The Real Life Ocean’s Eleven Heist and How the Mastermind Behind It Road His Way to Freedom After Being Caught
The morning of July 19th, 1976 started out like any other in the French city of Nice, its citizens having just enjoyed a relaxing three-day weekend for the national holiday of Bastille Day. But for customers of the Société Générale bank on Avenue Jean Médecin, it was quickly becoming clear that something was very wrong. All weekend the ATM outside the bank had refused to dispense cash, and when customers began arriving early Monday morning they were told by the flustered staff that the bank vault could not be opened. But this sort of thing had happened before, and by 10 AM specialists from safe manufacturer Fichet-Bauche had arrived to sort out the problem. But after two hours of work the vault doors stubbornly refused to budge, and at noon the decision was made to break through the walls of the vault and fix the door from the inside. Around 3PM the jackhammers finally broke through and a workman peered through the hole. What he saw made his jaw drop. The interior of the vault was a shambles. Hundreds of safety deposit boxes had been broken open and ransacked, covering the floor in a six-inch layer of cash, checks, bearer bonds, stock certificates, wills, and deeds. On the wall, spray-painted in giant letters, they found a message: “Without Weapons. Without Violence. Without Hate.” Nice had just been struck by the most audacious and stylish heist in French history.
Within minutes of the crime being discovered, the Société Générale was crawling with nearly every police inspector in the city. Fearing the thieves might be holed up in one of the vault’s three chambers, the police assigned Detective Pierre Lecoq, the smallest man on site, to crawl into the vault to investigate. So tight was the hole that Lecoq was forced to remove his trousers to fit through, later noting as he swept the vault that “It’s hard to feel brave in your underwear.” But the thieves were long gone, having escaped down a tunnel after welding the vault doors shut from the inside. After the doors were opened and more officers entered the vault, it became increasingly clear just how brazen and sophisticated a crime they were dealing with. Police found portable stoves, dirty dishes, half-empty wine bottles and even silver bowls which had been used as chamber pots, indicating that the robbers had spent all weekend methodically looting the vault. Even more impressive was the entry tunnel, which had been hand-carved through 10 metres of rock and concrete from the nearby sewer line running under Rue Deloye. Though only two feet wide and 20 inches wide – barely large enough for one person to crawl through – it was a masterpiece of construction, reinforced every few feet with wooden supports set in concrete. The floor of the tunnel was even carpeted, and pictures of nude women had been pinned up along its length to motivate the diggers. To power lights and tools, an electrical cable a half-mile long had been snaked down the tunnel and sewers to a nearby car park, where it was spliced into a lamppost.
Surveying the thieves’ handiwork, the men of the Nice Judicial Police must have groaned at the thought of the monumental investigation that lay ahead, no doubt imagining that the paper covering the vault floor would soon be rivalled by the paperwork they would be completing over their now-cancelled August holidays.The first order of business was to catalogue the hundreds of items strewn about the vault, a painstaking process that took 12 detectives four days to complete. In the end, the police estimated the thieves had made off with around 50 million Francs – equivalent to around 10 million US dollars. However, as many clients were unwilling to publicly disclose the contents of their safe deposit boxes, the actual amount stolen may never be known. Despite the embarrassment of riches inside the vault, the thieves had been careful to steal only those items which could not be easily traced, taking cash, gold ingots, and uncut jewels but leaving behind tens of millions of Francs in cheques, bonds, and jewelry. Indeed, tools and cooking supplies aside they had left behind surprisingly little evidence, with only one unidentifiable fingerprint being found in the entire vault.
But the police were not without leads. Several days before the heist, Inspector Valentin Boschetti was driving at night when he recognized one Daniel Michelluci – a career criminal well-known to the Nice police – in a car with an unknown passenger. Suspicious, Boschetti pulled Michelluci over. As he inspected the men’s identity papers, he noticed a set of large chisels lying on the car’s backseat, of a type used for cutting through reinforced concrete. But without a crime to charge them with, Boschetti let the men go. But when Boschetti visited the crime scene after the heist, he recognized the same chisels lying on the vault floor.
