On the 25th of March 1990, a group of gangsters rushed behind the vault doors of the UBS central bank in Geneva, Switzerland, neutralising the internal security of the building with a disconcerting ease.
After spending an hour and 45 minutes in the main vault, they fled with 220 kilos of banknotes from Italy and Northern Africa, worth the current equivalent of £28 million. The police never found the loot and all suspected robbers were acquitted, except Michel Ferrari – the brains of the operation – who ended up behind the bars of Geneva's Champ-Dollon prison.
Since a 1963 attack on the Glasgow-London mail train – during which British gangsters stole £2.6 million in transit to the Bank of England – about a dozen robberies have been dubbed "heist of the century" by the media. If all these robberies involved the theft of an astronomical amount of money, each of them, too, had their particularities.
The Antwerp Diamond heist, for example, saw Italian crooks entering a bank dressed in shields made of polystyrene to neutralise the infrared heat detectors of the building's entrance. The break-in of the Société Générale in Nice, France, saw Albert Spaggiari and his men to dig an eight-meter long tunnel that enabled them to walk through sewers and get an access to the bank.
The heist imagined by Michel Ferrari was equally imaginative and required months of rehearsals to be implemented without any fuck-ups. "I planned the heist of the century without knowing it will be the heist of the century," Ferrari told me. "My goal wasn't to revolutionise robberies. I was just looking for a quick way to earn a lot of money – everyone daydreams about that from time to time."
In the early 1980s, shortly after the birth of his son Jerôme, Michel Ferrari quit his job as a designer in the construction industry to devote himself to another hobby of his – passing colossal amounts of money over the Swiss border for French tax evaders.
Ferrari eventually became a tennis professor at the New Sporting, a leisure centre in the middle of the Geneva countryside owned by businessman André Guelfi. It was there he became friendly with seasoned golfers, diplomats, bankers, Swiss sportsmen from the Servette Football Club and French actors such as Jean-Paul Belmondo.
It was in this mundane Genevan context, "where the Mercedes was the car of the poor," that Ferrari was able to buy a Porsche Turbo 3.6 in 1993. Still, despite his love for fast cars and his name, the first time Ferrari moved money from France to Switzerland it was with a small Japanese car.
Following the election of French socialist president François Mitterand in 1981, many French millionaires hastened to transfer their money to Switzerland. Most of them thought that a left-wing government would enforce collectivisation and were fearing the "Russian tanks on the Place de la Concorde," announced by former Minister of the Interior Michel Poniatowski.
Thanks to his wife Marie-Christine, who was an executive secretary at the UBS central bank, Ferrari met Georges, a wealthy entrepreneur from Nice, who introduced him to his first clients. Between two squash games, Ferrari would drive from France to Switzerland with thousand of dollars hidden in supermarket paper bags, keeping a substantial percentage for himself with each passing. Within eight years, he passed kilograms of gold bars, wads of cash, bottles of Calvados brandy, as well as tapes containing incriminating information on French clients' accounts.
Then, in 1989, exchange controls between France and Switzerland started to slowly disappear and Ferrari's income dropped drastically. He decided to come up with a robbery plan.
"It took me several months of reflection," he says. "One of my friends, Laurent Chudzinski, worked at the Central Fund of foreign currencies at the central UBS branch, where he basically had to count notes all day long. He was so frustrated that he started to tell me secrets about the bank, things about the antiquated security system, the fact that the codes had not changed for years, that kind of thing." Over the next few months, after many sketches and meticulous planning, the project begun to take form. Along with Chudzinski, he recruited Sebastian Hoyos, a Brazilian communist activist who worked at UBS as a watchman.
In September 2014, UBS in Paris was accused of allegedly helping wealthy clients avoid tax, after paying multiple fines for illegal solicitation of customers in France. When I asked Ferrari if there was a political motive behind his crime, his answer was mixed. "I still had selfish motives," he says. "I wanted to be an annuitant and never work again. But I was actually happy to teach UBS a lesson."
