An old proverb from Northern England goes, "Where there's muck, there's brass," which implies that those who don't mind getting their hands filthy can frequently make good money. For Albert Spaggiari, the mastermind of the largest bank heist in French history, that was undoubtedly the case. He left no trace of the whereabouts of the millions he had stolen.
Spaggiari, who was born in 1932, was a tearaway who was constantly in trouble for stealing. When the boy was three years old, his mother, a lingerie shop owner, quickly got married again, but the boy disliked his stepfather. After leaving his family at the age of 17, he enlisted in the Parachute Regiment to fight the communist army of Ho Chi Minh in Indochina.
Spaggiari was a tough soldier who received two wounds and a bravery award. However, his previous weakness reappeared, and in 1953 he was taken into custody for breaking into a milk bar in Hanoi in order to steal the goods. He was imprisoned and returned to France wearing irons.
Spaggiari appeared to have changed his ways by the late 1960s; he got married to a nurse, relocated to the South of France, and set up shop in Nice for photography. His talent and charm quickly made him more and more in demand for social events and other weddings.
But his fingers were itching, and he was itching for action. Plans for a strong heist also started to form in his mind when he discovered that the Société Générale bank's walls were in close proximity to the Nice sewer system.
He first rented a safety box in the bank's vault and placed a loud alarm clock that was programmed to go off at midnight inside of it as a precaution. To ensure his plans were not interrupted, Spaggiari checked for seismic or acoustic detection alerts.
He didn't have to worry. Similar to the owners of the Titanic, who believed their ship could not sink, the bank believed its vault could not be breached.
He then gathered a group of Marseilles-based criminals who made their way into the sewers. They dug an eight-meter (26-foot) tunnel, which Spaggiari insisted be shored up, and a mine shaft. They also installed hundreds of meters of electrical cables to provide lights while for two months in the summer of 1976, they waded through human waste every night.
Along the concrete-reinforced tunnel's walls were sexist images of women, and police subsequently discovered food scraps, wine bottles, and cigarette packs.
They broke into the vault on Friday night of the three-day Bastille Day weekend, used a welding gun to seal the door from the inside, and broke open 371 safety deposit boxes before making an escape early on Monday.
Some reports state that Spaggiari fed his men wine and pâté, and that they had a picnic lunch inside the vault, where they looked through the various safety deposit boxes for hours.
The value of the haul would never be known because the bank had no idea what was inside the boxes. The estimated value of the cash and jewels varied from 30 million to 100 million francs.
When the shocked bank's locksmiths finally succeeded in opening the door, they discovered deposit boxes strewn all over the floor, the gang's uneaten food remains, and a chalkboard bearing the words "Sans Armes, ni Violence, ni Haine" (without weapons, violence, or hate).
A few weeks later, the police apprehended one of the thieves who named the entire gang, including Spaggiari, after receiving a tip. As a photographer, he traveled to the Far East with the Mayor of Nice and was detained when the plane returned.
Spaggiari requested to see the judge in his chambers during his trial. Suddenly, he dashed to a window, threw it open, and jumped out. "Au revoir," he waved before roaring off while perched atop a motorbike belonging to one of his accomplices. He was never seen by the French police again.
The judge sentenced him to life in prison while he was away. For the remainder of his life, Spaggiari traveled back and forth between Europe and South America, and it is thought that he occasionally visited his wife in France. He had been living in Italy under a false identity for a number of years when he passed away from lung cancer in 1989.
The French biopic "Sans arme, ni haine, ni violence" about Spaggiari was released in theaters in 2008. It showed him as an adventurous thief mixed with comedic fantasist, stranded by an Argentine hotel pool.
English thriller writer Ken Follett partially rewrote French journalists René-Louis Maurice and Jean-Claude Simoën's book "The Heist of the Century," which was inspired by a book written by Spaggiari and published in 1977 and titled "Sewers of Gold."
Unanswered Questions: The Mystery Surrounding Spaggiari's Disappearance
For decades, investigators and the general public have been confused by the question of whether Spaggiari was able to actually escape prosecution. There have been no verified sightings or reliable leads regarding his whereabouts despite intensive efforts to locate him. That he disappeared into the shadows and left the world full of unanswered questions and fascinating memories is a possibility.
There are a lot of speculations and theories regarding Spaggiari's disappearance. Some people think he passed away suddenly, while others think he lived a quiet life in obscurity. The mystery and appeal of the man who stole 45 million francs and dared to vanish without a trace are only increased by the lack of hard evidence.