masks or machine guns in this 2007 case, however, just a carefully-plotted embezzlement scheme that had actually worked in the past … but was undone by greed and, ultimately, desperation in the end.

According to a BBC report:

It must have seemed like the perfect crime. Steal money from the vault, use it to win the lottery, replace the stolen cash and enjoy the rest of the winnings.

One of the conspirators, Ren Xiaofeng, had successfully carried out the same scam with a much smaller sum – just over $US25,000 ($32,828) – earlier in the year. He bought a winning ticket, replaced the money, and no-one was any the wiser.

This time, working with fellow vault employee Ma Xiangjing, the sums became much, much bigger. Over the course of a month, they stole 51m yuan ($US6.7m, £3.3m). But the lottery let them down, and they hit a losing streak that did not improve.

Though Ren and Ma made off with their millions, they were captured after three days and were executed soon after their subsequent trial.

Top image via Shutterstock