The Infamous Nice Sewer Bank Heist

In the ‘70’s, Albert Spaggiari, a mild-mannered local portrait photographer, masterminded a spectacular heist of the Société Générale Bank on avenue Jean Médecin, which involved tunneling into the vault… from the sewers!

To check out the feasibility of his idea, Spaggiari first made sure there was no sound alarm by renting a safety deposit box and planting a loud alarm clock inside set for midnight.

Next he put together a team of Marseilles n’er-do-wells… and they headed into the sewers in the middle of the night, taking the rubble out in their pockets to avoid arousing suspicion.  After 2 months of tedious nightly digging, waist-deep in human waste, they finally tunneled out the 8 meters and hit their target.

On a Friday night of a three-day weekend, they broke through, welded the vault door shut from the inside, and proceeded to open 371 safety deposit boxes before leaving early Monday morning with the equivalent of nearly 29 million euros in cash and jewels.   When the police finally got the vault pried open, they found the deposit boxes ransacked, and this phrase painted on the wall:  “Without hate, without arms, without violence.”

A few months after the spectacular sewer-tunnel bank heist, a former gang member’s girlfriend ratted them out and Spaggiari was arrested.

During the hearing in the Palais de Justice in Old Nice, Spaggiari was called to the judge’s chambers on the third floor, facing rue de la Prefecture, and at a moment when the judge and attorneys were distracted, he leaped out the window!  He landed on the hood of a car, and then jumped on the back a waiting motorcycle driven by an accomplice, and waived to the judge and attorneys as he was whisked away.

He fled to Paris where he was hidden in the house of a bored young heiress, “Audi”, who fell so in love with him that she renounced her fortune to flee to Argentina with him to live out their lives on the lam.   In the ensuing years, he tried in vain to get his part of the take from his Marseillais co-conspirators, while simultaneously playing a cat-and-mouse game with the French police, often evading capture with outlandish costumes.  He died of cancer in Italy in ‘89, with Audi by his side.  None of the proceeds of the robbery were ever found.

In a interesting historical note, Spaggiari’s attorney in Nice at the time was future mayor Jacques Peyrat, who in 1995 accused Christian Estrosi, former motorcycle champion and now the current mayor of Nice, of having been Spaggiari’s getaway driver, but Estrosi later provided an air-tight alibi.

UPDATE, January 20, 2011: “After all this Time, What’s the Worst that Could Happen?”  Nice’s ‘Crime of the Century’ is in the news again, 35 years after the fact.  A 67-year-old Marseillais crime kingpin, currently in prison, has anonymously written a book claiming that he, not Spaggiari, was the heist’s mastermind. With Spaggiari dead, and the heist now ancient history, why not get a little of glory?  Well… for starters,  because the police tapped his phone and found out who wrote the book and still want to get that 29 million euros back.  35 years, and a vast crime network later, the police this week arrested 11 of the Zampa crime family in Marseille, and 9 more on Corsica.   Oops.

Photo credits: all from the film Sans arme, ni haine, ni violence

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