A “retired” Marseille gangster stood trial on Monday for being the brains behind the most notorious bank robbery in modern French history after spilling the beans about his alleged leading role in a recent book.
In an apparent act of hubris, Jacques Cassandri, 73, had boasted about being the mastermind of the Heist of the Century – a £24 million robbery by a gang who burrowed into Société Générale bank in central Nice, southern France, from the sewers.
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In The Truth about the Nice Heist, Cassandri – writing under the pseudonym Amigo – said he was tired of living in the shadow of the man assumed to have run the Ocean’s Eleven-style bank job, Albert Spaggiari, who he claims in fact only played a minor role.
On 16 July 1976, after two months of drilling through the underlying sewers, a commando of 13 robbers finally broke into the vaults of the heavily-guarded bank.
They spent the next six days clearing 317 coffers of gold ingots, jewellery and cash amounting to 50 million francs – today worth around £24 million – before making their getaway just as the rising sewage waters began to flood the bank.
When police arrived, they found the words "neither weapons, nor violence, nor hatred," scrawled on the walls.
The treasure was never recovered, but police soon arrested Spaggiari, who first denied involvement then claimed to be the mastermind, saying he got the sewer idea from a novel.
In a coup de theatre, the former member of OAS, the shadowy French far-right nationalist group managed to escape; he jumped out of a 20ft-high window in the judge’s office, was whisked away by a waiting motorbike, travelled to Paris in the boot of a Rolls-Royce and left France.
He spent the rest of his life on the run, making occasional appearances, including one in Rio in the company of Ronald Biggs, the notorious British train robber. From then on, the police spoke of him with almost affectionate respect. His own book on the heist was a bestseller, the story was turned into a film, and he died in Italy in 1989.
The plot thickened in 2010, however, when Cassandri published his book in which he set himself up as the mastermind behind the job – safe, he thought, in the knowledge that the robbery took place too long ago for him to be tried under French law.
However, he hadn’t banked on judges accusing him the following year of laundering the proceeds, charges which had not hit the statutes of limitations.
He is accused of using his ill-gotten gains from the heist to buy a villa in Savoie, a night club in Marseille, land in his native Corsica and hundreds of thousands of euros-worth of fur coats owned by him or his family. The judges also point to his use of “seven gold bars” as a guarantee in one business venture.
Dubbed “the shorn one” due to his bald head, Cassandri is a well-known figure of the Marseille underworld with previous convictions for pimping, extorsion and involvement in the notorious “French Connection” drug ring with South America in the 1970s.
In the Marseilles court in a suit and rectangular glasses, Cassandri described himself as a simple “pensioner” before the judge, who read out a dozen charges, including organised fraud, misuse of funds and aggravated money laundering.
“Jacques Cassandri’s fortune and in consequence the Cassandri family (appears) to draw its hidden origin from the Nice heist bounty,” concluded magistrates in their indictment, pointing out the “considerable estate” for a man who has never officially worked.
They said that the wealth of details in the book he admitted writing after police found the manuscript in his computer could only have been known by someone present during the robbery and who played a leading role in the notorious heist.
However, his lawyer, Frédéric Monneret said: “A novel is not a source of proof.”
“He is the victim of a terrible boomerang effect,” said Mr Monneret. “He always said that it was a novel and I don’t think a court can convict on a novel.”
During questioning, Cassandri confessed to playing a minor part in the heist, but told investigators he was “only” paid two million euros and quickly spent all the money.
He risks ten years in prison if found guilty.
The trial continues.