The Burlington job: How police foiled an old-fashioned bank heist

BURLINGTON, ONT. — The Globe and Mail

A hole cut into the floor above a vault at a TD bank is seen in this Halton Police photograph. Five men have been arrested following a sophisticated break-in to a Burlington financial institution on March 18, 2013. (HANDOUT/HALTON POLICE)

When officers first arrived at the TD Bank branch on Fairview Street early Monday morning, there was little indication they had a vintage bank caper on their hands.

The doors were locked, the bank was deserted. But there had to be some reason the branch’s cutting-edge security system had transmitted several break-in alerts to Halton Regional Police around 1 a.m. They had no choice but to set up a perimeter and investigate more fully.

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They were about to uncover a gang of professional bank thieves whose sophistication and attention to detail harkens back to a bygone era when the methodical bank job was a pillar of organized crime and a path to public infamy – or, in some cases, folk-hero status.

“Those kinds of old-style romantic type of theft that were idealized in films and glamourized in the news, they are a lot less common now because there is very little money in banks any more and the security is so advanced,” said Frederick Desroches, professor of criminology at St. Jerome’s University, who interviewed 80 convicted bank robbers for his book Force and Fear: Robbery in Canada.

High-level thieves targeting financial institutions now prefer less risky options than the likes of John Dillinger, Ken (The Flying Bandit) Leishman, Monica (Machine Gun Molly) Proietti and other notorious crooks of times past.

“There are other ways of getting money for anyone with basic Internet skills, all kinds of frauds, embezzlements,” Dr. Desroches said.

From 1998 to 2008, bank robberies in the country declined by 38 per cent, according to Statistics Canada. Since then, figures provided by the Canadian Banking Association indicate a further drop, from 830 in 2009 down to 591 last year.

Halton police didn’t know what they had on their hands as they waited in the -4 chill for the branch property manager to show up, but the on-duty patrol dog, Storm, wasn’t content to kill time. He led a group of officers east along a set of railroad tracks behind the Burlington bank. He was onto something.

One officer began searching an empty field. Along the eastern border of the property, he came across five men, according to a police version of events. They were hiding in a cluster of trees with walkie-talkies and two hockey bags. Inside the bags, police found wad after wad of cash in U.S. and Canadian currencies totalling over $300,000, a variety of rare coins and a collection of valuable jewellery. Police apprehended the men.

The more startling details were yet to come.

Investigators entered the branch and spotted a gaping hole in the ceiling. Cobbling together details at the scene, which included three nearby cars full of burglary tools, they learned the thieves had forced their way into a vacant second-storey office space over the bank several days earlier. Camping out in the office, the burglars covered the windows and brought in a collection of tools befitting a major construction site: sledge hammers, concrete saws and floodlights.

“They took great steps to disguise their location to make it look like they were probably doing renovations in the complex,” said Andrew Fletcher, deputy chief of operations for Halton police.

But two items should have raised suspicions: blowtorch equipment and rappelling gear.

Working by night to avoid detection, the bandits bypassed the alarm system – or at least they thought they did – using an electronic device. Then they cut away a portion of the 60-centimetre-thick reinforced concrete floor directly over the bank’s vault and lowered themselves down.

Police are not elaborating on how they cracked the bank’s vault, but the acetylene torch equipment could provide part of the answer.

Once inside, they pillaged the vault and a number of safety deposit boxes, stuffing the hockey bags full of bills and coins. It was the perfect heist – until one of the robbers tripped a secondary alarm on the way out. The thieves would have been strolling back to their cars when Halton squad cars began appearing in all directions, police said.

“Although they were able to circumvent some security measures, ultimately they were not able to circumvent them all,” said the lead investigator, Detective Donna Whittaker.

On Wednesday, Halton police announced charges against John Hickey, Alexander Papic, Aldo Simoni, Mentor Vishjay and Besim Rugova. All are facing charges of breaking and entering as well as possession of break-in instruments. Technically, the Burlington theft doesn’t count as a bank robbery, which, by definition, requires the use of force or threat of force. Several agencies are now looking for similarities between the Burlington theft and other incidents across Ontario.

The degree of sophistication is surprising considering modern bank theft generally attracts a lower order of criminal who might score $1,500 on a good day, Dr. Desroches said. “The vast majority are people who go in, pass a note and get whatever the float is in the till,” he said. “When you consider these guys might split $300,000 five ways – that’s not a lot of money for such high risk.”

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