According to Ferrari, the bank had an obligation to repay several Jew customers after World War II, but it appeared they never did – mostly because they preferred to serve themselves in dormant accounts belonging to persons who died during the conflicts rather than seeking their legitimate heirs. "I should have taken everything," Ferrari says. "No one on this planet can give me a lesson on morality. Even the judge who was in charge of my case has been convicted for corruption."
Ferrari also claims that he saw many French right-wing politicians in Geneva for tax reasons. Yet, despite by insistence, he refused to disclose their identities because he feared "potential consequences".
Around September 1989, an entrepreneur called George visited Geneva for a couple days, in order to bring money from Italy which belonged to some Corsican friends of his. Seeing it as a good business opportunity, Ferrari offered to the Pattachini brothers and Alexander Chevrière to join him for the robbery, allowing them to recruit some men of their choice. Little did he know that he was dealing with Corsican criminals, known for being part of the powerful Gang de la Brise de Mer. "Nobody knew them at the time," Ferrari explained. "To me, this gang was nothing more than a group of chicken thieves."
After some time, Chudzinski managed to get a hold of the security codes and keys to the main vault. Ferrari planned the robbery right before Easter, because he knew the vault was set to be moved to the basement, which was more protected. He then decided to lay charges on Chudzinski's manager, who was in possession of all the bank's codes. He asked the Corsicans to kidnap him and put him through a violent interrogation, in order to ensure his colleagues remained safe. The Corsican gangsters never obliged. Which makes sense now, considering that their plan was to keep all the money for themselves, without giving a dime to Ferrari.
Today, Swiss investigators have speculated that the money was used to fund the run of Richard Casanova – the alleged leader of the Corsican gang – who Ferrari briefly met the day before the robbery in order to ensure its smooth running.
The robbery took place without any problems. At 7:45AM, four Corsicans landed at the bank and took the money. They left at 9:20AM. Meanwhile, Ferrari spent the morning at the New Sporting, waiting for his colleagues who were supposed to call him around 10AM. His friend Ernest Späth had loaned him his fancy apartment located on the Quai du Rhone, around 1.5 kilometres from the bank, in order for the Corsicans to hide the tickets for a while.
Three weeks later, after finding that his colleagues had never gone there, Ferrari decided to trail them, along with his brother-in-law Yves, Ernest and his friend Patrick. They were armed with a .44 magnum, a .45 ACP and a Sig-Sauer P228. But their trip to Bastia led to nothing.
On the 29th of May, Ferrari was finally arrested by the police, denounced by his friend Georges – presumably driven by the three million Swiss francs reward that awaited him. He had to serve a sentence of eight years in prison. Unlike his accomplices, he took all of his actions upon himself.
After 24 years of silence, Michel Ferrari published the book J'ai réussi le Casse du siècle [I Organised the Heist of the Century], thanks to the biographer Joëlle Peltier, who, in Ferrari's words, "wrote a beautiful story out of the shapeless manuscript I developed in jail. It took several years for me to get it published. First, I had to wait for my accomplices to be acquitted. But there were also many publishers who feared the Corsicans."
Today, Ferrari manages two nail shops in the centre of Geneva. In the past, he's also worked in two nightclubs and a video store which that "didn't survive the advent of illegal downloading."
The Corsican gangsters involved in the case have never broken the omerta – they were all pronounced not guilty. Chevrière was shot nine times in 2004, as he was coming out of a trial he had won. He succumbed to his injuries only five years later. In 2008, Richard Casanova was assasinated in a garage near Porto-Vecchio.
Since then, the New Sporting was bought by Ernest Späth, who was jailed for a month for lending his apartment to Ferrari. Right now, there's a good chance he's sailing on the tranquil shores of Lake Geneva. Meanwhile, Michel Ferrari still clings to the hope of collecting the fortune he coveted for years. He's thinking of adapting his book to the big screen, "preferably by Thomas Langmann or Luc Besson."
Michel Ferrari's book J'ai réussi le Casse du siècle is available in Frenchhere.
This article was amended at 1:09pm on November 27th to reflect a change in ErnestSpäth's marital status.