Shocking stories of true crime capture the public's imagination in a way that news seldom can. But what is it that makes certain crimes stick in our minds, and leaves us glued to the headlines for new clues?
For some, it's the sheer brazenness of a daring daylight robbery. For others, it's items missing from an impenetrable vault, or crimes that involve well-known people. While huge cash heists and the theft of priceless artifacts can still intrigue, nothing piques public interest like an unsolved mystery. As long as the loot is still missing or the burglars are still at large, we wait to see how the drama will unfold, or maybe even fantasize that we'll crack the case.
While crime has changed dramatically over the past century, with cyberthieves taking the place of the Tommy-gun toting mobster, these 10 crimes of the century prove that there's always someone willing to break the law to score a massive illegal payday.
10. The Gardner Museum Theft
Boston socialite Isabella Stewart Gardner left her home and art collection to the city of Boston upon her death in 1924, with the stipulation that her home remain arranged exactly as she left it. Museum curators managed to leave Gardner's collections intact until 1990, when a group of thieves disguised as Boston police officers executed a daring robbery. The unknown burglars got away with a collection of 13 works of art valued at more than $500 million [source: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum]. To add insult to injury, the museum was uninsured at the time, and to this day the artwork has never been recovered.
The empty frames for these works hang on the museum's walls as a memorial to the lost paintings. Despite a $5 million reward, offers of immunity to the thieves and a stint on "America's Most Wanted," the case remains unsolved. A 2009 book, "The Gardner Heist," claims that the theft was carried out by an imprisoned Boston mobster with links to the Irish Republican Army, but this theory is yet unproven. Today, the museum holds out hope for the return of the missing pieces, and provides instructions on its Web site explaining how to protect and store the works, just in case the thieves happen to check in.
9. Brink's Security Robbery
It takes extreme confidence -- or sheer stupidity -- to rob one of the world's leading security companies. Yet in January 1950, a gang of thieves infiltrated the Brink's Security World Headquarters in Boston. The perpetrators wore rubber Halloween masks and homemade Brinks uniforms to penetrate the building. Their haul of $3 million was at the time the largest heist in history, and they vowed not to spend the money until the six-year statute of limitations for theft had passed [source: FBI].
Without use of the money from the robbery, some of the thieves continued living a life of crime. One member of the group was soon arrested for an unrelated incident, and ended up serving as an informant for the Brinks case after his fellow thieves made several attempts on his life. Based on his testimony, the entire gang was sentenced to life in prison.
Only a small portion of the money was ever found, and the rest is rumored to be hidden somewhere in the hills of Minnesota. A series of movies were made based on this story, with the 1978 film "The Brink's Job" among the most well-known [source: The History Channel].
8. Lufthansa Heist
The Lufthansa Heist has all the makings of a classic mobster movie, and did serve as inspiration for the popular film "Goodfellas." In 1978, the Lucchese crime family learned of a cash-filled vault at New York's JFK airport. To avoid problems with the rival Gambino family, who claimed JFK within their home turf, the Luccheses invited the Gambinos to take part in infiltrating the vault. They waited until a night in December when the vault was stocked by a recent arrival on Lufthansa Air. Relying on help from carefully placed insiders, the gang stole $5 million in less than an hour and headed off to celebrate.
Despite the reputation for criminal success that each of these families enjoyed, much of what happened after the theft made them look like rank amateurs. The night of the robbery, the getaway driver took the van from the scene of the crime straight to his girlfriend's house. Instead of destroying the van as directed, he parked in a no-parking zone and went inside to imbibe in marijuana and cocaine. Cops quickly spotted the van and linked it to the crime, then arrested the driver. In an effort to save himself from prison, he provided information on the rest of the gang, resulting in multiple arrests. The driver was soon found dead, likely killed by a fellow family member, and the rest of the gang members ended up in prison or witness protection. To this day, no one but the thieves knows what happened to the money [source: May].
