June 8, 1989 — “Where there’s muck there’s brass” is an old Northern England saying which means that people who are willing to get their hands dirty can often make money. It was certainly the case for Albert Spaggiari, the mastermind behind the biggest-ever bank robbery in France. He died on this day leaving no clue as to the whereabouts of the stolen millions.
Spaggiari, born in 1932, was a tearaway, constantly in trouble for stealing. His father died when he was three and his mother, who ran a lingerie shop, quickly remarried, but the boy hated his stepfather. He left home at 17 to join the Parachute Regiment, which was fighting Ho Chi Minh’s communist army in Indochina.
Spaggiari was a tough soldier, wounded twice and decorated for bravery. But his old weakness resurfaced and in 1953 he was arrested after breaking into a milk bar in Hanoi to steal the takings. He was sent back in irons to France and jailed.
By the late 1960s Spaggiari seemed to have turned over a new leaf, married a nurse and moved to the South of France where he opened a photography shop in Nice. His charm and talent soon put him in increasing demand for society and other weddings.
But he longed for action and he had itchy fingers. And when he learned that the sewers of Nice ran close to the walls of the Société Générale bank, plans for a daring robbery began to form in his mind.
First, as a precaution, he rented a safety box in the bank's vault and planted in it a loud alarm clock set to go off at midnight. Spaggiari wanted to make sure there were no acoustic or seismic detection alarms to spoil his plans.
He need not have worried. Like the owners of the Titanic, who thought the ship unsinkable, the bank thought its vault was impregnable.
Next he recruited a gang of villains from Marseilles who headed into the sewers. For two months in the summer of 1976 they waded each night through human waste, digging an eight-meter tunnel which Spaggiari demanded was shored up as well as a mine shaft.
On the Friday night of the three-day Bastille Day weekend they broke through into the vault, sealed its door shut from the inside with a welding gun, and broke open 371 safety deposit boxes before leaving on Monday morning.
The bank did not know what was in the boxes, so the value of the haul would never be known. Estimates ranged from 30 million to 100 million francs in cash and jewels.
When locksmiths brought in by the astonished bank managed to open the door they found deposit boxes scattered across the floor, the remains of meals eaten by the gang, and a message painted on the wall: “Sans Armes, ni Violence, ni Haine” (without weapons, violence or hate).
A few weeks later, acting on a tip-off, the police arrested one of the thieves who named the entire gang, including Spaggiari. He was on a trip to the Far East accompanying the Mayor of Nice as a photographer and was arrested when the returning plane touched down.
At his trial, Spaggiari asked to see the judge in his chambers. There, he suddenly ran to a window, flung it open and jumped out. “Au revoir,” he shouted with a wave, then roared away sitting on the back of an accomplice’s motor cycle. The French police never saw him again.
In his absence the judge gave him a life sentence. Spaggiari spent the rest of his days drifting between South America and Europe and is believed to have returned to France occasionally to see his wife. When he died of lung cancer in 1989 he had been living in Italy under a false name for a number of years.
In 2008 a French biopic of Spaggiari, "Sans arme, ni haine, ni violence", was released in the cinemas. It portrayed him as part comic fantasist and part daring thief, marooned by a hotel pool in Argentina.
Spaggiari wrote a book about the robbery in 1977, translated into English as “Sewers of Gold.” Another book, “The Heist of the Century” by French journalists René-Louis Maurice and Jean-Claude Simoën was given a partial re-write by English thriller author Ken Follett.
Published: May 2, 2017