Some criminal acts are crimes of opportunity, requiring little knowledge or planning to execute. The crimes on the list below fall into the opposite category. Pulling off these crimes required extensive planning and, in some cases, special skills, equipment, subterfuge, and access…
10. Stealing a Shark from an Aquarium
There aren’t many sharknappings on the books, but July 2018’s theft of a 16-inch horn shark from the San Antonio Aquarium would likely go down as the most thoroughly researched. Two men and a woman were caught on camera scoping out the aquarium’s touch tank for more than an hour before using their own net to capture the shark, whose name is Miss Helen, wrapping her in a wet towel and plopping her into a baby carriage. Two of the suspects transferred her into a bucket of water in a nearby room before making their escape.
Investigating authorities got a break in the case when an aquarium employee recognized one of the men in the surveillance video. About a month prior, Anthony Shannon had posed as a representative for the aquarium’s salt supplier. Saying that he needed to perform some tests related to a bad batch of salt the company had discovered, Shannon received a full behind-the-scenes tour of all of the aquarium’s exhibit areas. Upon visiting the house of one of the suspects, police found Miss Helen, among other marine creatures, in an elaborate tank structure. The chief of the local police department noted that the suspect, “very much knew what he was doing” in terms of providing appropriate care for the shark. Shannon, who has been charged with theft, asserts he is an “activist not a criminal” and says was on “a mission” to protect the health of the shark by liberating her from unhealthy tank conditions.
9. The Multi-national Stolen Shoe Match-Up
Swedish police were initially baffled by a string of designer shoe thefts. While the shoes had strong resale value and would be easy to transport, the thieves were swiping only the display shoes—which were all left shoes. After repeated thefts in the Swedish city of Malmö, including one incident where a pair of thieves grabbed seven left shoes from a single store, shopkeepers and police developed a theory about what was going on. Malmö, and its 125 shoe shops, is just across the water from Copenhagen, Denmark (which has hundreds of shoe stores of its own). While Swedish shoe stores display left shoes, the right shoes are used for displays in Denmark, so thieves were likely matching up left shoes from Sweden with right shoes from Denmark, an approach Malmö’s police superintendent called “tried and tested.”
Scandinavia isn’t the only place where shoe thieves have employed multi-stage thefts to complete a pair of shoes. A Foot Locker manager in Brooklyn has observed a similar pattern. While his Foot Locker displays left sneakers, Jimmy Jazz, another sneaker retailer nearby, uses the right shoes in its displays. Explains the manager, “They go here and they steal a left shoe, let’s say it’s a 9 and a half. They go to Jimmy Jazz and steal the right.”
8. Stealing Dozens of Paintings While Forging Their Replacements
Xiao Yuan, an art librarian who was responsible for a gallery at the Guangzhao Academy of Fine Arts, worked out a pretty clever art theft strategy. During the two years he oversaw the collection, Xiao, who had keys that allowed him complete access to all the galleries outside of business hours, swiped more than 140 paintings from Chinese masters. He kept some of the paintings, whose total value was estimated at more than $16 million, and sold others at auction, netting more than $5 million.
To avoid detection, Xiao produced his own replacements for the stolen works, just swapping the fakes with the originals in the gallery after hours. Xiao’s forged works were apparently pretty credible, as the crimes only came to light when a former student of the Guangzhao Academy of Fine Arts saw the school’s seal on artwork that was for sale in Hong Kong. Xiao pled guilty to a corruption charge and apologized for his actions, but noted that art theft and forgery were common at the library. He even noted that his forgeries were stolen and replaced with less-convincing fakes, saying, “I realized someone else had replaced my paintings with their own because I could clearly discern that their works were terribly bad.”
7. Framing the Victim
When his ex-girlfriend accused him of rape and refused to back down from her claims, Jerry Ramrattan, a man obsessed with crime dramas on TV and who claimed to be a private investigator, launched an elaborate scheme to punish her. Ramrattan framed his ex, Seemona Sumasar, for a series of robberies that never took place, coaching fake witnesses to identify her as their assailant and to provide details (like her car’s license plate number) to underscore her guilt.