7. Stealing the Mona Lisa
The Mona Lisa may be one of the most famous works of art in the world, but few people are aware that she was once stolen by an overly patriotic Italian man. On August 21, 1911, guards at the Louvre noticed the painting was absent, but failed to act because they assumed it was out for restoration. It wasn't until the next day that the museum alerted authorities, who sealed the French border and undertook a massive manhunt. Fans of the painting visited the empty spot on the museum wall, and some even wrote love letters to the lost Lisa. Artist Pablo Picasso came under suspicion when police discovered he had likely purchased some other works of art that were stolen from the museum years earlier.
In December 1913, thief Vincenzo Peruggia was apprehended after trying to sell the painting to an art dealer. Astoundingly, Peruggia had once worked for the museum, and had even built the case the Mona Lisa was housed in, but never came under suspicion until he was caught. Peruggia became a national hero in Italy for trying to bring the Mona Lisa "home," even though Leonardo da Vinci actually created this famous work of art in Paris. Peruggia served less than a year in jail for his crime [source: Lacayo]. Today the Mona Lisa is much better protected, reigning over the Louvre from behind a thick panel of bulletproof glass.
6. Antwerp Diamond Heist
More than 80 percent of the world's diamonds pass through the Diamond District in Antwerp, Belgium, so it's no wonder the area is under 24-hour police protection. Despite the area's extreme security, a group of thieves known as the School of Turin managed to steal more than $100 million in cash and diamonds over Valentine's Day weekend in 2003.
The group's mastermind, Leonardo Notarbartolo, spent nearly 2 years working in the district as a diamond dealer prior to the robbery. This extraordinary dedication to casing the scene of the crime was necessary to allow Notarbartolo to penetrate the 10 layers of security used to protect the diamonds. During the robbery, the thieves beat security cameras, motion detectors, a drill-proof steel door and a lock with more than 100 million possible combinations to gain access to the vault, all without setting off the alarm.
After all of their careful planning and preparation, these thieves were caught when they were nabbed for littering. A few days after the heist, a local farmer called police to report that trash had been dumped on his property, and investigators found documents that led them to Notarbartolo and his cohorts. While Notarbartolo was sentenced to 10 years in prison, the gems and money were never found. Notarbartolo claims he was double-crossed by insiders within the diamond trade, who ended up with the bulk of the loot [source: Davis]. The 2010 book "Flawless" provides an inside look at the fate of the cash and jewels.
5. Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping
Charles Lindbergh became an American hero in 1927 after he completed the first solo, non-stop, transatlantic flight. While his fame helped him promote the aviation industry in the U.S., it also led to personal tragedy when his son Charles was kidnapped and held for ransom.
On March 1, 1932, Lindbergh's maid discovered his infant son Charles had been taken from his crib. Lindbergh found a ransom note nearby and quickly alerted authorities. After a series of bizarre exchanges with the kidnappers, including 13 ransom notes, the Lindberghs paid $50,000 to an unnamed individual in May 1932. This individual provided the family with a note that said the child could be found on a boat off Martha's Vineyard. Police raced to the harbor, but the child and the boat were nowhere in sight.
The next day, the child's body was found by accident and identified. An autopsy showed the child had been dead for 2 months, indicating that he was killed immediately after he was taken.
It wasn't until 1934 that investigators traced some of the ransom money to New York based on a list of serial numbers. A quick-thinking gas station clerk matched serial numbers to a license plate, which helped the police finally capture the killer. Bruno Richard Hauptmann was arrested in the fall of 1934 and put to death for his crime in April 1936 [source: FBI].
4. The Great Train Robbery
In August 1963, it took just 15 minutes for a gang of thieves to swipe nearly $7 million from a British Royal Mail car. While their total haul would be worth about $80 million today, much of the loot was never found. But despite their quick getaway, the thieves made it easy for law enforcement to catch up and secure their arrest. Not only did the perpetrators leave fingerprints all over the train car, they also spoke openly about their hideout during the robbery, allowing passengers and crew to gather important clues.
