As ‘Ocean’s 8’ hits cinemas this week, Francisco Garcia dons a balaclava to look back at London’s heists through the years
Baker Street robbery, September 1971
State secrets, press gagging orders and D-notices. £1.5 million in cash and swag. Swirling rumours of compromising royal photos and saucy cabinet minister snaps. Enough notoriety to generate a Jason Statham caper 37 years after the deed. It could only be the 1971 Baker Street bank job.
This is a tale that hasn’t lost any weirdness in the intervening years. On September 11 1971, at 11.15pm, amateur radio enthusiast Robert Rowlands began to pick up some highly unusual conversation over a competing frequency from his perch in his Wimpole Street flat. Two distorted voices were bickering about whether to stop whatever drilling and cutting they were up to or to continue through the night. Electrified, Rowlands dialled Marylebone police station to report what sounded like a crime in progress. The policeman on the line told him to keep recording the conversation. Probably nothing,
he was assured.
Turns out that ‘nothing’ was one of the most controversial and baffling heists in British history. Four men burrowed into the vaults holding safety deposit boxes at the Baker Street branch of Lloyds Bank from a base camp set up in a leather goods shop two doors down. A healthy night’s takings they were too: the quoted amounts work out at more than £30m in today’s money. We may never know the contents of the stolen boxes (there were rumours involving racy photos of Princess Margaret), but the robbery sufficiently frightened the government into imposing a ban on reporting the case.
The ban led to endless conspiracy theories. However, some concrete facts remain. Benjamin Wolfe, Anthony Gavin, Thomas Stephens and Reginald Tucker were arrested after Wolfe was found to have rented their base under his own name. They were each sentenced to 12 years in jail. None of the money or contents were ever recovered. Some mysteries remain just that.
Hatton Garden Heist, April 2015
On April 7 2015, the Metropolitan Police announced that a huge burglary had taken place at 88-90 Hatton Garden, one of the city’s oddest and most mysterious streets. It came as a surprise to those in the know. How could it happen in an area renowned as a secure hub for jewellers and diamond merchants, and a haven for those with wealth or secrets to hide?
Surprise amplified to astonishment in the days after, as the sheer scale and brazenness of the theft became apparent. It was reported that tens of millions’
worth of loot had been plundered from the boxes at the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Company, with the figure growing exponentially on every telling.
This meticulously executed four-day raid involved drilling through 50cm of concrete by nightfall, wriggling along a lift shaft and leaving zero physical evidence.
Media speculation was feverish. Who could have pulled off a raid so audacious and slick? Surely we were talking top-tier crime committed by a powerful new strain of razor-sharp crook… Not quite.
Brian Reader (76), John ‘Kenny’ Collins (74) and Terry Perkins (67) were three of the eight mostly geriatric co-defendants who stood trial for one of the most ambitious robberies in British history. Battle-hardened old villains on one final, spectacular job. The press dubbed them variously as ‘Dad’s Army’, ‘Diamond Wheezers’ and ‘Bad Grandpas’. Described by the police as ‘analogue criminals operating in a digital world’, they forgot to dispose of the getaway van, toss their mobile phones or delete their internet histories (one had been looking up ‘drilling’ and purchased a copy of ‘Forensics for Dummies’ before the big event).
Although custodial sentences rained down on the gang, it’s said that only £4.3m has been recovered from the estimated £13.7m haul. So, all in all, decent work for a crew with more Freedom Passes than functioning hips.
Knightsbridge Security Deposit Robbery, July 1987
Valerio Viccei fancied himself as someone larger than life. ‘The Italian Stallion’, ‘The Wolf’, ‘The Gentleman Thief’… he basked in his (self-appointed) nicknames the way non-megalomaniacs bask in love.
On June 12 1987 he achieved his crowning glory: masterminding the theft of an estimated £60m hoard from the vaults of the Knightsbridge Safe Deposit Centre.
A manager and a guard were threatened with pistols before Viccei (wanted for 50 armed robberies in his native Italy) and his gang fled to Latin America. He might have got away with it, but police apprehended him when he popped back to the UK to retrieve his Ferrari.
After his arrest and conviction, Viccei started doing 22 years’ hard time on the Isle of Wight until he was deported to Italy to serve the rest of his sentence. However, a posthumous biography published in 2004 points to his final end. ‘Live by the Gun, Die by the Gun’ arrived after Viccei was blown to pieces by Italian police during a chase in 2000 while on day release from jail. Still, he died doing what he loved.