Nothing screams “crime” like the good old-fashioned bank heist. Whether carried out by petty thieves or sophisticated crime rings, in movies or in our own towns, bank robbery has captivated us for centuries. Of course, the most compelling bank robbery stories involve elaborate schemes and eye-popping sums of money being looted from the vault. So today, we will remember the heart-pounding details of 15 of the biggest bank heists ever.
Butch Cassidy, 1889, $20,000 stolen
Butch Cassidy’s run-ins with the law were not limited to bank robbery. Throughout his career Cassidy made headlines for looting trains and ranches along a carefully constructed web of hideouts known as the Outlaw Trail. His biggest bank heist, however, was on June 24, 1889 at the San Miguel Valley Bank in Telluride. Arriving with three armed cowboys, Cassidy and co. made off with $20,000 in stolen loot.It was this robbery that propelled Cassidy to become the well-known criminal who established one of the best hideouts (Wyoming’s “Hole in the Wall”) and ultimately obtained legend status.
Bonnie and Clyde, 1930-1934, $ stolen unknown
Arguably the most famous (and infamous) bank robbers in history, there is no definitive tally of exactly how much Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow stole. What we do know is that, in the words of the FBI, the Barrow gang carried out a “violent crime spree across the Midwest that included auto theft, bank robbery, theft from the federal government, and the murder of more than a dozen people, including many law enforcement officers.” Following a string of bank, gas station, and convenience store robberies that inspired a hit 1967 film about the duo, Bonnie and Clyde were famously gunned down by police officers in a planned ambush in Louisiana on May 23 1934, described by the FBI as “one of the most colorful and spectacular manhunts the nation has seen.”
John Dillinger, 1933, $76,000 stolen
The quintessential Depression-era bank robber, John Dillinger swiped several hundred thousand dollars from banks from 1933-1934. He is perhaps best known for his elaborate social engineering schemes, which ranged from posing as a salesman of bank alarm systems and pretending to be filming a “bank robbery scene” for a movie in order to stake out future heist locations. (These and similar antics of Dillinger’s inspired the hit movie Public Enemies.) Financially, Dillinger’s biggest robbery took place at the Central Nation Bank and Trust Company of Greencastle, Indiana, where he flew the coop with over $75,000 in stolen cash. This and other robberies are described in detail by the FBI’s famous cases files, which recall that Dillinger and his gang, “…stirred mass emotion to a degree rarely seen in this country.”
Palestine Liberation Organization, 1976, $20-$50 million stolen
MentalFloss.com tells the story of how Palestinian guerrillas famously knocked off the British Bank of the Middle East in Beirut. In 1976, a PLO-affiliated group, “…blasted through the wall of a Catholic church next door to the bank,” in order to get access. With that accomplished, a squad of safe-crackers was dispatched to open the vault, allowing the PLO to load trucks with anywhere from $20-$50 million in jewels, gold, stocks and bonds over the next two days. The culprits were never caught, though much of the stolen stock and bond money was recovered.
Stanley Mark Rifkin, 1978, $10.8 million stolen
Written of by TIME Magazine as “the ultimate heist”, Stanley Rifkin’s 1978 looting of Security Pacific National bank once stood as the biggest US bank robbery in history. Given the mind-blowing magnitude of the theft (over $10 million stolen), one might imagine a high degree of preparation and sophistication. Indeed, this is exactly what TIME found in their reporting:
“The 55-floor Security Pacific National Bank headquarters in Los Angeles looks like a granite-and-glass fortress. Dark-suited guards roam the lobby. Hidden cameras photograph customers as they make deposits and withdrawals. Yet last month, this stronghold was the site of a $10.2 million heist, the largest bank robbery in U.S. history. There were no guns, no masks, no getaway cars; indeed, the FBI reports that the Stanley Mark Rifkin thief never touched the money. The robber was so clever that the bank did not realize it had been robbed until told so by the FBI eight days afterward.”
Despite the smooth execution (which included multi-million dollar wire transfers to Swiss bank accounts and enough social engineering to make any spy-buff perk up), Rifkin was eventually tipped off to the FBI by an disloyal business associate.