Sumasar insisted she was innocent, but was arrested and held for $1 million in bail (which she could not afford) for seven months, during which time she was separated from her daughter and lost her restaurant and home. It wasn’t until an informer came forward, days before Sumasar was to stand trial, that Ramrattan’s plot unraveled. When police checked phone records, they discovered Ramrattan had been in contact with all the purported witnesses, who eventually confessed to the police. Sumasar was released and Ramrattan was convicted of more than 10 charges. The Queens district attorney, Richard A. Brown, underscored the diabolical nature of Ramrattan’s methodical frame-up of Sumasar saying that despite the massive volume of cases his office handles, “no one has ever seen anything like this before. Few people have the capacity to pull off a master plot of this magnitude to exact revenge.”
6. Creating a Counterfeit Moscow Philharmonic
In 2000, thousands of classical music fans in Hong Kong turned out for several near-sellout concerts in August, shelling out up to $31 each for a ticket. The performances received rave reviews from audiences and a local music critic praised the “exciting accelerandos constrasted with the heart-stopping rubatos.” There was just one problem: the Moscow Philharmonic was actually touring in Europe on the same dates it was purported to be performing in Hong Kong.
Eventually it emerged that, while a few freelancers from the actual Moscow Philharmonic had performed in Hong Kong, they did so as part of a makeshift group of musicians, rather than under the auspices of the Philharmonic. There was finger-pointing on both sides, with one Moscow newspaper calling Hong Kong a “city of fakes” and the real orchestra’s guest conductor saying, “It’s a huge scandal in Moscow, very upsetting. Meanwhile, the concert organizers and the government of Hong Kong (which had helped promote the concert), continued to insist that the concerts were not a hoax, since some members of the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra had actually performed.
5. Masks, Research, and Copying a Hollywood Heist Movie
A trio of thieves were evidently inspired by the Ben Affleck movie The Town, using several techniques employed by the movie’s crew of thieves to rob a New York check cashing business of $200,000. And but for one small mistake, they might have gotten away with it.
In the movie, the thieves dress as nuns, then commit armed robbery. The real-life thieves—Akeem Monsalvatge, Edward Byam, and Derrick Dunkley—hired a high-end special effects company to make them latex masks to hide their identities. These masks, the contributions of a make-up artist who believed the three were being disguised for a music video, as well as accompanying costumes, made the three (who are African-American) appear to be white NYPD officers.
As in the movie, the three reportedly doused the crime scene with bleach to obscure any DNA evidence and tried to intimidate an employee by providing details of her personal life. The latter proved to be the thieves’ undoing. They showed the check cashing store clerk a series of photos, including a picture of her house. But, on the way out with their newfound riches, they dropped the photo, which police were able to trace to a nearby Walgreens. The group’s leader had paid for the photos using his real name. Meanwhile, Motsalvatge, Byam, and Dunkley were not nearly as disciplined after their crime as they had been in planning it—photos of them flashing cash, expensive goodies, and even one of them wearing a t-shirt depicting The Town helped convince a jury to convict the trio, who were sentenced to more than 30 years in prison.
4. Rigging the Lottery
IT Manager Eddie Tipton seemed like any other employee of the Multi-State Lottery Association during the 12 years he worked there, writing code for several US lottery games, including Mega Millions, Hot Lotto, and Powerball. His $540,000, five bedroom house near Des Moines, Iowa, did seem a little big for a single guy making less than $100,000 a year, but he explained it by saying he channeled all his savings into setting up the house for the family he hoped to have someday. However, when Tipton was caught on camera purchasing a $16.5 million winning lottery ticket, which he tried to claim via an attorney. Investigators dug into Tipton’s life and realized he had an awful lot of lucky family members and friends who had also won the lottery.
As part of a plea deal, Tipton revealed how his scheme had worked. He had inserted code on the random number generator the lottery used to select the winning numbers. On a couple of predetermined dates (assuming they fell on a Saturday or a Wednesday), Tipton restricted the input used by the random number generator, reducing the pool of winning numbers from more than 10 million to a few hundred combinations, which he would provide to a family member or friend to play, sometimes taking a cut of their winnings. Tipton told investigators his initial motivation was to crack the system, saying it was “never my intent to start a full-out ticket scam,” but that, “It occurred to me, like, ‘Wow, I could do this, I could be making a living doing this’.”
