In July 1976, the Société Générale, a bank in Nice, was robbed. It was later dubbed “The Bank Robbery of the Century”, or “Le Casse du Siècle”. This was a special case, not only because of the amount stolen (they made off with 50 million francs, or about 30 million euros), but also because of the way it was carried out.
The Sewer Gang
A group of about 15 men dug a tunnel 8 metres (26 feet) long from the sewers of Nice to the bank vault. Their underground escapades earned them the nickname “The Sewer Gang”. To help identify the exact location of the vault, one of them rented a safety-deposit box and placed an alarm clock inside which was set to go off in the middle of the night. This helped them to pinpoint the exact location and served as a test to make sure the bank didn’t have an alarm that picked up on sound or vibration. This was very important, since they had the intention of smashing through a 1.80 metres (6 foot) thick concrete wall and would probably be making some noise and causing a bit of vibration.
Picnic in the vault
Over the weekend of July 16-18, 1976, they broke through the floor. The first thing they did was solder shut the metal vault door from the inside. Then the Sewer Gang spent the weekend breaking into 371 safety-deposit boxes while picnicking on foie gras and red wine. On Sunday, it started to rain and they had to cut their weekend picnic activities a little short and get all of their loot out before the rising water in the sewers trapped them. But before leaving, they left a note written on the wall. Each letter was written by a different person so the handwriting couldn’t be traced. It said: “Ni armes, ni violence et sans haine” or “neither weapons, nor violence and without hate”. They thought leaving this message of their goodwill might work in their favour - just in case they were caught.
Who did it?
Monday morning when the bank opened, the employees found the door to their vault soldered shut from the inside. When they finally got it open they couldn’t believe what they saw. The police investigated, but the Sewer Gang left no clues. Several suspects were arrested and released for lack of evidence. For the most part, the criminals laid low and kept quiet. But there was one among them who liked the limelight and just couldn’t keep his daring deeds to himself. His name was Albert Spaggiari, called Bert.
Who was Bert Spaggiari?
B ert had grown up in the south of France. At 17, he joined the parachutists in Indochina where his career as a robber began. He was convicted there and sent back to France to prison. After his release, he went to work in a factory in Senegal that produced safe deposit boxes. As part of his job, Bert often had to break into those strongboxes for clients who had lost their keys. This provided great training for his future career path. After mastering the art of breaking into safes, he returned to France and was again arrested and sent to prison.
Bert goes straight - almost
After his second prison term, he moved to the hills behind Nice and started a law-abiding career, working as photographer for the city of Nice. But in his spare time, Bert liked to read crime novels. There was one in particular that piqued his interest. It was called Tous à l'Egout, or Loophole or How to Rob a Bank, by Robert Pollock. It was about a gang who used the sewers to tunnel under a bank and rob it. An idea was born.
Bert had a friend who worked at the Société Générale bank, and he learned from him that there was no alarm in the safe. The 1.80 metres (6 ft) thick concrete walls were considered impenetrable. But after reading his inspirational book and finding a vault with no alarm, Bert just couldn’t resist - and the rest, as they say, is history.
Bert likes to brag
Immediately after the robbery, Bert went to the United States. He offered his services to the CIA, claiming as his credentials that he was the brains behind “the Bank Robbery of the Century”. The CIA declined his generous offer and he returned to France. He must have thought the CIA had an oath of confidentiality (like lawyers and doctors) because he didn’t even consider that they might notify the French authorities – but they did.
About the same time, a couple of small-time criminals, who had acted as lookouts and were paid in gold from the robbery, where caught trying to cash in their marked gold bars. They quickly confessed and named Bert as the mastermind of the heist.
Happy ending - almost
In the meantime, Bert, as official photographer for the city, went on a trip to Japan with the then mayor of Nice, Jacques Médecin (he was the son of Jean Médecin who was also mayor and after whom one of the main streets in Nice is named). When Bert returned, the police were at the airport to arrest him. After two days in jail, he confessed, claiming that he was the head of the operation but would give no other names. This seemed to solve everything. The police had their bank robber, Bert had his fame, and the others had their money. Everyone was happy.
Bert’s daring escape
Five months later, Bert was appearing in front of a judge when he escaped by jumping out a window of the courthouse, the Palais de Justice in the Old Town of Nice. He bounced off the top of a car, then jumped onto the back of a waiting motorcycle and disappeared.
Life in prison – but where is he?
As Bert was making his escape, the judge condemned him to life imprisonment. But Bert never went back to prison because he was never caught. The rest of his life he was on the run. He travelled a lot, mostly in South America but did go back to France occasionally. Afraid of being recognised, he had plastic surgery in Argentina and often wore disguises. Although he didn’t want to be caught, he didn’t want to be forgotten either. He regularly sent photos of himself to the newspapers. Sometimes dressed as Santa Claus or wearing some other disguise.
Bert tells all – or does he?
In 1978, Bert wrote about the crime in his book. Les Egouts du Paradis, or The Sewers of Paradise. In it, Bert claimed the heist was his idea. He explored the sewers and then contacted two men from Marseille to put together a team. However, the police who investigated the crime always considered his book a work of fiction. His claims just didn’t line up with the evidence.
Bert died in Italy in 1989, with the world knowing only his version of the story. But the statute of limitations on this crime has run out and now the others who participated are old and want to brag a bit. At least two of them have written books detailing the bank robbery events. Both of them claim that Bert was not the head of the operation, although one of them admits that he probably thought he was.