A week earlier, the Gendarmerie – the French national police – had received a tip about a supposedly empty villa 15 miles outside Nice frequented by suspicious-looking men. Officers were sent to investigate, but the occupants all gave convincing explanations, claiming they were renting the property from its regular owner. After the heist police returned to the villa, where they found a muddy waterproof flashlight matching those found in the vault. Arrest warrants were duly issued for the occupants.
For more than three months the police bided their time, methodically gathering every scrap of evidence as they waited for the perfect moment to strike Then, on October 26, the 100th day of the investigation, two men – Adrien Zeppi and Francis Pellegrin – were caught at a bank in the town of Roquefort-les-Pins trying to cash in gold ingots matching those stolen in Nice. The next day the police struck, arresting 27 suspects in Nice, Marseilles, and Paris and subjecting them to gruelling 48-hour interrogations. Twenty were released without charge, the remaining seven being brought before a judge who indicted six for complicity in the heist.
Yet given the mountain of effort and resources that had gone into it, the results of this police dragnet were rather lacklustre. All six of the indicted suspects were small-time criminals, with neither the skill nor intelligence needed to pull off such an elaborate crime. The real ringleaders were still at large. During the 100 days of investigation, detectives in Marseilles – the French capital of organized crime – kept a close eye on the city’s mob bosses, hoping to catch a whisper of the true mastermind behind the bank job. But as month after month passed without any leads, the police began to fear that “The Brain” – as they called the now almost mythical ringleader – was long gone. But then, just as the police had begun to give up hope, a new lead arrived from an unexpected source: the CIA. Several months before, a French Citizen named Albert Spaggiari had contacted the CIA and offered to burgle a number of European embassies for the Agency. While the police quickly confirmed that Spaggiari was a resident of Nice, the immediately began to doubt whether he could really be their man.
Albert Spaggiari, known to his friends as Bert, made his living as a photographer, running a small photo developing lab at 56 Route de Marseilles in Nice. He had also purchased and refurbished a run-down farm in the countryside where he and his wife Marcelle, a nurse, raised chickens on the weekends. He was, by all accounts, a quiet, hardworking man and a pillar of the community – the last man his neighbours would suspect of masterminding the greatest bank robbery in French history. But as the police dug deeper into his past, this clean-cut image quickly crumbled away. Born in 1932 in the town of Hyeres, from an early age Albert Spaggiari was drawn to crime, running away from home at age 17 to join legendary Sicilian bandit Salvatore Giuliano. At age 19 he was caught stealing a diamond for his girlfriend, and as part of a plea deal agreed to enlist the French Army. He became a paratrooper, serving in French Indochina where he committed numerous petty crimes including robbing a Hanoi brothel. For this he was shipped back to France in chains and spent four years in military prison. Upon release in 1958 he moved to North Africa, settling first in Senegal where he worked for Fichet-Bauche – the same firm who made the Nice bank vault – and then Algeria. Here he became involved with the OAS, a right-wing underground militia trying to prevent Algeria gaining independence from France. Upon learning that French president Charles de Gaulle would be visiting his home town of Hyeres, Spaggiari offered to assassinate him. While the OAS declined, Spaggiari carried out a mock assassination anyway, getting within 5 metres of de Gaulle with his rifle but not pulling the trigger. Spaggiari was eventually caught and convicted for his political activities, spending a further three and a half years in jail. In 1968 he moved to Nice, met and married Marcelle, and settled down to a quiet life as a photographer.
On October 28, 1976, Spaggiari was having lunch with his wife and a friend at a bar across from his photography shop, having just returned from a trip to Japan where he had accompanied the Mayor of Nice, Jacques Médecin, as a photographer. Having entered the bar to pay the bill, Marcelle and the friend emerged to see Spaggiari being driven away in a police car. At the station the police subjected Spaggiari to the customary 48 hour interrogation, but he remained calm and collected throughout. As the 36th hour ticked by without progress, his interrogators began to wonder whether they hadn’t actually made a colossal mistake. It wasn’t until they threatened to arrest and interrogate his wife that Spaggiari finally cracked and confessed to masterminding the heist.