Manuel Delgado, 1980, $20,000 stolen
In a carefully devised plan reproduced by RCDSA.com, Manuel Delgado and four partners swindled $20,000 out of Norco, California’s Security Pacific Bank. A major shootout ensued between the robbers and Riverside County Sherrif’s Deputy Glyn Bolasky following their exit from the bank, spanning a prolonged chase in which hundreds of rounds were fired. When it was all said and done, Delgado and his goons damaged 33 police vehicles (including a police helicopter that was forced to land rather than keep pursuit) and reported upon capture that they were, “…prepared to fight to the death.”
Larry Eugene Phillips, Jr. and Emil Matasareanu, 1997, $303,305 stolen
While not as financially draining as the above robberies, the unforgettable North Hollywood Shootout remains one of the most heinous and talked-about bank robberies ever. After several prior robberies, partners in crime Larry Eugene Phillips, Jr. and Emil Matasareanu strapped up with five illegally modified assault rifles, two pistols and over 3,300 rounds of armor-piercing ammunition for a scrupulously planned raid on the Laurel Canyon Blvd. Bank of America. The plan was spoiled when the nefarious duo were spotted entering the police, leading to, in the words of Emergency.com, “one of the fierciest shootouts in U.S. history.” Phillips and Matasereaunu were only able to cop up on $305,305 but succeeded in wreaking unimaginable carnage on the surrounding area in a gunfight that was captured from beginning to end on video. Standing their ground with dauntless audacity, the criminals (fortified with metal trauma plates and nerve-calming medication) returned fire with the LAPD until Phillips committed suicide and Matasereaunu succumbed to his wounds, after his capture. The shootout is a major reason why police are now routinely equipped with AR-15 rifles that pierce trauma plates.
Allen Pace, 1997, $18.9 million stolen
Allen Pace is the criminal mastermind behind the infamous Dunbar Armored Heist, said to be the largest cash robbery in US history. It was an inside job of epic proportions, as Pace (in his capacity as regional safety inspector) took meticulous photographs of Dunbar’s Los Angeles armored car depot, returned with friends, and skillfully dodged security cameras en route to tying up guards with duct tape and making off with $18.9 million in a rented U-Haul. It was a high-tech affair according to StAugustine.com, who recalls that Pace, “…drew a floor plan and provided radio headsets that allowed them [Pace's partners] to talk to each other.” The crooks might have gotten away with it were it not for a piece of the U-Haul’s tail light that police found at the scene of the crime, leading them to Pace, who was sentenced to 17 years in prison.
David Scott Ghannt, 1997, $17.3 million stolen
Many a bank heist take the form of the “inside job”, and the Loomis Fargo robbery of 1997 is another memorable example. As armored car driver and vault supervisor, David Scott Ghannt orchestrated a covert looting of Loomis Fargo & Company in cahoots with Steve Chambers, the friend of a fellow bank employee. The plan called for Ghannt to steal the money from the vault in a one-night raid, after which he would flee to Mexico and have money wired to him in incrementally by Chambers until it was safe to return for the rest. And it worked – in one night, Ghannt loaded $17.3 million into a van, kept $50,000 and escaped to Cozumel. (The thieves actually miscalculated how tough it would be to transport all the cash and left over $3 million in the van.) But it wasn’t long before Ghannt was apprehended by FBI agents and Mexican police, leading to the capture of Chambers and the other co-conspirators and the return of most of the money. The entire story is chronicled in the book Heist! The $17 Million Loomis-Fargo Theft.
Ralph Guarino and Salvatore Calciano, 1998, $1.8 million stolen
3,000 miles from Hollywood, former mob boss Ralph Guarino hatched a plan to rob Bank of America’s World Trade Center branch. But he couldn’t do it alone. With security stepped up at the WTC following the 1993 bombings, Guarino persuaded a long-time employee of the facility (Salvatore Calciano) to assist in the heist by handing over his ID badge. Calciano proceeded to inform Guarino of when the next expected delivery of cash to the bank was, and three hired goons were dispatched to carry out the robbery on that day. The three entered the bank via passenger elevator early in the morning, tying up employees and stuffing cash into duffel bags as planned. Luckily for law enforcement, the goons were not very discreet and were identified rather quickly following the robbery, leading to the capture of Guarino, who chose becoming an FBI informant over jail time.
