2019: The year in heists and capers

A sign your heist has gone wrong.
A sign your heist has gone wrong.
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
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The romance of the heist is undeniable. No mere burglary, a heist implies three things: first,  that there is a treasure; second, a protagonist with the patience, planning, coordination, and  misdirection to capture it; and third, ideally, a daring escape. The heist rubs elbows with confidence games and forgeries in the annals of crimes whose craftsmanship demands respect, of a sort. Someone has to keep the police and insurance companies on their toes, after all.

Working alongside a team of enthusiasts, we’ve collected a reading list featuring more than a dozen of the most intriguing heists of 2019—or, at least, more than a dozen of the best heist stories published in 2019, since the mystery of successful job is often not unravelled for years.

The biggest art heist of a generation

If anyone understands the heist mentality, it is the French. “French people are very fond of thieves’ stories when there is no blood,” a reporter for Le Figaro explains in Jake Halpern’s portrait of the impeccable thief Vjeran Tomic, known to Parisians as Spiderman. “For us, Tomic is a perfect thief… [he] acted without weapons, did not strike anyone, robbed not an individual but a poorly supervised museum, fooled the guards without any difficulty, and chose the works he took with taste.” Take note for your future criminal planning.

The Pink Panthers at work

Less beloved, the Pink Panthers are one of the most infamous heist organizations, a shadowy group originating in eastern Europe and held responsible for major burglaries around the world. Their brazen daylight heists, typically planned down to the minute, strike fear into the heart of luxury goods stores and art galleries. In 2007 and 2008, two major robberies at Harry Winston in Paris made a mockery of the the high-end jeweler’s elaborate security precautions. Between the two jobs, the Panthers made off with hundreds of pieces worth more than $100 million—but their second bite at the apple left enough clues for the police to find some of the gang and how they pulled off the pinch. Some of the culprits are in jail, but the masterminds are still likely at large, along with much of the jewelry they took. At least one of the diamonds appears to have surfaced, however, on the finger of Vladimir Putin’s wife.

The cryptocurrency conspiracies

There are few things as heistable as cryptocurrencies, as evinced by a parade of hacked exchanges—Binance lost some $40 million worth of bitcoin earlier this year. Heck, Vietnamese filmmakers made a movie called “Bitcoin Heist” way back in 2016 and the inevitable true crime podcast about crypto bandits dropped earlier this year.

No, to impress us now, cryptocurrency criminals need to find more elegant ways to make off with their digital gains. Iceland has become a leader in bitcoin mining thanks to its cold weather and plentiful geothermal energy, which make running the server farmers that underly the cryptocurrency much cheaper. But someone had a bright idea—why steal the currency when you can just steal the computers that mint it? Nota bene: Attempting to escape from jail is legal in Iceland.

Still, there are even more elegant ways to make off with crypto cash: Just start a new currency, collect money from investors, and die. Or maybe it just seems like you died

Annals of American bank robbery

What’s the best way to escape after robbing a bank? Getaway cars are popular, but a bicycle-riding thief robbed 26 banks between 1998 and 2000, more than were struck by the legendary John Dillinger. Tom Justice’s journey from Olympic hopeful to serial bank robber epitomizes the self-destructive rush at the heart of so many heist stories.

Meanwhile, there’s a trope that you can find in just about every heist movie: Just one more big score before getting out of the business for good. That’s the theme at work in this tale of a near-blind, one-footed stick-up man, but this retirement heist is unlike anything you’ve seen on the big screen.

Sometimes, the best way to steal from a bank is to work there. A manager at an Alaska branch of KeyBank almost pulled off the perfect inside job in 2011, making off with nearly $4 million and going on the run to Mexico, where his luck ran out at the border. At least he’s got this going for him: Law enforcement believes some $500,000 is hidden and awaiting him after he finishes a ten-year jail sentence.

