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Real life: 9 of the most daring robberies of all time

They may sounds like Ocean’s 14 to 22 sequels but these heists aren’t in the movies…they actually happened.

Pictures from George Kidner auctioneers of memorabilia relating to the 1963 Great Train Robbery.
Pictures from George Kidner auctioneers of memorabilia relating to the 1963 Great Train Robbery.
Image: George Kidner Auctioneers/PA Archive/Press Association Images

DARING DIAMOND HEISTS, ridiculous art hauls and good old-fashioned cash robberies have been the fodder of innumerable movies since, well, since movies began.

They are still just subjects for films such as the upcoming Man on a Ledge, right? Well, the inspiration has to come from somewhere and Hollywood directors have been borrowing from some of the world’s most audacious thieves for years.

The following are robberies that actually happened… many of which the culprits pulled off seamlessly and without getting caught. We shouldn’t be impressed but…

The Thanksgiving Skyjacker

D.B Cooper’s hijacking of a commercial airliner is probably the most legendary of all unsolved FBI cases. On November 24 1971 a man thought to be in his mid-40s boarded a plane at Portland airport, heading to Seattle. He proceeded to drink bourbon and smoke cigarettes – nothing unusual there. But then he handed one of the cabin crew a note stating he would detonate a bomb he had in his possession unless he was given $200,000 and some parachutes.

After receiving the ransom, he released the 94 passengers but ordered the pilot to fly to Mexico. He then jumped out of the plane somewhere over southwest Washington. He was never found and the case remains open. A mammoth 1,200 suspects have been checked out – and no wonder given this description of the skyjacker:

Before takeoff, no crew member took particular note of Cooper, a fit 6-footer who weighed perhaps 175 pounds. D. B. Cooper’s wardrobe was the definition of nondescript in 1971: a dark suit and tie and a white shirt with a pearl tie tack. Like so many other American males of that day, he wore a homburg hat—felt, with a dented crown and narrow brim. He carried a dark raincoat and a brief case. He had brown eyes, short brown hair and no whiskers. He was white and spoke with no accent. He was tan or had a Mediterranean complexion described as swarthy or olive.

The FBI sketch of D.B Cooper. He had initially booked his ticket under the name Dan Cooper but a reporter on hearing about a FBI search meant he soon became known as D.B. around the world as a massive manhunt got underway.

Criminals to celebrities

In one of the most infamous robberies of all time, the London to Glasgow mail train was intercepted on the 8 August 1963 by a small gang of criminals. In what became known as the Great Train Robbery, Bruce Reynolds and his 14 men accessed the carriages, struck the driver over the head with an iron bar and grabbed 120 bags of money.

Not only did the gang members pull of the most infamous raids ever in England, garnering about £2.5 million (now £40m), they also became famous for the Wild West-inspired robbery and subsequent man-hunt.

Police handout photo of part of the £2.5m stolen by the Great Train Robbers – now on display at a museum in Thames Valley

It is believed that the men played real-money Monopoly with their takings in their hideout at Leatherslade Farm following the operation. However, the judge in the trial of 12 of the culprits tried to rid the men of their somewhat legendary status. Focusing on the violence against the train driver (who never worked again), Justice Davies said:

Let us clear out of the way any romantic notions of daredevilry. This is nothing less than a sordid crime of violence inspired by vast greed.”

Baghdad’s billion dollar bank

The Baghdad Bank in Iraq has been the site of multiple heists and, in fact, the city has been revealed as the “bank robbery capital of the world“. Although most have been extremely violent, none have been more sensational than the 2003 theft by then-leader Saddam Hussein which remains the largest heist in history. The president ordered his eldest son to take as much money as he could just hours before the US-led invasion of the country. Taking the order, Quasay and his men loaded cash from the vaults into a number of trucks waiting outside The value of the haul? A whopping $1 billion.

About $650 million was recovered by American troops from the walls of the Hussein palace but the $350 million leftovers were never discovered.

It was the night before Christmas…

On Christmas Eve 1985, the single, largest theft of precious objects got underway in Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology. The masterminds behind the theft got away with 140 stolen objects, including jade, gold pieces from the Maya and Aztec sculptures. One piece alone – a vase shaped like a monkey – was estimated to be worth $20 million.

How did they do it? It is still not clear whether there was more than one thief involved but whoever did it, removed seven glass sheets from the display cases in three exhibition halls. The nine police guards assigned to the museum were blamed for incompetence.

The majority of the pieces were found in June 1989 in a home just outside the city, however five remain missing.

In the name of St. Patrick

On March 17 1990, two men posing as police officers knocked on the side door of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. After tying up the guards on duty to pipes in the basement and roaming through the galleries handpicking their wares, they left with 13 paintings worth an amazing $300 million. In its simplicity, it was the most daring of art robberies. To this day, none of the works have been recovered despite renewed police investigations and a $5 million reward.

The frame where Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee was displayed remains in place.

Tunnel vision

Brazil’s biggest bank heist took days to discover as a group of thieves stole $65 million by tunnelling into a bank during its weekend hours. The group of up to 10 men dug a 200m tunnel into the bank from a nearby house in the city of Fortaleza, which they said they had rented to make artificial turf.

When the robbery was eventually discovered, local investigators told reporters:

It’s something you see in the movies… They dug a tunnel that goes underneath two [city] blocks. They’ve been digging for three months.”

The luckiest mugger

Snatching a briefcase would not generally make a list of daring actions but for one London mugger who set his sights on a briefcase belonging to a messenger working for Sheppards brokers, it was the luckiest. On grabbing the briefcase from 58-year-old John Goddard in 1990, the thief found himself the holder of 301 treasury bills, valued at about £1 million each. All but two were eventually recovered but that still made him a millionaire, twice over.

And in Ireland…

The Northern Bank Robbery has become a part of Irish political commentary as it is generally thought to have been a Provisional IRA money-laundering activity. The Guardian also claimed it was “the crime that nearly ended the peace process”. However, the crime itself remains unsolved and only some of the money has been recovered.

On December 19 2004, a gang disguised as police officers entered the homes of two of the Belfast bank’s officials, taking them and their families hostage. Both Chris Ward and Kevin McMullan were given precise orders which they carried out at the bank the next day. First, they carried on their work day as normal but at 6pm Ward left the bank to hand over a sports bag filled with £1 million to one of the robbers at a bus stop at Upper Queen Street. Later that evening, some of the thieves were let into the bank and given access to the vaults. The robbers cleared out euros, US dollars and Northern Bank notes. They filled a white van twice – with a total of about £26.5 million.

Ward was eventually cleared of any involvement in the robbery after being accused of being the “inside man”.

The theft of the Crown Jewels in Ireland in 1907 remains one of the country’s biggest mysteries – and one of the most successful illegal hauls of all time as the perpetrator was never caught. The insignia of the Order of St Patrick went missing some time between 11 June and 6 July. It may have been carried out by insiders, Unionist conspirators 0r Republicans but we’re likely never to find out.

The safe from which the jewels were stolen is now in the Garda Museum in Dublin Castle.

Images: FBI and Press Association Archives.

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