General

Chicago’s history of heists is a rich one

Today’s newspaper column from The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.)

Chicago’s history of heists is a rich one

The WISCH LIST

Jan. 28, 2012

From “Ocean’s Eleven” to “Inception,” “The Usual Suspects” to “The Italian Job,” and “The Sting” to, heck, “The Great Muppet Caper,” I’ve always been fascinated by a good heist story.

That’s why last week, I read with interest about the Chicago media’s recounting of the tale of reputed Windy City mobsters Joseph Scalise and Arthur Rachel, who in 1980 donned disguises to rob the legendary egg-shaped Marlborough Diamond from a London jewelry store.

After an astute passerby recorded the license plate of their rental car, Scalise and Rachel were arrested hours later when they stepped off their plane at O’Hare International Airport. For the crime, both men did 13 years in a British prison, although the 45-carat Marlborough Diamond – valued at $960,000 at the time of the theft – remains missing to this day.

Last week, Scalise and Rachel, both 73, were facing federal charges for having planned strong-armed robberies and home invasions as recently as 2010 when they were arrested outside the Bridgeport home of deceased mobster Angelo “The Hook” Pietra. Scalise accepted a deal to plead guilty, while Rachel opted to for a bench trial. On Thursday, he was found guilty by a judge.

As home to John Dillinger, Chicago of course is no stranger to high-profile heists. But its legacy of robbery goes well beyond “Public Enemy No. 1,” and today I thought I’d share a few things about Windy City thievery that you might not know about.

Chief of Thieves

One of Chicago’s most notorious robbers was William A. Hanhardt, who pleaded guilty in 2001 to charges of leading a nationwide ring of thieves that stole nearly $4.85 million worth of jewels.

The interesting thing about Hanhardt, who was just released from prison on Jan. 13, is he once headed the Chicago Police Department’s burglary unit and used police computers to track jewelry salesmen for his heists.

The banks are open

During my stint as a Chicago Tribune Metro reporter from 2005 to 2007, I spent my many a Saturday night at the Tribune Tower keeping tabs on murder and mayhem in the Windy City.

Much of that mayhem involved bank robberies, which peaked in 2006 with a whopping 284 in the Chicago area. Since then, the numbers have decreased dramatically. In 2011, there were 112 bank robberies in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake and Will counties, down from 181 the year before.

“It’s a significant decrease, and it’s interesting to note we had over 200 a year for four or five consecutive years,” said Ross Rice, spokesman for the FBI’s Chicago office, who recently attributed the drop to a 70 percent arrest rate, heavy media coverage and technological advancements, including the FBI’s three-year-old website bandittrackerchicago.com.

What’s in a name?

Perhaps the quirkiest thing about Chicago-area robbers is the nicknames bestowed upon them by the authorities.

In recent years, there’s been the “Swine Flu Bandit” (for his surgical mask), the “Quick-Change Bandit” (for his second set of clothes) and the “Double Dip Bandit” (who would rob the same bank twice).

There’s been the “Wicker Park Bandit” (for his neighborhood of choice), the “Tire Iron Bandit” (for his weapon of choice) and the “Winnie the Pooh Bandit” (for his sweatshirt of choice), as well as the “Stick Figure Bandit” (for his slim build), the “Polite Bandit” (who apologized while robbing) and the “Wheaton Bandit” (who was never caught after stealing $100,000 from 16 suburban banks from 2002 to 2006).

One robber who wasn’t nicknamed was whomever pried open a huge steel door at a West Side beauty salon last April and, according to police, ran off with a “very valuable” amount of human hair.

But I have a suggestion: the “Head Bandit.”