The great trans-Saharan bird heist

We love a weird commodity heist—sure, gold and jewels have a certain traditional appeal, but what about ostriches? There was once a time when the feathers were so central to the fashion industry that they became a trade item of geopolitical import. Colonial South Africa had a near monopoly on the feather trade, but enormous ostrich feathers were reaching European markets from somewhere else in Africa. That led the UK to commission a secret expedition to find the source of these feathers and make off with a flock of ostriches to help preserve English feather dominance—just in time for new cultural trends to render the herculean effort a waste of time.

The Humboldt heists

Speaking of heist-worthy commodities, cannabis has to be on the list. But the actual flower is a hassle to move, what with its volume and odor. The cash proceeds of cannabis sales make a much more inviting target, and that’s what we find in this tale from northern California, where the burgeoning weed economy has created opportunities, legitimate and otherwise, for cannabis producers, including those linked to international crime syndicates. A group of robbers who met at a strip club planned to steal $3 million in cash from a Bulgarian national who earned it producing and trafficking marijuana. What could go wrong?

That’s not the only unusual product available for thieves in NorCal: Rustlers also try to make off with pieces of Redwood trees on public lands that are prized by furniture-makers and collectors.

The great gold ship heist

GOLD! Now we’re on more familiar ground for a good heist. Or, at least, a multi-decade legal battle. Tommy Thompson, a treasure hunter and inventor who developed technology to find lost ships, raised money in the 1980s to launch an expedition and find the wreck of the Central America, a 19th century ship loaded with gold and treasure. He found it in 1989—but that’s where his troubles really began. Historical claimants began demanding a piece of the find, and so did his investors, leaving the whole find tied up in court. Eventually, Thompson disappeared with 500 gold coins, resulting in a manhunt that found him in 2015, living in a Florida hotel room with more than $400,000 in cash. But what happened to all that treasure?

The surfers who stole the Star of India

In 1964, the Star of India—a 563.35 carat Sapphire that is among the largest in the world—was stolen from the New York Museum of Natural History, part of a haul worth $3.3 million today. The museum’s security system had consisted of a single guard and some malfunctioning alarms, which was enough to convince a group of flashy surf-loving criminals from Florida that they couldn’t resist knocking off the Hall of Jewels. This year, Jack “Murph the Surf” Murphy gave the New York Times the story behind the heist that captivated Gotham.

Audio Bonus: The Crazy Eddie heist that went too well

People came to Crazy Eddie’s discount electronics stores because of their famously kooky commercials—but did you know it was, from start-to-finish, a massive financial crime?

In a fascinating interview on Bloomberg’s Odd Lots podcast, the company’s former CFO Sam Antar explains how it all went down. The real heist here wasn’t the run-of-the-mill insurance and tax fraud taking place, but the decision to take the firm public—making off with investor money in return for what was a doomed business without its criminal element. The real perfection of this tale is that the family behind the firm decided to take the company private again—only to be outbid by a rival purchaser, exposing the whole scheme.

Honorable mentions

Can you come up with the best strategy to steal copper from a Chilean mine?

Brazilian thieves stoles 1,500 pounds of gold in three minutes.

One of “the most celebrated classics professors in the world” has been nabbed for stealing and selling fragments of ancient bibles.

One of world’s leading experts on Southeast Asian art was busted… looting Southeast Asian art.

China’s on-going attempts to smuggle US space technology out of the country.

A rare Ferrari worth $2.2 million was briefly stolen during a test drive.

Thieves used AI to fake the voice of a corporate executive and steal $240,000.

The purloined pups worth $44,000.

The theft of a beloved lemur revealed the thief behind a string of break-ins.

The octogenarian marauder of the upper East side.

The Florida tunnel job that never pan-handled out.

An attempt to rob a Houston mayoral candidate’s house goes wrong.

Currently unsolved mysteries

Who made off with the treasure in this German castle’s vault?

Who stole this $1 million gold toilet?

Who stole two lamps and a chair, worth $150,000, from USC?

Who cut into the home of the Fraternal Order of the Eagles and made off with $100,000?

Who robbed Trump Tower?