They won just one medal at the Torino Olympics, and the shipping company P&O, which once held the Empire together, has been sold to an Arab sheikdom, but the British still lead the world in heists. Since the Great Train Robbery in 1963, a succession of raids--each seemingly larger than the last--has provided a stream of ripping yarns for crime writers. Last week's entry into the genre, which may have netted £40 million ($70 million in U.S. currency) or even more--the precise figure has not been revealed--will doubtless spawn its own literary offspring. It has certainly got the goods: a daring robbery, a terrified family, a collection of pub names that a novelist couldn't improve upon and, if the many early breaks in the case continue, a quick win for the police.
The business started with what is known in the trade as a "tiger kidnapping." (The tiger, see, stalks its prey.) Colin Dixon, 51, the manager of a security depot that stores money for commercial banks and the Bank of England, was driving past the Three Squirrels pub in Kent, southeast of London, when a car with men disguised as police officers forced him off the road. Two other fake cops went to the man's house, where they told his wife and young son that Dixon had been involved in an accident. All three were then taken to a safe house where the family was threatened and Dixon forced to cooperate. After midnight, the gang took Dixon to a depot in nearby Tonbridge, run by Securitas, a company that handles about 40% of the cash deposits made in Britain. Once inside, the gang tied up 14 staff members and started to load the loot into a white truck.
It's a racing certainty that they didn't know what they had got. With big robberies, that's more common than you might suppose. In a number of the most famous British heists--notably the Brinks Mat bullion raid at Heathrow airport in 1983, when thieves took gold worth $45 million--police and underworld lore insist that the gangs had no idea of the value of their haul. For a crook, an unexpectedly large payday can be as much a curse as a blessing. You have to do something with the stuff you've stolen, and if you've stolen a lot of it, your problems multiply. More people know there is hot money or goods around, so security is compromised, and that gives fences the chance to demand a larger cut for laundering cash. Then the authorities offer a bigger than usual reward--in the Securitas case, $3.5 million, enough to turn the heads of many villains, or villains' wives. Most dangerously, you have to physically shift the stolen goods--and the Tonbridge robbers had a lot of baggage to haul around. "If you have £40 million in £50 notes," says Jeffrey Robinson, a security expert and author in London, "you are talking about 800,000 pieces of paper. That would weigh 900 lbs. The immediate problem is, what the hell do you do with it?"