The most stunning real-life robberies of all time

When reality beats fiction: a guy actually hijacked an airplane and parachuted from it, cash in hand.

October 18, 2016

Daring robberies and dangerous heists of anything from stacks of cash to valuable loot has always been a favourite theme of Hollywood films, with scripts and scenarios so incredibly far-fetched that we're happy to class them as crimes that only happen in movies.

But there have been some cases throughout history when the reality really does beat the fiction. Here are three stunning real-life heists that beat any film hands down:

D. B. Cooper flying heist, 1971

On the afternoon of November 24, 1971, the day before Thanksgiving, a man identifying himself as 'Dan Cooper' boarded what should have been a short domestic flight from Portland to Seattle. After the plane took off, Cooper, dressed in a smart suit and lightweight raincoat, lit up a cigarette and ordered a bourbon and soda. 

When the air-hostess brought him the drink he casually handed her a note written in all capital letters reading, "I HAVE A BOMB IN MY BRIEFCASE. I WILL USE IT IF NECESSARY. I WANT YOU TO SIT NEXT TO ME. YOU ARE BEING HIJACKED." 

The air-hostess did exactly as she was asked, and Cooper outlined his demands to her: $200,000, four parachutes and a fuel truck standing by in Seattle ahead of the plane's arrival. The air-hostess was then allowed to inform the pilot, who in turn notified the FBI of the hijacker's request.

On landing in Seattle, the authorities delivered the $200,000 and parachutes and refuelled the plane as per Cooper's demands. He then allowed all the passengers and some of the crew to leave the plane, keeping only the cockpit crew onboard, who he instructed to take off on a new flight path. After 20 minutes or so in the air, with the flight crew locked in the cockpit, it's thought that Cooper opened the rear door of the plane and parachuted to freedom.

To this date, nobody knows the fate that bestowed the mysterious D. B. Cooper. The FBI claim that in all likelihood he didn't survive the plane jump, but only 390 of the 20-dollar bills have been recovered, meaning that more 9,710 bills are still unaccounted for and perhaps more importantly, no remains have been found.


Fortaleza Banco Central burglary, 2005

On August 6, 2005 the vault of Banco Central in the Brazilian city of Fortaleza was broken into, and thieves got away with stacks of local currency worth around $71.6 million. That in itself is pretty stunning, but the real newsworthy aspect of this robbery is how the crooks planned and executed it. 

To tell that story we must go back to three months before the day of the robbery, when the gang rented a commercial property in the centre of the city nearby the bank building. After setting up a fake landscaping company under the pretense of renovating the house, the criminals set about digging a huge tunnel, 78 metres long, beneath two city blocks to a position directly underneath the bank's vault.

The tunnel, which ran around four metres under the city's surface, was constructed extremely competently, lined with wood and plastic, with its own lighting and even it own air-circulation system.

On the weekend of the robbery, the gang broke through the steel-reinforced concrete of the bank vaults floor and made off with the money inside, which weighed around 3.5 tonnes. Such was the sophistication of the heist, the crooks were even able to bypass the alarm system, meaning the crime was only discovered when the bank opened for business the following Monday.

However, that's where the success of this crime stopped, as it proved to be something of a poisoned chalice, with many of those thought to be involved ending up either arrested, kidnapped or dead. Although the gang escaped initially, five of them were picked up by police a month or so after the robbery and since then various gang members thought to be involved were kidnapped for ransom, arrested or even killed. So far authorities have recovered less than nine million Brazilian reals, from the whopping 160 million reals stolen.


Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft, 1990

With a large Irish immigrant population, the US city of Boston has always held huge celebrations on March 17, Saint Patrick's Day. However, on the Saint Patrick's Day of 1990, there were a couple of people who weren't taking part in the celebrations. Why? Because they were busy committing one of the most lucrative art thefts in history.

In the early hours, while the city was in the midst of its usual wild St. Paddy's Day party, a pair of thieves disguised as police offers approached the side entrance of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. "Police! Let us in!" they shouted. "We heard about a disturbance in the courtyard. 

Puzzled but trusting of the authorities, the security staff buzzed the fake officers into the museum. Immediately the intruders instructed one of the security guards to move away from the main security desk (where the only alarm button was) and stand facing the wall, where he was then handcuffed. The second security guard then arrived on the scene and was also put into cuffs.

Only at this point, as the second guard asked why he was being arrested, did the fake officers reveal that this was in fact a robbery, and as long as the security staff didn't give them any problems, they wouldn't get hurt.

The guards were then taken to the museum's basement, had their hands, feet and heads wrapped up in duct tape, and were handcuffed to the pipes, while the thieves had free run of the museum. After more than an hour of picking their favourite artwork to steal, the thieves made away with some 13 paintings including works by Manet, Rembrandt and Degas, worth an estimated $500 million.

Despite a reward of $5 million for information leading to the criminals' arrest, for 23 years the FBI drew a blank, with none of the leads they had producing any results. In 2013 the FBI said it believed it knew the identity of the thieves and that the robbery was carried out by a criminal organisation based in New England, however it was unwilling to publicly name them. The artwork has never been found, so the mystery rumbles on to this day.