The Longform Guide to Audacious Heists

Longform.org's guide to the greatest long articles ever written.
June 15 2013 6:30 AM

Diamonds, D.B. Cooper, and the Mona Lisa

The Longform guide to audacious heists.

Visitors to the Louvre look at the Mona Lisa, which was stolen in 1911.
Visitors to the Louvre look at the Mona Lisa, which was stolen in 1911.

Photo by Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

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Lifted
Evan Ratliff • Atavist • Jan 2011

The robbers had a helicopter, explosives, and inside information on a $150 million cash repository. But the police were on to them—sort of.

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“The helicopter had been hovering above the building, with a view of the roads surrounding the depot and of the spectators taking in the scene. When the men reemerged at the atrium, the pilot guided the chopper back down to the roof. Two of the robbers dragged several sacks out using hand-sewn straps and set about pulling them up the ladder; the third hauled his sacks up using a rope with a carabiner affixed to the end. At the top, the men piled the sacks into the back of the waiting aircraft.

“The robbers had been in the building for 24 minutes, and now they were straining to port their take, most of it in heavy packs of 500 kronor bills, down and up two ladders. One slipped and cut himself, and his blood dripped onto the bottom step. Then, almost precisely 30 minutes after they landed, the men retreated, abandoning bags of cash at the base of the ladder as they scaled up to the chopper. They grabbed the last of their haul from the roof and jumped in. The moment the doors clicked shut, the helicopter lifted off.

“The police watched helplessly as the Bell 206 withdrew into the breaking dawn, its flight captured by nearby gawkers on their cell-phone cameras.”

The Pink Panthers
David Samuels • The New Yorker • Apr 2010

A tale of diamonds, thieves, and the Balkans.

“The London robbery was soon followed by dozens of other Pink Panther heists, in Europe and in Asia; the take from these robberies approached a quarter of a billion dollars. In March, 2004, Panthers targeted a jewelry store in Tokyo. Two Serbs, wearing wigs, entered the store and immobilized a clerk with pepper spray. They made off with a necklace containing a hundred-and-twenty-five-carat diamond. That same year, in Paris, Panthers exploited a visit to Chopard by the wife of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, and stole fourteen million dollars' worth of jewels from an unguarded display case. In 2005, a Panther team, dressed in flower-print shirts, raided Julian, a jewelry store in Saint-Tropez. The heist, which took place in broad daylight, lasted just minutes. The thieves ran out of the store and down to the harbor, where they escaped in a waiting speedboat.

“In frustration, detectives in London, Paris, Brussels, Geneva, and Tokyo, working through the international police agencies Interpol and Europol, began pooling information about the Panthers. DNA data, fingerprint scans, telephone numbers, and other evidence were checked against Interpol databases, and against two maintained by Europol, Mare Nostrum and Furtum. The effort has begun to pay off. Perhaps two dozen Panthers are now imprisoned in Western Europe. But the gang continues to operate—the Panthers are suspected in a recent hit on the Chaumet shop in Paris—and none of its senior members have agreed to cooperate with the police. Seven years after the Graff heist, the exact nature of the Pink Panthers' organization and operational structure remains a mystery.

Unmasking D.B. Cooper
Geoffrey Gray • New York • May 1996

Looking for closure in the only unsolved skyjacking case in history.

“They did look for him. The Feds scoured the forests the next day, and for days after in a dense fog, praying for a parachute tear, a $20 bill, a body. One team of treasure hunters chartered a submarine and descended hundreds of feet into a lake. In Washington, D.C., at the headquarters of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, agents coordinated a profiling campaign. The name, they soon found, was a fake. But Dan Cooper had already been immortalized as D.B. Cooper. The error happened when a reporter got the wrong first name from a police source and it hit the wires. So what if it was wrong? It sounded good, mythic. It made it seem like Cooper’s jump meant something, and it did. “You know, it’s funny,” said one local resident at the time. “Folks are actually pulling for this man. That’s all anybody wants to talk about. I hear it all day long. ‘Hope he made it, he deserves it, hope he gets away with every nickel.’ Like he’s some kind of Robin Hood character.” He was also anonymous. ‘He was John Doe. He wasn’t some wild radical ... He was you or me or your neighbor.’

The All-American Bank Heist
David Kushner • GQ • October 2010

Having fallen on hard times, a former football star and the pride of his small town decides to rob the local bank. His weapons of choice: Craigslist, bear mace, and an inner tube.

“On September 29, the night before the crime, Curcio couldn't sleep. He got out of bed at 5:30 A.M. before Emily and his girls awoke. Just watching them sleep peacefully, he wanted to quit, to not go to the bank, to be the old Anthony again. He felt his throat constrict and began to cry. He hated what he was about to do. Hated what he'd become. But it was too late. The planning had taken over. By now he had already placed the Craigslist ad looking for landscapers, and that, for him, was the final step. The unemployed guys were going to be there soon, and the armored car would follow. Game time.

“Curcio had a friend pick him up and then drop him by the bank. He changed into the landscaping outfit and started pulling weeds outside the Jack in the Box as the job applicants stood by. The armored car pulled up to the Bank of America on cue. Curcio squeezed his eyes shut and prayed. God, I know you don't like what I am doing, so I won't ask for your help, he said quietly, but please be with my family. Then he opened his eyes and threw his pesticide sprayer to the ground. He gripped the big black can of bear mace under his arm like a football and ran.”

The Untold Story of the World's Biggest Diamond Heist
Joshua Davis • Wired • March 2009

How $100 million in diamonds, gold and jewelry disappeared from Antwerp Diamond Center’s supersecure vault.

“Notarbartolo leans toward me in the Belgian prison and asks if I have any questions so far. It is a rare break in his fast-moving monologue. There is a sense of urgency. He is allotted only one hour of visiting time per day.

"’You're telling me that the heist was organized by an Antwerp diamond dealer,’ I say.

"’Bravo,’ he replies, smiling.

"’What about your cousin?’

“His smile disappears.”

Stealing Mona Lisa
Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler • Vanity Fair • May 2009 1981

Was the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre actually a smokescreen?

“Down the stairs came one of the Louvre’s plumbers, named Sauvet. Later, Sauvet—the only person to witness the thief inside the museum—testified that he had seen only one man, dressed as a museum employee. The man complained that the doorknob was missing. Apparently thinking that there was nothing strange about the situation, Sauvet produced a pliers to open the door. The plumber suggested that they leave it open in case anyone else should use the staircase. The thief agreed, and the two parted ways.

“The door opened onto a courtyard, the Cour du Sphinx. From there the thief passed through another gallery, then entered the Cour Visconti, and—perhaps trying not to appear in a hurry—headed toward the main entrance of the museum. Few guards were on duty that day, and only one was assigned to that entrance. As luck would have it, the guard had left his post to fetch a bucket of water to clean the vestibule. He never saw the thief, or thieves, leave the building.

“One passerby noticed a man on the sidewalk carrying a package wrapped in white cloth. The witness recalled noticing the man throw a shiny metal object into the ditch along the edge of the street. The passerby glanced at it—it was a doorknob.”

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Max Linsky is a founding editor of Longform.org.