Mystery Bank Heist Is Flashback to Berlin’s Murky UnderworldJoseph de Weck
A hidden tunnel, a fake Dutch passport, and strewn contents of smashed up safe-deposit boxes are among the clues confounding police in Berlin trying to solve a bank heist that recalls the German capital’s past as a hotbed of crime and espionage.
Police in the city, the scene of the infamous Sass brothers’ bank raid in 1929 and a robbery at a Commerzbank AG branch in 1995, said a group of criminals toiled in secret for months from an adjacent underground garage. They dug a 45-meter (147.6 feet) tunnel before breaking into the vault at a Berliner Volksbank eG outlet in the Steglitz-Zehlendorf area last month. The bank’s insurance arm is offering a maximum 25,000 euros ($33,710) for information leading to the recovery of the loot.
Adding to Berlin’s folklore of underground escapades, the perpetrators probably used picks and shovels to dig out 120 tons of earth and build the cavity, stabilized with props and sidewalls three meters below the ground, and penetrated the vault’s 80 centimeter-thick reinforced concrete back wall with a water-cooled core drill, police said. They made off without a trace after raiding more than 300 deposit boxes on the weekend of Jan. 12.
“My first reaction when I saw the pictures of the tunnel was hats off, good job,” said Fabian Remspecher, a construction engineering specialist at Berlin’s Technical University. “It must have taken them months and very good planning. My colleagues and I can’t stop speculating about how they did it.”
Police are unable to assess the value of the stolen property as the bank has no knowledge of the contents of the raided deposit boxes.
The 1.5 meter-high and 1 meter-wide tunnel is “highly professional work,” Berlin police spokesman Thomas Neuendorf said in an interview.
Although made for professional use, core drilling machines with a similar diameter to the one used in the robbery can be bought for as little as 1,699 euros on EBay Inc.’s website.
Three weeks after the robbery, police are no closer to apprehending the culprits, whom the authorities believe to have worked in a team of three or more. They have assigned seven officers to a task-force working on the case full-time.
Members of the public have helped them produce a photo-fit picture of one of the alleged robbers, garnering more than 150 leads.
While some of the information is “very promising,” the “really hot lead” is still missing, Neuendorf said. “Most of the victims are not billionaires, but ordinary savers who lost cash and personal objects.”
The vault, fitted with a steel door, bolts and a star handle, was built to the “latest technological standards,” Nancy Moench, a spokeswoman for Berliner Volksbank, said by telephone.
Police are investigating whether one of the robbers may have rented one of the boxes to gain intelligence. It’s possible they had plans of the building, they said.
The annual rent for a safe-deposit box ranges from 45 to 175 euros per year, the Berliner Volksbank spokeswoman said.
The burglars lit fire to the tunnel’s entrance and the vault to destroy evidence. Police also found cash and medals in opened safe-deposit boxes, indicating the burglars didn’t have the time or space to take everything.
“Berlin has a long tradition when it comes to the underworld and the underground,” said Dietmar Arnold, the chairman of Berliner Unterwelt, a group that uncovers subterranean structures in the city.
“That they managed to dig this tunnel without anyone noticing really is quite an achievement,” Arnold said. “It must have taken them months to do it. Just to dump the earth alone must have taken at least 260 trips. I think the chances that someone saw something are very big.”
Berlin, a favored location in Cold War spy novels, is steeped in tunnel tales dating back to the Weimar Republic.
On the eve of the Great Depression in 1929, brothers Franz and Erich Sass built a tunnel to a Berlin bank safe-room and took off with booty of more than two million Reichsmark. While police failed to collect enough evidence to arrest them, the brothers were celebrated by the press as master thieves and Robin Hood figures who allegedly slipped cash into poor people’s hands.
Documented in at least three feature films, the Sass brothers’ escapade was copied in 1995 by a group of gangsters who took hostages in a Commerzbank branch. The burglars fled through a 50-meter tunnel after stealing at least 5.3 million deutsche Marks ($3.67 million) in ransom and raided about 200 safe-deposit boxes, according to a 2008 report in Tagesspiegel.
While most of the Commerzbank burglars were arrested within weeks of the robbery, the Sass brothers paraded their wealth and invited reporters to champagne press conferences until Danish police arrested them in 1934. After being handed over to German authorities, they were shot dead in 1940 on their arrival at a Nazi death camp, according to Der Spiegel.
The Berlin Wall, erected in 1961 to separate West Berlin from the communist German Democratic Republic, also sparked a wave of amateur tunnel building. Of 74 shafts dug deep into the ground, 14 became escape routes for about 300 refugees fleeing communist rule and the Stasi secret police, according to Berliner Unterwelten.
It wasn’t long before border police put a stop to the subterranean activities.
“The Stasi had a very good spy-network and found out about most tunnels,” said Dietmar Arnold, Berliner Unterwelt’s chairman. “About 600 people were arrested and once they started using tunnel location sensors in the 1970s, there was no way out.”
The Nazis also built a vast underground transport network to revamp Berlin into “Germania,” Adolf Hitler’s vision for the would-be capital of the Third Reich.
At the end of World War II, Hitler used an underground stairway tunnel to reach the Berlin bunker where he lived and worked before committing suicide in 1945, as the Red Army closed in on the Nazi German capital’s center. Parts of the Hitler bunker complex remain but have been sealed off and aren’t accessible to the public.