This article is supported by Logan Lucky, out in cinema's on Thursday August 17. In the film, two brothers attempt to pull off a heist during a NASCAR race in North Carolina. In this article, we explore four infamous heists.
The thought has crossed everyone's mind: how would you rob a bank, how would you make sure you got away with it, and how would you spend the money? From plans hatched while high the night before to those months in the making, we look at some of the most brazen robberies in US history.
The Barbie Bandits, 2007
On the surveillance tapes it looks like they're having fun. Two attractive young women smiling and laughing behind oversized sunglasses, they could easily be buying cigarettes or gum. But they're not: one of them is sliding a note across to the bank teller, demanding money. The note reportedly read, in part, "Remember, I will not hesitate to kill you."
It is the exact moment when, inevitably, given the media's fascination with both attractive women and alliteration, the two girls—Heather Johnston and Ashley Miller—shed their original names and in the public imagination became the "Barbie Bandits".
The two Atlanta women met when they began working together at a strip club. For Johnston, seemingly a college-bound young woman from a church-going family, the night job was a way to fund her addiction to costly consumer goods. When her family found out and gave her an ultimatum—stop stripping or move out—she chose the latter. She moved in with Miller.
She later told ABC: "I went wild. I was on drugs most of the time; I didn't care what anyone had to say. I was going to do it my way." One night, while high, the girls joked with Miller's boyfriend about robbing a bank. Turns out he wasn't joking. He called the next morning with specific instructions on which bank to rob and how: the joke was now a plan.
Johnston found herself on the phone with the bank teller, their man on the inside, and then, after first getting lost and turning up at the wrong Bank of America, handing across that note. The pair made off with just US$11,000, to be shared between the four protagonists.
Miller and Johnston, priorities well in order, headed almost straight to the mall, before getting their hair done. They were arrested two days later. Miller was later jailed for two years for her part in the robbery and for drug distribution; Johnston escaped with 10 years probation.
(If this image is to be believed, this is Amanda Miller's high school graduation quote: "A good friend would bail you out of jail, a best friend would be sitting right next to you saying 'man, we messed up'.")
The Dunbar Robbery, 1997
On the night of September 12, 1997, according to the LA Times, Allen Pace III met five of his friends at a house party. But there was no drinking on the agenda: the gang was there to establish an alibi, before ducking out after midnight to make the biggest cash robbery in US history.
Pace had worked for Dunbar as a regional security officer until he was fired the day before the theft. Perhaps not the least obvious time to rob your former employer, but Pace didn't want to waste his time on the payroll, during which he had made a meticulous study of the security measures of the facility—and he still had a working key.
Pace and his accomplices—dressed in black, wearing radio headsets, and heavily armed—terrorised the staff, tying them up, and forced another employee to give them the key to the vault, from which they then stole US$18.9 million dollars, loading the money into a rented U-Haul truck.
The group managed to avoid detection for over two years, despite the fact that it was obvious that it had been an inside job and that Pace was a hugely obvious suspect. They eschewed excessive displays of wealth, and carefully laundered the money, investing in property, and burning or gambling away any sequentially numbered bills that could be easily traced.
The only clue left at the depot was the red taillight from the truck. It was useless, however, until an informant pointed police in the direction of Eugene Lamar Hill, one of the six, who—when police went to arrest him—still had money in its original packaging. He quickly confessed and named his co-conspirators. Pace was sentenced to 24 years in prison.
The Lufthansa Heist, 1978
It must be every mobster's wet dream to be portrayed on screen by Robert De Niro, and that is exactly the honour bestowed upon Jimmy "the Gent" Burke, mastermind of the Lufthansa Heist, when the theft became a key element in the plot of Goodfellas.
Burke learned that millions of dollars of untraceable US currency was flown into New York's JFK Airport each month from West Germany—his inside man was Louis Werner, a disgruntled airport worker whose gambling debts were getting out of control.
Burke put together a team, and on December 11, 1978, at a little after three in the morning, they struck. Using a combination of brute force—they were heavily armed—and keys provided by Werner, Burke and his men forced their way into the Lufthansa cargo terminal, threatening anyone they met with violence or harm to their families. In the staff room, they forced each employee to the ground, making one of them call the only guard with the combination to the vault. He was escorted at gunpoint and forced to open the doors.
The team removed about 40 parcels, the entire operation taking just over an hour. It wasn't until the burglary had been completed and the money dropped off to Burke and his son that the true scope of the crime was discovered: the US$6 million haul—$22 million in today's terms—made it the largest theft of currency committed in the US at that point in history.
Burke realised the amount would make for an intense level of scrutiny, both from police and other criminal elements, so he simply resolved to eliminate those who could implicate him in the crime. Thus began a killing spree. The first to be murdered was getaway driver Parnell Edwards. Six months later, Paolo LiCastri's bullet-riddled corpse was found on a burning trash heap; seven others connected to the case had been killed in the interim.
Burke was never arrested for either the Lufthansa Heist or the subsequent killings. He did, however, die in prison, in 1996, after being sentenced for other crimes, including an unrelated murder.
United California Bank Robbery, 1972
On his website, Amil Dinsio makes clear the distinction between "bank burglars" like himself and "bank robbers": a bank robbery relies on violence or the threat of it, and all that burglary requires is skill. Dinsio, from Ohio, puts himself in the former category.
Before seeking re-election in 1972, President Richard Nixon had established a massive slush fund with which to finance his bid—it was known as the "Milk Fund" after the dairy industry had contributed millions of dollars on the condition that the President would keep economic conditions favourable to dairy farmers. A tipster had alerted Dinsio of the money's whereabouts.
The team flew to California, rented a safe house, and surveyed the United California Bank. Then, on the night of Friday, March 24, the team sprayed liquid Styrofoam into the exterior alarm to disable it, then tapped into the rooftop air conditioning unit to power their saw, cutting through the thick ceiling. Finding the interior alarm, they rewired it so it wouldn't go off. They drilled 16 holes into the concrete roof of the vault, stuffed them with explosives, and covered them with burlap sacks filled of dirt to muffle the sound.
After the explosion, the team used welding torches to cut through the steel beams. Over that night and the next two, they opened 456 safe deposit boxes, taking US$8 million ($46 million in today's terms) in cash, jewellery, stocks, and bonds, but not Nixon's riches—the info was bad; Nixon's account was at a bank 15 kilometres south. Still, they disabled the lock on the vault before climbing out one last time.
When the FBI got the vault open, according to one report in the Orange County Register, it looked like it had "been through a blender". Meanwhile, the Dinsio crew had departed back to Ohio. There were no leads—it was the perfect crime. That is until the crew committed another perfect crime in their home state and investigators were able to link the two, find the flight Dinsio and his team had taken to California and the townhouse they had rented. A search found fingerprint-besmirched dishes in the dishwasher, which was enough to issue warrants and eventually arrest the crew and recover most of the stolen goods.
Dins maintained that his team of professionals would never have made such a basic error—he alleges that he was framed of the crime he definitely did commit, and the FBI lacked the proof to convict him. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
This article is supported by Logan Lucky, out in cinema's on Thursday August 17. You can watch the trailer here.