Cast your minds back to the summer of 1976. Here in England we were sweltering, as the mercury stayed above 30˚ for a straight fortnight, and eventually Denis Howell was appointed the Minister for Drought. It must have been even more scorchio in the south of France, where a gang of eleven determined robbers spent weeks tunnelling through the sewers of Nice to get access to the basement vault of the local branch of Société Générale. When they finally broke through, on Friday 16 July 1976, they used blow torches and crow bars to open the safety deposit boxes. Over the weekend they removed 46 million francs (about £26 million in today’s money) in banknotes, jewellery and gold bars, refreshing themselves with picnics served on silverware stored in the vault. Heavy rain on the Monday morning started to flood their escape tunnel and so they left, welding the vault door shut behind them. On the wall of the vault they had chalked a message for the police: “Sans arme, ni haine, ni violence” – without gunshots, nor hatred, nor violence.
People loved the story, which was told in books and films. One robber – Albert Spaggiari – was eventually put on trial, but bolted from the courtroom in Nice in dramatic style (he jumped out of the window onto the roof of a parked car and sped off on a waiting motorbike) and spent twelve years on the run until he died. And that, we thought, was that. Until 2010.
By then, a career Marseilles gangster called Jacques Cassandri had had a bellyful of Spaggiari claiming to have organised “the heist of the century”. And now that the statute of limitations had expired on the robbery Cassandri could put the record straight, which he did by publishing a book under a pen-name which was quickly traced to him. In this, he explained that he was the brains behind the outfit. “How handy,” said French prosecutors, albeit in French. “Alors, we can charge him with money laundering, which – unlike robbery – has no statute of limitations.” And so Monsieur Cassandri was put on trial for money laundering on 12 February 2018. He has pleaded not guilty, saying that he made very little from the robbery and has spent the lot; prosecutors allege that he has lived the high life on the proceeds of the robbery for the past forty years. Proof, if you needed it, that the money laundering offences are A Very Good Thing.