The heist is explained in detail in the 2003 book Made Men.
Qusay and Abid al-Hamid Mahmood, 2003, $1 billion stolen
In what is now considered the largest bank heist in recorded history, Saddam Hussein’s regime conducted a massive raid on Iraq’s central bank, making off with roughly $1 billion .”…just hours before the US began bombing Iraq”, according to CNN. Following eye-witness reports that several pulled up to the bank to have money loaded inside, CNN quotes an anonymous bank official as saying that, “…Qusay and Abid al-Hamid Mahmood, Saddam’s personal assistant, were involved in the withdrawal from the Central Bank.” Huge sums of cash were found in key locations soon after the unprecedented looting (including $650 million at one of Saddam’s palaces) and it remains to be seen whether anyone will ever manage to steal more.
Security guards, 2007, $300 million stolen
Iraq’s banks were far from safe following the Hussein-led 2003 raid. It was only four years later when security guards swiped some $300 million from Dar Es Salaam, a private bank in the Karrada district of Baghdad. It was not a particularly sophisticated heist. According to Reuters, bank employees arrived to work the next day and. “…found the front door open and the money gone.” The guards responsible normally slept at the bank and used this as cover to make off with the money. In addition to the $300 million USD, roughly 220 million Iraqi dinars (0r $176,000 US) were stolen by the guards, who have yet to be captured since the 2007 robbery.
Jaison Babu, 2007, 80 million Rupees stolen
Rumored to have been inspired by the movie Dhoom, the 2007 South Malabar Grameen bank robbery stands as one of the biggest in India’s history. With the help of three co-conspirators, the crime kingpin by the alias of Jaison Babu cut a hole in the floor of the bank (which sat atop a restaurant) in the wee hours of December 30, 2007. The conniving quartet skipped town with 80 kilograms of solid gold and 2,500,000 rupees. But this was no haphazard con. Babu and his gang orchestrated the heist by renting out the restaurant in advance and announcing that it was closed for renovations until January 8th, going so far as to buy new furniture for the restaurant and construction materials to appear convincing. Unfortunately for them, phone monitoring led authorities to the culprits and resulted in their arrest as well as the return of more than 80% of the stolen funds.
Ren Xaiofeng and Ma Xiangjing, 2007, 50 million yuan stolen ($6.7 million US)
Ren Xaiofeng and Ma Xiangjing used their positions as vault managers to carry out what is now recognized as the largest bank robbery in Chinese history. It was quite a strange series of heists however, not possessing the cunning or tact discussed in the other examples. It all started with Xaiofeng’s original heist of 200,000 yuan from the Agricultural Bank of China, which he planned to repay by winning the lottery. This was not the brightest strategy, but amazingly, he was able to repay 200,000 yuan to cover this first theft. But this “success” served only to enflame his passions for robbery, and with the aid of Xiangjing and two security guards, Ren proceeded to steal 32 million yuan – again, spending nearly all of it on lottery tickets. Lady luck wasn’t as forthcoming this time though, prompting the group to steal another 18 million yuan soon thereafter for a last-ditch effort at striking it big in lottery winnings. In their article Lottery Bank Robbers to be Executed the UK’s Independent noted that the two, “…won prize money of just 98,000 yuan in all and used that and the remaining 4m yuan to buy escape cars and fake ID and flee,” before being caught and taken to trial for the string of robberies.
Unknown Irish gangsters, 2009, $9 million
A $9 million robbery of the Bank of Ireland has resulted in a massive manhunt for the perpetrators, according to Ireland’s Examiner. Said to be the biggest such robbery in Ireland’s history, the heist was carried out in a most violent manner, with employees being taken hostage by a group of seven people believed to be mobsters from inner-city northern Dublin. Perhaps no one suffered more during the robbery than 24 year old employee Shane Travers, who was forced to drive to the bank in and load the money into his own vehicle at gunpoint. The entire spectacle took no more than 15 minutes, which has lead Irish authorities to question the state of that country’s bank security practices.