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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Coolest thief ever

Albert Spaggiari (1932-1989) is known as the mastermind behind what was known at the time as the greatest heist ever, the robbery of the Societe Generale bank in Nice, France, in 1976.

Spaggiari grew up in Hyeres, the son of a shopkeeper. The story -- perhaps apocryphal, perhaps not -- is that he committed his first robbery in order to be able to give a girlfriend a diamond.

As a young man, Spaggiari joined the French Foreign Legion, the legendary refuge for criminals on the lam. He later fought as a paratrooper in the Indochina War.

He became involved with the OAS, the secretive nationalist organization which wanted France to maintain control of Algeria. He was sent to prison for several years for his OAS activities. He wrote his first book, (translated as) "One Needn't Laugh with the Barbarians," during this stretch.

By 1976 he was living a quiet middle class life as the owner of a photography studio in Nice. But he was bored, and as he later described it, felt like a "200 pound walking carcass."

When Spaggiari heard that the vault of the Societe Generale bank in Nice was located right next to the sewer lines, he began planning. He rented a safety deposit box himself and placed an alarm clock in it; he set the alarm to go off in the middle of the night to check to see if there was any acoustic or seismic detection gear. But there was none, since the vault was considered impregnable.

With the aid of the Corsican Union (the French Mafia), along with some ex-OAS friends, Spaggiari put together a team of men to do the job. They spent two long months digging a twenty-six foot long tunnel from the sewers into the vault. Finally, on July 16, during the middle of the Bastille Day celebration, the men broke in. Spaggiari then served his men a meal of wine and pate so they could have their own celebration inside the vault. They then opened 400 deposit boxes and made off with 60 million francs.

Before they left, the men wrote on the wall of the vault, in French, "Without hatred, without violence, without weapons." (This later became the title of a French movie about the robbery.)

At first the police were baffled by the break in. But by October, a former girlfriend of one of the thieves tipped them off, and they arrested the man. The man eventually broke down after an extended interrogation and named names. Spaggiari was arrested along with the rest of the gang.

Spaggiari hired an old friend, Jacques Peyrat, a French Foreign Legion veteran who was a member of the National Front, to be his lawyer.

During his hearings, Spaggiari convinced the judge that the purpose of the heist was to finance a secret political organization called Catena. (Spaggiari's previous involvement with the OAS made this claim more credible, but in fact the organization was totally fictitious.) Spaggiari then wrote up a document which he claimed was proof of the existence of this organization. He coded the document so that he would need to spend more time with Judge Bouaziz in his second floor chambers.

One day, while conferring with the judge, Spaggiari walked to the second floor window, opened it, and jumped down onto the roof of a car parked below. He rolled off the car like the paratrooper he was and onto the back of a waiting motorcycle, which sped off through the traffic. As the judge stared open-mouthed from the open window, Spaggiari turned and gave him the finger.

Spaggiari was never caught.

After his escape, Spaggiari was sentenced in absentia to life in prison. He reportedly went to Argentina and underwent plastic surgery to make himself unrecognizable. He also was rumored to have returned to France several times, secretly visiting his mother and his wife.

Spaggiari later wrote a book about his escapades, "Fric-Frac: The Great Riviera Bank Robbery." He described how, with the war over and most of his friends dead, he had felt trapped by his humdrum existence in modern society. He also gave an account of how distasteful it was to have had to spend such a long time in the fetid sewers.

Spaggiari died of throat cancer in 1989 while with his wife in the Piedmont section of Italy.

Hollywood has a tendency to make movies about lovable, loyal, admirable, honorable criminals, as in The Godfather, The Sting, Oceans Eleven, and so on. Such characterizations are almost always misleading.



Tony Austin said...

You must rent the DVD Sexy Beast! It is a heist movie, a thriller and a love story. You will LOVE how they pulled off the heist. Very similar only way better!

John Craig said...

Thank you Tony, I've seen it, it is an excellent movie. I actually wondered when I saw it if they had gotten the idea from the Spaggiari heist.

Anonymous said...

Nice to see someone writing about Spaggiari. He was a complicated man - very right wing, a neo-fascist essentially, who fought in the 1968 Paris riots with left wing students against the police because he hated President De Gaulle so much.

Here's a link to a detailed history of the Nice heist:

John Craig said...

Anonymous --
Just finished the article, it's excellent, thank you. I remember reading the NY Times Magazine article about the heist back in 1976; they said that as Spaggiari rode off on the back of his friend's motorcycle he turned around and gave the judge the finger; the account you linked to said that he said "au revoir." (I think I prefer the Times version of that particular part of the story.)

By the way, if browse around this blog a bit, you'll see that Spaggiari's right wing leanings wouldn't disqualify him from being the coolest thief ever in my book.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. Spaggiari looks like very much like someone that I know (who is now in his late 50's). Their physical resemblance is uncanny.


John Craig said...

Thank you Birdie. Coincidentally, my son and I were just talking about Spaggiari today. The ultimate cool guy.