Once the gang was apprehended, the local government began a courthouse renovation designed to accommodate the massive trials required for all 15 thieves. Each received a 30-year sentence, but one, Ronnie Biggs, managed to escape after just 15 months. Biggs fled to Brazil, which refused to extradite him, allowing him to live openly in Rio de Janeiro despite his criminal status. His son even became a famous musician, providing an upscale lifestyle for Biggs. At the age of 71, Biggs had a change of heart and returned to England to serve the remaining 28 years of his sentence [source: Chua-Eoan]. He was released eight years later on compassionate grounds due to illness.
The bizarre story of the Great Train Robbery continues to intrigue the public, and has been immortalized in books, movies, TV, the theater and pop music.
3. D.B. Cooper
In November 1971, a man named Dan Cooper bought an airline ticket from Portland to Seattle and boarded his flight. Once on board, Cooper produced a ransom note asking for $200,000 and four parachutes, threatening flight attendants with a bomb if his demands were not met. The flight crew landed, released all passengers and secured the required items before taking off again under Cooper's orders.
Shortly after takeoff, Cooper strapped on one of the parachutes, grabbed the cash, and jumped from a height of 10,000 feet into the deep woods below. To this day, no one knows if he lived or died.
Despite a massive manhunt, no evidence of the case was found until 1980, when a child playing in the woods discovered $5,800 floating in the river and along the bank. The FBI later confirmed that the serial numbers on these bills matched those given to Cooper on the plane. To this day, the rest of the money has never turned up in circulation, which indicates Cooper never got around to spending a dime of his haul [source: Pasternak].
In 1995, Floridian Duane Weber confessed on his deathbed that he was the elusive D.B. Cooper. His wife alerted the FBI, who deemed him a credible match, but dropped the case in 1998 due to lack of evidence [source: Krajicek]. Today the mystery remains unsolved, and Cooper's story continues to live on in popular culture, as well as in the hearts of treasure hunters who search the woods for the remainder of the lost fortune.
2. Baker Street Robbery
This 1971 London bank robbery combines comically poor police work with a royal sex scandal that remains shrouded in mystery to this day. Late on the night of September 11, a gang of thieves entered a nearby storefront, then tunneled up into the bank. The burglars used a set of walkie-talkies to communicate, but had no idea their entire conversation had been picked up by a local ham radio enthusiast. Though the radio user quickly contacted the police, they were unable to determine exactly which bank the thieves were targeting. Despite the fact that the police could hear the entire conversation, the gang managed to get away with more than 500,000 pounds (about $775,000) in cash and jewels from bank deposit boxes [source: Thorpe].
The story made headlines for the next three days, until the British government mysteriously issued a gag order that prevented news media from covering the robbery. Though rumors suggest the thieves were eventually caught and sentenced to prison, their identities and the terms of capture were never revealed. In 2008, a movie titled "The Bank Job" was released, and was largely based on information about the case. The movie suggests that the British government imposed the gag order and covered up the story to protect Princess Margaret and other royals from damaging photos taken from the vaults. To this day, there is no evidence to suggest the money or jewels were ever found [source: Pettifor].
1. Bernie Madoff
Disgraced-financier Bernie Madoff might just be the most brazen thief in history. Not only did he scam investors out of as much as $50 billion, but he did it out in the open, for the entire world to see [source: Voreacos and Glovin]. From 1960 to 2008, Madoff operated an incredibly successful Wall Street investment firm. Known for earning his investors historic returns, Madoff counted some of the world's richest and most famous people among his clients. For many, the success of Madoff's firm seemed too good to be true, but that didn't stop investors from pouring billions into the company.
As early as 1999, financial analysts pointed out that Madoff's return rates from his investments were not only unbelievable, but also mathematically impossible. Using a giant Ponzi scheme, Madoff used money from new investors to pay returns to older clients, and then generated new clients to continue the cycle. Despite years of complaints to the SEC, no action was taken and the scam continued.
It all came crashing down in 2008, when Madoff found he was unable to drum up enough new clients to keep the cash flowing. He let his sons in on his secret, and they alerted authorities. After a swift investigation, Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison [source: Frank and Efrati].
Lots More Information
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