No one is sure what exactly inspired Spaggiari to abandon his quiet, respectable life and pull off the crime of the century. Some sources claim he got the idea from the 1972 novel Loophole by Robert Pollock, in which a group of thieves tunnel into a bank vault from the sewers; others that the thought of it while opening an account at the Société Générale. Whatever the case, Spaggiari immediately set about casing the bank, photographing every square inch of the vault and placing an alarm clock in his safety deposit box to test for acoustic and seismic sensors. To his surprise, the vault had none. After obtaining the blueprints of the bank from the public records office, Spaggiari realized that the vault lay only 10 metres from a nearby sewer line, which itself lay only 400 meters from a service road running alongside the underground Peillon River. With this information in hand, Spaggiari travelled to Marseilles and presented his plan to mob boss Jacques Cassandri, who immediately expressed interest and supplied the necessary men and materials. Two teams of 10 thieves were organized – one made up of mobsters and the other Spaggiari’s old friends from the OAS.
The equipment was driven in a van to the service road, then transported through the sewers in inflatable rubber rafts. Over two months the men painstakingly bored through 10 metres of concrete, stone and soil to the bank vault, digging by hand to avoid making too much noise. The date of the break-in was set for the morning of Friday, July 16, after the bank had closed for the long weekend. But after chiselling through the final half-metre of reinforced concrete, the thieves discovered they had a major problem: their tunnel had emerged right in the middle of a large freestanding safe weighing several tons. Undaunted, they used hydraulic rams to tip the safe forward, aware that if it tipped over completely the noise would bring the police down on their heads. In the end they managed to wedge it far enough for a person to crawl through. Once inside, the thieves had a field day, tearing open 317 safety deposit boxes, the safe holding fresh bills for the street-level ATM, and even the after-hours deposit vault, watching with glee as the citizens of Nice obliviously dropped their valuables right into their laps. After three days of loot and revelry, the team packed up their prizes and prepared to leave their final message and make their getaway. Originally the men had intended to write “Thank you, Mister Director,” but finding this too banal they eventually settled on their now infamous parting words.
After giving his confession, Spaggiari was taken to the bank vault where he provided further details, convincing the authorities of his authenticity. He was then indicted and sent to jail to await trial. But if the authorities thought the case was closed, well, then they didn’t know Albert Spaggiari. On March 10, 1977, Spaggiari appeared with his lawyer before a judge at the Palais de Justice in Paris. Spaggiari handed the judge a document which he claimed contained evidence pertinent to his case, but when the judge read the paper he found it was written in an indecipherable code. With the judge thus distracted, Spaggiari proceeded to leap out the window, landing on the roof of a car 9 feet below. His training as a paratrooper having helped prevent him from breaking both ankles, Spaggiari then leapt onto a motorbike driven by an accomplice, taking a moment to shout “Au revoir!” to the stunned judge before speeding away.
Incredibly, Albert Spaggiari was never recaptured, spending the next 12 years on the run between South America and Europe. During this time he wrote an account of the heist titled “The Sewers of Paradise” and managed to sneak into France several times to visit his wife before finally dying of lung cancer in 1989. His body was returned to France and buried at his family home in Hyeres. 44 years on, and little of the $10 million stolen from the Société Générale has ever been recovered, the 1976 heist remaining one of the greatest unsolved cases in French history. Now, where is that French Ocean’s Eleven remake?
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Daley, Robert, The Heist of the Century, The New York Times, December 19, 1976, https://www.nytimes.com/1976/12/19/archives/the-heist-of-the-century-inside-the-soci-t-g-n-rale-detectives.html
Mulhall, Dermot & Krajanova, Mulhall, The Scandal of the French Riviera – the Great Bank Robbert of La Society Generale Bank, Reservation Riviera, http://reservationriviera.com/the-scandals-of-the-french-riviera-the-great-bank-robbery-of-la-societe-generale-bank/
Mastermind of Notorious Theft in France Dies, Orlando Sentinel, June 12, 1989, https://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/os-xpm-1989-06-12-8906130344-story.html
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Reminds of “Inside Man” 2006