It’s the type of story usually confined to the silver screen: a gang of expert thieves, employing a host of techniques from police impersonation to so-called “tiger kidnapping,” robbed a plain-looking cash depot in Tonbridge, England last week and made off with 53 million pounds ($93 million). The largest cash robbery in a nation known for them, this was a heist worthy of Hollywood. That fact is stirring interesting ripples in public opinion.
The thieves’ strategy could pass for reel two of a big-budget thriller. In a highly coordinated attack, two members of the gang driving a mocked-up police car pulled over depot manager Colin Dixon during his drive home. He was handcuffed, and driven off in the phony cruiser as two spurious constables lured the manager’s wife and young son from their home. His family bound and threatened at gunpoint in a remote location, the manager was forced to open the depot and watch as millions in banknotes rumbled off in a large white truck. Neither the manager nor his family was ultimately harmed, and the thieves — so far, at least — appear to have made off in safety.
The criminals’ apparent I.Q. soared further in the days following the raid, when police recovered a van laden with 15 million pounds in uncirculated, sequentially-numbered banknotes. It takes a cool-headed thief indeed to jettison $26 million in hard cash simply because the bills might prove traceable. The work of amateurs this was not.
Smart thieves, no casualties, a massive haul — the story seems strangely familiar, and with good reason. We’re well-accustomed to sly robbers outwitting on-screen cops. For decades, Hollywood has pumped our communal unconscious full of good-natured rogues and their daring capers. Alarms have been bypassed, safes drilled and jewels snatched as we munch buttered popcorn in the dark.
It is interesting to note that our collective experience cheering celluloid thieves seemingly carries over into real life. The British authorities are battling a strong social countercurrent in chasing down the crooks, because a surprising fraction of the public actually seems to be cheering them on.
The U.K. boasts a rich history of massive heists — from the Great Train Robbery of 1963 ($56 million in today’s currency), to the 1983 Brinks-Mat robbery at Heathrow Airport ($45 million in bullion and diamonds) and the IRA-executed Northern Bank job in Belfast in 2004 ($45 million in cash) — and more to the point, an equally long history of glamorizing the criminals who perpetrate them. In films and stories alike, the mythology of the master thief is entrenched.
And so, public outrage at the Tonbridge theft is tempered by a sneaking, guilty admiration for its perpetrators. One commentator dubbed the heist an “El Dorado” — the kind of score a master thief can retire on. A former bank robber appeared on the BBC’s “Newsnight” program, praising the crime and expressing his hope that at least some of the men get away with it. The Independent, a daily newspaper, even published a helpful addendum entitled “How to Launder 50 Million Pounds,” which offered expert advice to would-be thieves — and, no doubt, to the real ones. With national newspapers dispensing money-laundering tips to crooks on the lam, it’s tough to fault the public for lending mere moral support. Somewhere, a thief is smiling. And he probably looks a lot like DeNiro.
Yet one senses the displeasure of the powers that be, as if the public, like a mischievous child caught thrashing in his mashed potatoes, has again found entertainment in the wrong place. Lionizing gun-toting crooks in the midst of a manhunt simply will not do. Last week, the dour nannies of Britain’s op-ed pages ran somber commentaries reminding us that, in essence, life is not Hollywood, these crooks are not George Clooney and we should all be ashamed of ourselves.
They are, of course, correct. Dixon and his family endured a frightful ordeal, and violent crime is not something to celebrate.
Still, it’s not hard to see why people secretly sympathize with the baddies. The very same week as the Tonbridge heist, a new Harrison Ford film opened, called “Firewall.” It details a plot to kidnap a bank security manager and hold his family for ransom to expedite a massive theft. Sound familiar?
Giddy disbelief accompanies life imitating art in this manner, as though the real world owes us a duty to be far more boring and predictable than any Hollywood script. But fantasy and reality are intertwined, each influencing the other. After all, “Top Gun” resulted in a massive upsurge in real-world Navy applications, and “CSI” has transformed the once dull forensics field into a magnet for school kids. One has to wonder if the Tonbridge gang didn’t take a certain pleasure in aping their own film-driven lore, in living up to the myths. No doubt, their own exploits will soon be immortalized in film.
The Tonbridge raid was real. No credits will roll, and I don’t envy the crooks — who, cunning as they may be, still face a lifetime of looking over their shoulders. Perhaps our sympathies should remain with our on-screen heroes, whose getaways are always clean, and whose wry smiles betray hearts of gold.
Michael Seringhaus is a fifth-year graduate student in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.