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Gangster on trial over ‘heist of the century’

Jacques Cassandri, alleged 'brain' in the case of the 1976 spectacular burglary of the Societe Generale bank of Nice waits, on February 12, 2018 at Marseille courthouse
Image: Jacques Cassandri is the alleged mastermind of a famous 1976 robbery

A French gangster has gone on trial 42 years after he allegedly committed the heist of the century.

In 1976, a gang of robbers broke into a Societe Generale branch in the southern city of Nice and stole 46m francs (about €29m in today’s money).

They had spent weeks preparing for their crime, using rubber rafts in the sewers to reach the place where they dug an eight-metre tunnel.

The tunnels were reinforced with concrete, pictures of scantily-clad women were stuck on the walls, and even hundreds of metres of electrical cables built in so they could have lighting.

They broke in on a weekend, taking their time to search through nearly 200 safe deposit boxes in the bank’s vault and even breaking into the five-ton safe.

When bank staff returned on the Monday morning, they found valuables missing and the vault welded shut.

Inside was a message: “Ni coup de feu, ni violence, ni haine” (Without a shot, without violence and without hate).

Police charged one man – Albert Spaggiari – but he escaped by jumping out of a courthouse window in 1977.

An accomplice was waiting on a motorbike and the two rode off, never to be caught again.

Spaggiari died of cancer in 1989.

Then, in 2010, a book was published by a career criminal who portrayed himself as the brains behind the heist.

He used an alias but police became convinced it was a mafia man named Jacques Cassandri.

Eventually, his children revealed that he had boasted about the robbery, and police also found the book manuscript on his computer.

After so many years, the statute of limitations had expired on the robbery but police have instead charged Cassandri, 73, with laundering the money from the robbery, which has no time limit.

His wife and children also face charges, including social security fraud and involvement in a real estate scam.

All appeared at a Marseilles court on Monday for the beginning of the trial.

Cassandri described himself in court as a “simple pensioner”, saying he had quickly spent his €2m share of the loot.

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But an inquiry had found he had bought thousands of euros-worth of fur and once presented seven bars of gold as a financial guarantee.

He may have been broke after spending the robbery proceeds, but he now runs several businesses and owns a lot of real estate, according to an investigating magistrate.

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