History's Unsolved Heists

The Ones that Got Away

by J. M. Pressley
First published: June 8, 2008

An unsolved mystery remains timeless. Here are eight unsolved heists to pique any armchair sleuth's interest.

People always seem to respect (if not admire) a clever thief, especially when the plan is cunning and the haul is big. When the theft remains unsolved, however, it creates an aura of timeless interest. We're fascinated not only by the audacity of the crime but the guile that enables the perpetrator to get away with it. Here are eight unsolved heists to pique any armchair sleuth's interest.

The Irish "Crown Jewels"

Although not actually crown jewels, the pieces comprising the regalia of the Order of St. Patrick were a source of national pride. They were kept in a strongroom safe within the Office of Arms at Dublin Castle. The head of that office, Sir Arthur Vicars, held the only two keys to the safe. The jewels were last seen in early June of 1907, when Vicars showed them to a visiting librarian. On July 6, 1907, days before a royal visit, the entire set of badges and collars was discovered to be missing. Subsequent investigation pointed to an inside job; the safe had been opened using a key. Vicars, who refused to testify before a commission of private inquiry, took the blame for negligence and was summarily dismissed.

Vicars later pointed the finger at Francis Shackleton—brother of renowned explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton—in his will, although that part was not made public until 1976. There have been charges of a government whitewash over the intervening years, and whatever the truth may be, the true culprits were never revealed, nor have the jewels been seen since. It stands as an enduring puzzle of Irish history to this day.

The Brooklyn Museum Art Heist

On the night of Saturday, April 30, 1933, at least two thieves loitered in the Brooklyn Museum until closing time before going into hiding. They managed to elude the attention of eight night watchmen on the premises and steal 10 paintings from the fifth floor galleries, including works by Van Dyck and Rubens. The pilfered paintings were all smaller works, expertly removed from their frames. The thieves left behind a knotted, 60-foot rope tied to a post on the fourth floor that trailed out an open window down to the street below; police also discovered two sets of fingerprints on the windowsill. Although four of the stolen paintings were later recovered, police never came close to catching the perpetrators.

The Great Plymouth Mail Robbery

At 8:00 p.m. just outside Plymouth, Massachusetts on the night of August 14, 1962, a gang of thieves hijacked a mail truck bound for the Boston Federal Reserve carrying over $1.5 million in cash. One man dressed as a policeman diverted the truck via a fake detour sign to another imposter, who stopped the truck a few miles away. When the truck stopped, two more men armed with shotguns forced their way into the cab. The guards were disarmed and bound, and the men drove 25 miles north before transferring the cash into getaway cars and abandoning the truck and their captives.

It was the largest mail theft in U.S. history at the time, but a confident Postmaster General told a congressional panel that every mail holdup dating back to 1930 had been solved—and he expected a swift resolution to this case as well. Instead, the ensuing investigation and probe cost more by 1965 than the $1.5 million that had been stolen. The only two suspects to stand trial were hastily indicted a week before the statute of federal limitations ran out, and the jury took a little over an hour to acquit them. No further indictments were made, and the cash has never been recovered.

The 300 Million Yen Robbery

In Tokyo on the morning of December 10, 1968, a young motorcycle policeman stopped a bank transport car containing the Toshiba Fuchu factory's employee bonuses—nearly 300 million yen cash in strongboxes—packed in its trunk. The policeman told the four bank staffers in the vehicle that their branch manager's house had been bombed and that the police had received a tip that their own car had been rigged with explosives. The employees got out, and the policeman crawled underneath to check for the bomb. Moments later, red flames and smoke erupted beneath the vehicle, and the policeman scrambled out yelling that it was about to blow up. The employees scattered for cover. The supposed policeman, however, jumped into the car and drove away.

The thief had simply set off a flare once he was under the car. Police were later able to determine that he had transferred cars at least twice and evaded a dragnet set to catch him. In the process, the thief left behind nearly 120 pieces of evidence, most of which were common items deliberately scattered about to confuse detectives. The ensuing investigation involved 170,000 genuine policemen and 110,000 potential suspects, making it the largest criminal investigation in Japanese history. It also yielded absolutely nothing. After four decades, the perpetrator and his loot are still at large.

The Tucker Cross

When renowned local diver Teddy Tucker located the wreck of the San Antonio in 1955, the treasure included a 22-karat gold cross studded with emeralds. Twenty years later, Queen Elizabeth II was scheduled to open the new Bermuda Maritime Museum, where the cross had recently been relocated from the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo. Just before the Queen's arrival, however, the museum staff discovered to their horror that one of its most famous showpieces had been stolen and replaced with a plastic replica. An investigation by Scotland Yard and Interpol yielded no clues. The original has never been recovered, and the crime remains Bermuda's greatest unsolved mystery.

The First National Vault Robbery

Over the Columbus Day weekend of 1977, exactly $1 million in cash simply disappeared from the vault of the First National Bank of Chicago branch at Madison and Dearborn. The loss wasn't discovered until the end of business on Tuesday when auditors couldn't balance their cash accounts. The cash itself—in $50 and $100 bills—was locked inside a money cart within the vault; neither the vault nor the cart showed any signs of forced entry.

The FBI was called in and soon admitted to being baffled, although the circumstances led them to believe that the timing and lack of evidence pointed to "someone thoroughly familiar with bank operations." Although the FBI maintained interest in one particular suspect (a bank employee at the time) for years following the theft, no arrests were ever made. In 1981, police in a drug arrest recovered $2,300 in $100 bills taken from the bank, but none of the remaining cash has ever resurfaced.

The Gardner Art Museum Heist

At 1:24 a.m. on St. Patrick's Day of 1990, two men dressed as Boston policemen claimed to be investigating a reported disturbance and were let in by museum guards. The guards were immediately subdued and handcuffed, and in less than 90 minutes, the thieves left by a side door with 13 pieces—including priceless works by Manet, Rembrandt, and Degas—valued at well over $300 million. They also took the surveillance videotape from the recorder. Despite hundreds of man-hours of investigation by private detectives, Boston police, and the FBI; despite numerous tips; despite a standing $5 million reward; the largest art heist in history remains unsolved.

The Amsterdam Diamond Heist

At Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport in February of 2005, two men disguised as KLM employees—and driving a KLM car stolen from the same cargo terminal two weeks prior—hijacked a truck carrying diamonds bound for Antwerp. The pair of guards inside the truck were forced out at gunpoint in plain view of witnesses, and the thieves drove away without bloodshed. Investigators soon hinted at an inside job, noting that the thieves knew precisely where and when to strike, and that they had access to a secured freight area requiring passcard entry. The loot, consisting primarily of uncut stones, was estimated at nearly 75 million euros ($118 million US) and marks the largest diamond heist in history. Police have yet to solve the case.

Sources

CNN, Time Magazine, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun Times