3. “Landscaping” Their Way to $70 Million
One of the world’s largest bank robberies was the theft of $70 million in currency from the Fortaleza branch of Brazil’s Central Bank. The team of thieves prepared methodically for their big heist. They began by renting a small house a block away from the bank, ostensibly to house their gardening business, Grama Sintetica (Synthetic Turf). They painted the building, slapped a logo on a van, advertised their gardening services, and even passed out promotional swag around the neighborhood.
Once their base was established, the team spent the next three months building an 80-meter tunnel, complete with electricity and basic air conditioning, into the vault. They had to remove large amounts of dirt everyday, but no one thought it was odd for a landscaping company to be hauling around truckloads of soil. When the thieves reached the vault, they took 164.7 million reals (about $70 million USD). Leaving crisp new bills in the vault, the thieves instead took old bills that had been withdrawn from circulation, so there was no record of the serial numbers. The group’s suspected ringleader was eventually found dead and more than a dozen suspects were arrested for involvement in the theft. However, the majority of the money taken in the heist remains missing.
2. Choppering in For the Cash
If you’re going to rob a cash depot, you had better come prepared. One gang of thieves definitely did when they launched a daring raid on the G4S cash depot in the Västberga area of Stockholm, Sweden, which provides cash for many of the ATMs in Stockholm. The thieves selected September 23 for their attack, presumably because the depot would be well-stocked with cash in anticipation for September 25, the day of the month when most Swedes receive their monthly salaries. Prior to their predawn attack on the complex, the thieves stole a helicopter. A little after 5:00 a.m., masked men dropped from the helicopter onto the depot roof, breaking a window to enter the complex and using explosives to advance to the area where the cash was stored. As the chopper hovered over the building, the thieves hoisted several million dollars worth of cash into it.
The thieves anticipated the police response, and planned accordingly. They blocked the roads around the cash depot with metal rods, slowing the ability of police vehicles to reach the scene. They also deployed what appeared to be bombs (later determined to be fake) around the police helipad, preventing an aerial pursuit. Some suspects were eventually found and convicted, but some participants, and the stolen cash, remain on the loose.
1. Looting the Diamond District
Antwerp, Belgium is the world’s foremost diamond trade center. More than 80% of the world’s rough diamonds and 50% of the world’s cut diamonds are traded in Antwerp, which saw $46 billion in goods traded in 2017. With so much valuable merchandise concentrated in about one square mile, Antwerp’s diamond district presents an attractive, though heavily secured, target for thieves.
In 2003, the Antwerp Diamond Center became the scene of the largest jewel theft in history, as a team of thieves accessed more than 100 of its vaults and made off with an estimated $100 million in diamonds. The planning behind the elaborate scheme was detailed by Leonardo Notarbartolo, one of its architects, in an interview with Wired Magazine. Almost three years prior, Notarbartolo, who had been involved in thefts for most of his adult life, rented a small office in the Antwerp Diamond Center, playing the role of a low-level Italian gem importer.
According to Notarbartolo, a jewelry dealer through whom he’d previously traded stolen goods asked him to investigate the possibility of robbing the Antwerp Diamond Center. Notarbartolo was game, conducting extensive reconnaissance on the facility, its security measures, and its fortified vault. The team worked methodically to develop a plan to penetrate the facility, building a replica vault for practice and developing custom replicas for the building’s keys. The day before the robbery, Notarbartolo sprayed hairspray over the vault’s motion detector and taped over its light detector. When the thieves opened the magnetic vault doors, they cut the bolts holding the magnets and taped them in place, ensuring that final alarm wouldn’t sound. The team then drilled into the individual boxes within the vault, making off with an estimated $100 million in diamonds and jewelry (though Notarbartolo maintains that the take was far less).
Notarbartolo was eventually caught because the gang discarded some trash, including a half-eaten sandwich, that police were able to trace to him. While three additional members of the gang were eventually convicted and given jail sentences, most of the diamonds were never found. Notarbartolo was found carrying more than two pounds of rough diamonds following his 2009 release from prison, though because rough stones are virtually untraceable, police were unable to disprove Notarbartolo’s story that he had purchased cheap, industrial diamonds.