Why rob banks? Because that’s where the money is. It’s a saying often inaccurately attributed to U.S. bank robber “Slick Willie” Sutton, but it’s true. Banks have historically been big targets for robbers because of all the money in their vaults, as well as all the jewelry, stock certificates and other valuables in their safe-deposit boxes.
As the heists featured below reveal, people will go to great lengths to rob a bank. Those lengths include digging secret tunnels, exploding walls, kidnapping bank executives and disarming alarms with surfboard repair foam. (One wonders if the surfer/robbers in the film Point Break ever thought of that.)
Here are five daring bank heists where the robbers walked away with millions.
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1. The Baker Street Bank Heist
In one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, “The Red-Headed League,” a group of men attempts to rob a bank vault by digging a tunnel underneath it from a nearby building. Eighty years after the story’s publication, a very similar robbery took place on the street where the fictional Holmes resided.
In 1971, a group of robbers rented out a ground-floor store near the Baker Street branch of Lloyds Bank in London. The group had discovered that the bank had a vault full of safe-deposit boxes and that the vault’s alarm sensors on its floor had been turned off due to nearby road work, triggering false alarms. From the rented store, the robbers dug a tunnel that they used to enter the vault through its floor in early September.
An amateur ham radio enthusiast named Robert Rowlands actually overheard the robbers chatting on their walkie-talkies during the robbery, and alerted the police. The police checked the vault door at the Baker Street branch while the robbers were inside; but because the door was still locked, they didn’t think anything was amiss.
The robbers made off with an estimated 3 million British pounds (around 7 million U.S. dollars at the time and $51 million today). However, one of them had made the mistake of using his own name to lease the store where they dug the tunnel, and the oversight led to his conviction, along with three other men involved in the robbery.
2. The United California Bank Heist
On March 24, 1972, a group of robbers broke into the United California Bank in Laguna Nigel, California, based on a tip that President Richard Nixon had stashed some $30 million in illegal campaign funds there. The robbers, who flew in from Ohio, made off with an estimated $12 million—making it the largest U.S. bank heist at the time.
Rumor had it that the $30 million had actually been a bribe from Jimmy Hoffa, former president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. (Nixon commuted Hoffa’s prison sentence in 1971.). The robbery team was led by Amil Dinsio, who recruited his nephew, brother, brother-in-law and two other men to carry out the heist.
“[Nixon] was not one of our favorite people to begin with,” recalled Harry Barber, Dinsio’s nephew who participated in the heist, to the Daily Beast in 2019. “We were told that Nixon was hiding some money. So we figured, he couldn’t cry to nobody. Who’s he going to cry to? He stole it himself!”
The six-man team disabled the bank’s alarm system by spraying the inside of the main alarm with a surfboard repair foam. They used dynamite to blow a hole in the roof of the bank on a Friday and spent the whole weekend going through the vault. The FBI eventually tracked down the robbers, but it’s still unclear whether the money they stole was actually part of Nixon’s secret stash.
3. The Northern Bank Heist
On the Sunday before Christmas in 2004, a group of masked robbers arrived at the homes of two bank executives in Northern Ireland. The executives, Chris Ward and Kevin McMullan, both worked at the headquarters of Northern Bank in Belfast. The robbers took the families of both men hostage and threatened to kill them if Ward and McMullan didn’t help the robbers steal from the bank.
The next day, Ward and McMullan arrived at work as though nothing had happened, per the kidnappers’ demands. That evening, after the bank closed, Ward and McMullan opened the vault for the kidnappers, who made off with an estimated 26.5 million British pounds (about 42.5 million U.S. dollars at the time).
Seemingly without evidence, police officers blamed the robbery on the IRA, the Irish paramilitary organization that opposes British rule. These accusations put a strain on the ongoing Northern Ireland peace process within the United Kingdom. However, in the 18 years since the robbery, no one has ever been charged for it.
4. The British Bank of the Middle East Heist
In January 1976, amid the chaos of the Lebanese Civil War, a group of robbers staged the largest-ever theft of safe-deposit boxes, according to the Guinness World Records.
The target was the British Bank of the Middle East in Beirut. Using explosives, the group blasted through a wall that the bank shared with a Catholic church. After locksmiths opened the vault, the robbers made off with an estimated $20 to $50 million in gold bars, stock certificates, jewelry and various currencies.
Although British and U.S. media have alleged that the robbers had some connection to the Palestine Liberation Organization, no one has ever been charged in this heist.
5. The Banco Central Heist
In 2005, a group of robbers rented a building in Fortaleza, Brazil in the name of an artificial turf company. In reality, the group wasn’t making synthetic turf—they were digging a tunnel more than 250 feet long to the city’s Banco Central Bank branch.
The robbers took about three months to dig the tunnel from the rented building to the bank. On the first weekend in August, the team broke through the bank floor and made off with more than 150 million Brazilian reals (around 70 million U.S. dollars at the time). It wasn’t until Monday that employees at the bank realized the theft had occurred.
Two months later, the supposed leader of the robbery, 26-year-old Luis Fernando Ribeiro, was kidnapped and held for ransom. After his family paid $890,000 in ransom, the kidnappers killed him and left his body on a road outside Rio de Janeiro. The New York Times reported at the time that some state prosecutors in Brazil believed police officers may have been involved in Ribeiro’s kidnapping and murder.