Tunneling Through French Sewers for Treasure
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because not everything is about computer hacking.
By Fiona Zublin
Hands Up: Our take on some of the world’s most intriguing bank robberies. Read more.
After months of imprisonment, Albert Spaggiari promised to confess, if only the police would take him to the judge’s chambers. Once there, he handed over a sheet of paper covered in mysterious symbols — which distracted everyone long enough for the French criminal to make a break for the window, brave the two-floor fall to reach a getaway motorcycle waiting below and yell “Au revoir!” as he sped away.
Spaggiari was never arrested again. Instead, he lived life on the run, taunting cops — who gave him a life sentence in absentia — for letting him escape after stealing somewhere between $8 million and $32 million from a bank vault in Nice in 1976.
“Sans armes, ni haine, ni violence.”
Spaggiari and his gang accessed the bank via slime- and sewage-filled sewers, then tunneled 25 feet using chisels and drills to get into the vault of the Nice branch of French bank Société Générale. There were no digital masterminds stealing via computer, no acrobats dodging lasers. “This heist [was] very old-fashioned, very James Bond,” says Joseph Cummins, author of Heists. “I think it is precisely the non-technological nature of it that appeals.”
The heist was intentionally low-tech. While the mid-’70s may seem like a long time ago, most banks had alarms. But not this one — the Nice branch was undergoing some work in the basement, and the administrative delays that France is famous for had put off the installation of a new alarm system. “Who ever heard of a bank with no seismic or ultrasonic alarm, no TV monitoring system?” Spaggiari wrote in his taunting, self-aggrandizing 1979 account of the robbery, Fric-Frac. They may as well have left “the key under the doormat,” Spaggiari sneered, noting how he had overheard that the bank was without an alarm while visiting his safe-deposit box at the branch. Some suspect there was also a bit of collusion with a bank staffer — or that the criminal simply picked the bank because its vault walls run so close to the sewer lines.
Either way, the gang tunneled into the vault over the weekend of July 17, 1976, taking advantage of the weekend quiet following Bastille Day celebrations. They proceeded to weld the vault shut from the inside and break into safe-deposit boxes, using flashlights to see the gold bars and jewelry they were methodically bagging up. This being a French robbery, the thieves paused to dine on a four-course meal — using silverware they found in the boxes — that Spaggiari cooked on a portable stove they’d brought. In one of the boxes, the gang found pornographic photos, which were reportedly being kept for blackmail purposes. The robbers plastered them around the vault for the police to find.
They may have escaped police notice, but the criminals still had to contend with Mother Nature. Heavy rains sent water coursing through the sewers and flooding the tunnels. With water rising to neck-level, Spaggiari and his gang had to leave — even though only one-tenth of the 4,000 safe-deposit boxes had been opened. They left behind a message in chalk: “Sans armes, ni haine, ni violence.” Without guns, nor hate, nor violence.
The next day, it was obvious something was wrong — bank clerks couldn’t get the vault door to open — but it was only after drilling a hole in the wall to try to circumvent the malfunctioning door that they realized the bank had been robbed. Meanwhile, Spaggiari was trying to wash away the smells of the sewer, swilling espresso and dumping a whole box of bubble bath into the tub.
We’ll never know how much money was taken from the Société Générale. Outside the bank, crowds quickly turned ugly: Clients had rented safe-deposit boxes because they didn’t want anyone to know what was in them or how much money they had. When they were asked to tell the bank and the police all their secrets, many passed up the opportunity to claim restitution and opted instead to protect their privacy.
Cops eventually closed in on Spaggiari, who visited the U.S. and reportedly bragged about the robbery to the CIA, in October 1976. Six months later, he sped away on the back of a motorcycle, never to be seen again … until 12 years later, in 1989, when police reported that Spaggiari’s body had been found outside his mother’s house in France, brought there by unidentified persons. He was thought to have died of cancer elsewhere, possibly in Italy. Even if it was too late, the cops finally had their man.