Breaking In

Nick Richardson

The burglar’s gaze turns exits into entrances, windows into doors, drainpipes into ladders. Burglars see the bits of buildings the architect attempts to conceal. Floors, walls and ceilings aren’t what they seem – the burglar knows there is space to hide in the cavities behind them. Clues to where the richest pickings are can be read off a building’s façade. One of the career criminals in Geoff Manaugh’s A Burglar’s Guide to the City (FSG, £10.99) – about the relationship between burglary and architecture – says he can work out where the most lavishly appointed flats are likely to be by looking at the outside of a building and paying attention to the positions of the fire escapes. A degree of architectural knowledge is crucial to even the most basic heists. Father Christmas must spend much of the year poring over blueprints: which homes have wide enough chimneys? In which cases would it be wiser to pinch a ladder from a shed, sneak up the back of the house and enter through a skylight? In Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible, Tom Cruise steals a computer disc from the CIA’s Langley HQ while suspended from a cable attached to the belt of a co-thief hidden in a ventilation shaft in the ceiling. The scene that didn’t make it into the movie, but which must have taken place, is the one in which for hours the Cruise character and his colleagues discuss the dimensions of the shaft and its composition (Can we both fit inside? Will it hold our weight?).

Manaugh opens his book with the story of George Leonidas Leslie, a graduate of the University of Cincinnati’s architecture department who used his powers for evil, robbing most of New York blind in the late 19th century. A police chief at the time estimated that during the period Leslie was active, 80 per cent of all bank robberies in the US were perpetrated by him and his gang. Leslie would get hold of the blueprints of buildings and, in a complex of Brooklyn warehouses owned by one of his associates, build to-scale replicas of their vaults. He would then use the replicas to train his team, turning out the lights and standing outside with a stopwatch to make sure they could complete the job in time. Before the gang hit the Manhattan Savings Institution in October 1878 – their most ambitious job, it netted them close to $3 million – Leslie broke into the building twice, stealing nothing, just to make sure his knowledge of the building was sound.

Manaugh’s book is full of good anecdotes about burglar-architects, some successful, others woefully inept. The ‘drywall burglar’ in Cockeysville, Maryland once burgled an entire block of townhouses, chipping his way through the walls from house to house until he reached the end of the row. Another drywaller became known for hacking his way into restaurants and nicking food: some pork belly, a chocolate cake, a bottle of wine. One technique burglars use for getting into a building through a wall involves parking a truck up against a vacant property a few doors down from the one they intend to rob. They scrape away at the wall with their tools, pulling the rubble into the back of the truck, then hack through the interior walls. All anyone can see from the outside is some dodgy parking. Other burglars prefer to get at their haul through the roof. One LA gang mentioned by Manaugh pulled off the Mission: Impossible trick. They got into an office building’s ventilation shaft from the roof, closing the vents behind them, and crawled to a point above the room they wanted to rob. Then all they had to do was remove a panel in the ceiling, turn the motion detector cameras to face the wall, drop down into the office and fill their sacks with laptops and phones.

Perhaps the most impressive feats in Manaugh’s book are the tunnel jobs. In 1976, over the Bastille Day weekend, a gang of burglars tunnelled into the vault of the Société Générale in Nice and stole nearly $8 million in cash and valuables. Their tunnel, which took them two months to dig, joined up with an underwater river called the Paillon that had maintenance roads running along it. Once the gang had completed the job they were able to follow their tunnel to one of the maintenance roads, where a getaway car was waiting for them; they then drove under the city for two miles, emerging onto the Paillon’s natural riverbed without raising suspicion. Albert Spaggiari, the gang’s leader, was eventually taken into custody, but escaped by jumping out of a courtroom window onto the roof of a car and speeding off on a motorbike, allegedly flashing a peace sign as he went. The Société Générale case bears some resemblance to the 1986 robbery of the First Interstate Bank in Los Angeles by the so-called Hole in the Ground Gang (to this day, no one knows who they were), who managed to remove three thousand cubic feet of earth from under Hollywood and escape through their cavernous network of tunnels in four-wheel-drive Suzukis.

The gang behind the Hatton Garden heist in April 2015 were tunnellers of a sort, though they were far less competent than the Hole in the Ground Gang, as Wensley Clarkson’s new account of the raid, Sexy Beasts (Quercus, £14.99), makes clear. They tunnelled from the basement of 88-90 Hatton Garden into the vault of the Hatton Garden Safety Deposit Company using a Hilti DD350 drill to get through the concrete, and a Clarke pump and hose attached to a hydraulic battering ram to hammer their way through the steel. Unfortunately, the pump malfunctioned. The steel refused to bend, the machine died and the gang had to leave the site and return the next day with a new pump. One of the gang members, Danny Jones, bought the new machine: he signed for it as V. Jones, a nod to the star of the British gangster movie Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but used his own address and his own credit card. That mightn’t have been a problem had the gang not left their tools behind when they finally fled the scene.

The gang’s other mistake was that they outsourced their architectural research – not that they had much choice in the matter. Brian Reader, the job’s 76-year-old mastermind, and Terry Perkins, his slightly younger accomplice, couldn’t go ahead with the job until they’d obtained permission from the organised crime family that ran the Hatton Garden area. Reader and Perkins flew out to Marbella, where they met one of the family’s representatives. They were told that the family was prepared to bankroll the job, on condition that they were accompanied by an associate of theirs who called himself Basil. He had straggly ginger hair and large sunglasses that concealed most of his face. Reader later told a friend that he ‘looked like some kind of evil clown. Tall, awkward sorta bloke. But he smiled a lot.’ Basil clearly knew the building very well. He let himself in with a set of keys, got past a pincode-protected door (it’s unclear whether he knew the pin or used a gadget), then let the other members of the gang in through the fire escape. He took out the burglar alarms and disabled the lift, so that the gang could get into the basement by climbing down the lift shaft. But the day after the heist, the gang received a phone call from an employee of the Hatton Garden family, who told them there had been a ‘change of plan’: Basil had CCTV footage of them in action that he would hand over to the police unless they gave up a large portion of the loot. Basil arrived at the hideout moments after the phone call accompanied by a couple of heavies; he separated the most valuable jewels from the haul and flitted away with them, and the rest of the gang was powerless to stop him.

Pulling off a heist is as much about getting yourself out as it is about getting in. That’s why George Leonidas Leslie became a master of disguise, as well as of architecture. When his gang pulled a job out of town they made sure they weren’t seen talking to each other in the streets and rented rooms in different hotels. When the time came, Leslie gave his gang costumes to wear (stolen on at least one occasion from the New York Opera) so that no one would recognise them. The Hatton Garden Mob, on the other hand, were careless about being seen. They met up at the pub in the aftermath of the robbery and talked about it; they called and texted each other. After CCTV footage of the gang entering the building was shown on Crimewatch a viewer contacted the police to say that he recognised one of them from his stripy socks and brown leather lace-ups. The masked man in the socks was Reader. Only Basil was careful about the cameras outside the building, always approaching alone and with a bag on his shoulder that obscured his face. Basil – with his large sunglasses and straggly hair that was probably a wig – is the only member of the Hatton Garden Mob still at large.