How a gangster shattered boxes' safe image

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 October, 2004, 12:00am

Safe deposit boxes were once the trusted repositories of valuables for the rich and famous of the world. But on a warm Sunday in London 17 years ago, that trust was shattered.

On July 12, 1987, Italian playboy gangster Valerio Viccei escaped with valuables worth up to GBP60 million [HK$835 million] at the time from the Knightsbridge Safe Deposit Centre.

In the notorious heist, widely documented in books - including Viccei's autobiography - the nine-member gang posed as prospective customers to gain admittance. Then they produced guns and overpowered the manager and security guards, who were handcuffed.

As they were emptying some of the 4,000 boxes inside, another thief, dressed as a security officer, guarded the centre's entrance to turn away customers.

They also stuck a notice on the front door informing customers that the centre would not reopen until the following day.

Police said the gang spent at least two hours inside the centre and unloaded jewels, cash and gold bars from more than 100 safe deposit boxes.

Despite their success, the robbers carelessly left fingerprints in blood inside one of the ransacked boxes.

Police investigations revealed one of the prints belonged to Viccei, a hardened criminal who was wanted by Interpol for several previous armed robberies.

Viccei and his gang were later arrested and he was convicted of the Knightsbridge robbery.

He was sentenced to 22 years' jail in 1989 but was later sent back to Italy.

Viccei was released on probation shortly afterwards, only to be killed in a shoot-out with police in 2001.