The Nice heist, 1976: Spaggiari and the "sewer gang"
Summer 1976. A criminal gang breaks into the vault at the Nice branch via underground tunnels. A look at a true story which triggered the proactive, comprehensive and responsive security strategy implemented by Societe Generale.
Friday, 16 July 1976. It's 10pm. In the heart of Nice, suspicious movements were taking place in the basement of the Societe Generale branch located on the crossroad between avenue Jean Médecin and rue de l'Hôtel des Postes. In a dark corner of the vault, a metal cabinet tremors. Attached to the wall, the cabinet eventually gives way under the pressure of a hydraulic ram and clears the way for some ten individuals who emerge from an underground tunnel. Methodically and with determination, the robbers start to force open the long rows of safe deposit boxes before them using blow torches and crow bars. Over a period of two days, by the light of electric torches, they swipe banknotes, jewellery and bars of gold, even taking the time and luxury to picnic using the depositors' silverware. Above ground, accomplices are on stand-by and inform the robbers by walkie-talkie of the comings and goings of the security and cleaning teams. But on Monday 19 July, just before dawn, the criminals are forced to leave the premises quickly as heavy rain begins to flood the sewers. They evacuate their haul through water up to their necks. To safeguard their exit, they take the time to weld the door of the vault from the inside. Above all, they leave behind them an inscription in chalk which will contribute to their fame: "Without gunshots, nor violence, nor hatred".
A few hours later, news of the robbery hits the headlines. The value of the haul - some 50 million francs (the equivalent of €31 million today) - as well as the methods used triggered astonishment. It is the first time in history that such a hold-up had taken place. The police discover the unimaginable: a tunnel eight meters long, burrowed using chisels, sledgehammers and drills which winds its way through the narrow, rat and refuge-infested passages of the town's sewer network, itself linked to the Paillon, the torrent that passes through Nice before flowing into the sea. A professional job, in all likelihood prepared well in advance in view of the planks of wood supporting the walls of the underground network, the electric cables and the carpets rolled out on the ground, as well as the oxygen canisters found by investigators. In places, the tunnel had been cemented to guard against rock slides.
Societe Generale's management responds immediately following the announcement of the break-in. The official investigation rapidly focuses on the underworld and at the same time the bank launches an active communication drive to reassure its customers. It sets up an identification procedure aimed at compensating customers for the objects and valuables stored in the boxes that were forced open. In truth, only 305 safe deposit boxes out of a total of 4,100 were broken into, i.e. 8% in total. A "slight disappointment" for the burglars as the self-appointed (perhaps over-exaggerated) brain behind the heist Albert Spaggiari, a photographer with a shady past and in search of adventures, would later admit after his arrest in October 1976. Indeed, the surprising resistance of the boxes considerably slowed down the criminals' work, who had initially planned to open them all. In addition to this, according to the members of the gang who were arrested and questioned, the reinforced concrete foundations of the building were much thicker and more solid than your average foundation. Finally, the absence of an alarm system, which Spaggiari had gotten wind of, was due to recent work carried out in part of the basement: the new electronic detection system, which should have linked the basement to the local police station, had not yet been installed due to administrative delays. An accidental leak, collusion, pure coincidence? The mystery still stands. Following twelve years on the run after his spectacular escape through the windows of the Nice courthouse, Albert Spaggiari took the secret to his grave. To cap it all, the criminals had not expected to find night safes and the large amounts they held during that fateful weekend; they had just been alerted by the sound of bags falling as deposits were made. They therefore benefited from a lucky combination of circumstances. Under normal conditions, their plan would have had no chance of succeeding.
Societe Generale was quick to draw lessons from the event. After compensating affected customers, based on sworn statements, and after each claim was examined by a board of experts, the bank launched the "very well defended banking centre" project to address the threat of organised crime. The bank shared its experience with other establishments and drew up more efficient methods of protection in the branches with the highest level of deposits: it strengthened the door leading to the vault, increased the thickness of the floors and walls, increased the number of night rounds and installed additional alarms to secure the area, in particular the first video-surveillance equipment in 1977. Brochures were distributed to employees to explain the new security systems and provide advice on the measures to take, where possible, in the event of a robbery. Like other establishments, Societe Generale from then on only used private companies to transfer funds, built anti hold-up branches and installed security portals. As an additional precaution, the bank provided instructions that cash held at the branch should not exceed a certain amount. Permanently vigilant, during the era of Jacques Mesrine and the Gang des Postiches (the Wigs Gang), the bank launched a proactive, responsive and comprehensive security strategy. In the era of cybercrime and the third millennium, the lesson has not been lost.
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