Hands Up! 10 Heists that Netted Millions (and Billions)

    These schemes promised millions–so long as the perpetrators could get away with it.

    Their plans were incredibly complex and head-slappingly simple. They dug tunnels and rigged explosives, wore gas masks and women’s wigs to get the job done. Many of the culprits were eventually caught. But for the fortunate few who got away it, they became millionaires. 

    Here are the 10 boldest million-dollar heists in history.

    The Job: Great Train Robbery of 1963

    The Score: $4.5 million

    In the early morning hours of August 8, 1963, 15 men in ski masks stopped a Royal Mail train with a phony red signal light just outside of Ledburn, England. The gang boarded the stalled locomotive and, after clubbing the conductor, unloaded over 120 mail sacks stuffed full of cash. The stickup went swimmingly, and upon arriving at their hideout in nearby Buckinghamshire, the gang even played a celebratory game of Monopoly with the loot. Sadly, the men failed to follow playtime’s golden rule: Clean up when you’re finished! Police trailed the train robbers back to the farmhouse hideout, where they discovered the Monopoly board covered in everyone’s fingerprints. The robbers were arrested shortly thereafter.

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    The Job: JFK Airport Valuables Room Raid of 1978

    The Score: $6 million in cash, $1 million in jewels

    They planned to net $2 million tops. But when a gang of masked gunmen with thick Brooklyn accents strong-armed their way into the JFK Airport Valuables Room, they found over $6 million in U.S. bills, $1 million in jewels, and an untold amount of foreign currency. FBI investigators poured over the case and soon identified Lucchese crime family associate Jimmy “The Gent” Burke as their prime suspect. While investigators never officially charged him for this particular crime, the relentless police scrutiny sent the mobster’s paranoia into overdrive. By the mid-80s, the vast majority of his team met brutal and mysterious ends.

    The Job: Heathrow Airport Brink’s-MAT Warehouse Raid of 1983

    The Score: $26 million

    Photo Credit: Scott Barbour / Getty Images

    The masked gang behind this heist planned to net a paltry $3 million when they broke into the Brink’s-MAT security warehouse at Heathrow Airport. Instead, on November 26, 1983, they hit the motherlode: 3 tonnes of gold bullion plus assorted jewels and cash totaling $26 million. While some members of the gang were eventually caught, the priceless bullion was never recovered—most likely boiled down and sold off to jewelers. According to the BBC, anyone wearing English gold bought after 1983 may very well be sporting spoils from the infamous raid.

    The Job: Banco Central Bank Burglary of 2005

    The Score: $70 million

    These Brazilian burglars went to great lengths–and depths–to hit the jackpot. After renting a nearby farmhouse and tacking up phony signs for a landscaping business, the gang began digging a 250-foot tunnel toward the Banco Central bank vault. In all truth, they did a killer job. The tunnel traversed two city blocks; it was fortified with plastic and wood and rigged with lights and an air filtration system. Construction took three exhaustive months. On the weekend of August 6, 2005, they blasted through the bank vault wall and made off with $70 million in uninsured currency. Just two months later, mastermind Luis Fernando Ribeiro was found dead and dumped on a remote country road outside Rio de Janeiro, his body riddled with bullets.

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    The Job: Antwerp Diamond Theft of 2003

    The Score: $100 million

    Antwerp Diamond Center
    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

    An astonishing 80 percent of the world’s diamond supply travels through Antwerp, and the heavily fortified Antwerp Diamond Center is at the heart of the city’s bustling jewel trade. Little wonder, then, that a group of highly skilled jewel thieves broke into the ADC’s underground vault system and made off with millions. On February 15, the bandits emptied 123 of the vault’s 160 steel safety deposit boxes; they nabbed so many priceless stones that handfuls were left littered across the floor. Leonardo Notarbartolo, the maestro behind the heist, lived next door to the ADC for years before the job went down, meticulously planning his raid. While Notarbartolo was eventually busted, the jewels were never recovered.

    The Job: Harry Winston Jewel Heist of 2008

    The Score: $107 million

    On December 4, 2008, four men, three dressed as women, entered a world-famous jewelry boutique in Paris right before closing. Sound like the setup to a cheesy joke? Not so fast, mon frère! The last-minute window shoppers quickly turned deadly when they ripped off their wigs, brandished loaded weapons, and bullied the clerks–whom they knew by name–into the back room. Twenty minutes later, the dolled-up robbers strolled out into the Parisian evening with over $100 million in jewels, never to be seen again.

    The Job: The Schiphol Airport heist of 2005

    The Score: $118 million

    This big kahuna shakedown holds the world record for most lucrative jewel heist, a title previously held by the 2003 Antwerp job. On February 25, 2005, four men disguised as airport employees surrounded a van they knew contained millions in uncut diamonds. The thieves ordered the driver out at gunpoint and forced him to lie face down on the tarmac. They then hopped in and drove off, successfully executing the biggest—and least dramatic—jewel heist in history.

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    The Job: Gardner Art Museum Heist of 1990

    The Score: $300 million

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

    On the night of March 18, 1990–while the merry revelers of Boston celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day with just one more shot–two men dressed as police officers walked out of the Gardner Museum with over $300 million in stolen artwork. After binding the museum’s night guards, the art thieves crudely cut 13 masterworks from their frames using box cutter blades. The heist lasted a leisurely 81 minutes. Despite an exhaustive investigation, the burglars–and their stolen paintings–remain at large.

    The Job: Millennium Dome Heist of 2000

    The Score: $700 million

    This extravagant disaster gets a gold star for sheer ambition. In 2000, London’s massive Millennium Dome opened its doors in celebration of the new era. Numerous exhibitions were on display. Among the most prominent: a De Beers jewel exhibit, which contained the flawless “Millennium Star” and 12 priceless blue diamonds. A successful robbery of the stones would net over $700 million. Surely, someone had to be crazy enough to give it a shot?

    On the morning of November 7, four would-be thieves rushed the jewel room armed with semi-automatic weapons. They detonated multiple gas canisters and wore bulletproof vests with gas masks strapped to their faces. In the Thames, a speedboat waited; their outlandish getaway vehicle. The men planned to crack through the fortified glass cases with sledgehammers and a high-powered nail gun. Alas, the London police had been tipped off months ago. Two hundred officers laid in wait around the Millennium Dome, including a team disguised as janitors. The criminals were apprehended without a single bullet fired. The exhibit reopened later that afternoon —after a quick cleaning, of course.

    The Job: Central Bank of Iraq of 2003

    The Score: $1 billion

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

    On March 18, 2003, just one day before the United States began its invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein sent his son Qusay to the Central Bank of Iraq with a handwritten note. In short, it read: “I am your leader—now give me everything you’ve got.” The tellers consented, and crates of cash were loaded onto trucks over a five-hour period, totaling $1 billion. Saddam’s wholesale withdrawal remains the biggest bank heist in history. While bundles of bills were discovered behind a false wall after American forces captured Uday Hussein’s palace, most of the money remains missing.

    Featured photo: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

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