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The Definitive Tale of Redoine Faïd: The Real-Life Movie Gangster Who Just Escaped a French Prison in a Helicopter

Their plan reflected the violent poetry of an action scene in a fast-paced crime thriller

On a quiet Sunday morning, the helicopter instructor waited for his three new students at a small flying club in a tiny town called Fontenay-Trésigny, France. When the “students” arrived, though, they were actually a trio of well-armed commandos who demanded that the instructor fly them to the Centre Pénitentiaire Sud Francilien, a prison in nearby Reau. Their AK-47 assault rifles were very persuasive. The commandos hijacked the helicopter and the instructor piloted them to the prison. Thanks to months of drone surveillance, they already had all the intel they needed for their military-style operation. Namely, they knew that all but one spot of the prison was covered by anti-helicopter netting — this spot was, of course, where they intended to land.

The masked men, each of whom was dressed in black, arrived at the prison around 11:20 a.m. local time. Two commandos leapt from the hijacked chopper, brandishing their AK-47 assault rifles. They set off smoke bombs to obscure themselves from the security cameras and used a handheld cement grinder to cut through the heavy prison doors. (The third stayed behind with the helicopter and pilot to ensure they all had a way to escape.) Once through, the two commandos headed for the visitor’s room, which is where they found the man they had come to free: Criminal mastermind Redoine Faïd.

Their plan reflected the violent poetry of an action scene in a fast-paced crime thriller. That, too, was by design. Faïd had devised it according to his cinematic imagination. In fact, all of his prison escapes have been executed with the creative flair of a master filmmaker.

Now freed, Faïd and his commandos backtracked through the prison and rendezvoused with their hijacked helicopter and flew it to Gonesse, a suburb 25 miles northeast of Paris in the Val-d’Oise region of northern France. After landing safely, Faïd and the commandos hopped out, set the pilot free and torched the helicopter. The flames were to disrupt any incriminating trail of evidence. Then they fled in a black Renault Megane, making a clean getaway by merging into the mass of high-speed weekend traffic on the A1 motorway.

Path from Centre Pénitentiaire Sud Francilien in Reau to Gonesse

Later that afternoon, Faïd and the three commandos swapped out cars again. As with the helicopter, they torched the black Renault — this time in a shopping mall in Aulnay-sous-Bois, another Parisian suburb. Eyewitnesses spotted Faïd and his team of commandos as they hopped into a white utility van, but not before it disappeared for a second time into traffic — just another white work van in Paris.

Once again, the 46-year old international jewel thief and armored-car bandit was free. Once again, the mastermind had escaped a French prison. Once again, the best-selling author was on the lam. Once again, he was atop Interpol’s Most Wanted List. And once again, French authorities found themselves having to answer the question: How the hell did he do that?

Redoine Faïd was born on May 10, 1972 to a poor family of Algerian immigrants. He was raised in a Parisian satellite suburb called Creil. It’s an area famous for poverty, desperation and crime. Unemployment is rampant. All of which means legitimate paths for a man of Faïd’s intelligence and talents didn’t seem possible. So instead, he grew into a teenage criminal. He partnered with a legendary thief from Creil, a man named Jean-Claude Bisel. The older man was a formidable gang leader in the neighborhood, who’s presently in prison for murdering his son-in-law; he took Faïd under his wing and taught the boy how to become a great bandit — a man the whole nation would fear and love.

Faïd first started to make a name for himself back in the mid-1990s. But despite becoming one of France’s pre-eminent armored car hold-up men, jewelry thieves and bank robbers, he studiously avoided detection and capture. He also remained non-violent. For instance, in 1995, while robbing the BNP bank in Creil, he abducted the bank manager, the bank manager’s wife and their four children. None of them, though, were harmed. Faïd got what he wanted and left. This non-violent gambit worked for years. He once did the same thing to a jewelry store owner and his wife. He held up the store at gunpoint and robbed it blind. But once he did, he left his hostages behind, completely untouched.

His motivation was twofold: 1) It was the smart thing to do, at least in terms of drawing police attention; and 2) leaving so many storytellers in his wake fed his desire for notoriety. It’s the same reason Faïd wrote a bestselling book about his criminal exploits. He wants his story to be known, to be retold, to become folklore. In fact, his book publisher has offered the opinion that Faïd doesn’t rob banks, armored cars or jewelry stores to get rich, he robs them to become known.

This has earned him favorable comparisons to Robin Hood, but his actual heroes are the gangsters and bank robbers he saw in movies. In particular, he’s studied everything Robert De Niro did and said in the Michael Mann movie Heat, treating it like a rabbinical student treats a holy text and Mann as his master. For instance, as an homage, during a 1997 robbery in Villepinte, Faïd opted to wear a hockey mask for the hold-up — just like De Niro and his crew did in the armored car robbery scene in Heat.

In 2009, Faïd finangled his way into a screening of Mann’s Public Enemies at a Paris film festival. During the Q&A afterward, Faïd nervously acted as a commenter from the crowd. He (in translation) told Mann, “Heat remains the absolute [example] of organized crime, inspired by life, by people — real facts — he tries to transmit them in his cinema. I personally, I am a former gangster, unfortunately, I do not brag about it. I just spent 10 years in prison. I attacked armored vans. … For 20 years, I’ve known Michael Mann. I discovered him with Thief, and with a bunch of friends, we’ve watched his films a bit as news reports, as documentaries.”

“Recently, journalists asked me, ‘You know, you had a big criminal career, and you did it yourself, you’re self-taught,’” Faïd said, referencing his recently published crime memoir, but keen to offer credit where credit is due. “I told them, ‘No, I had a technical adviser, a college teacher, a kind of mentor, and his name is Michael Mann.’”

Mann had no idea what to say in return, which he basically admitted: “Thank you for that… I don’t know how to respond.”

Yet as much as Mann was a powerful inspiration and a vital source of criminal education for Faïd, he didn’t just limit himself to Mann’s cinematic robberies. All of Hollywood was there for him to steal stylistic touches. For one job, for example, Faïd amused himself by having each member of his crew use color-coded names just like Quentin Tarantino did with Mr. White, Mr. Pink, Mr. Brown, etc. in Reservoir Dogs. And later, as a nod to Kathryn Bigelow’s cult classic Point Break, Faïd made his crew wear Halloween masks of ex-presidents. But being that he’s French, his crew wore masks of former French leaders. As they robbed the bank wearing their French ex-presidents masks, Faïd quoted verbatim the moment when one of the Point Break robbers, who’s dressed as Richard Nixon, lifts both arms above his head and gives the famous double peace salute as he says with shaking jowls, “I am not a crook!”

For the first eight years of his criminal career, Faïd met nothing but success. But as his scores got bigger, he eventually grabbed the full, unblinking attention of French authorities. And so, he did what any smart criminal would do: He fled France for the last place someone would ever think to look for a slums-of-Paris-raised son of Algerian immigrants — Israel.

Faïd, however, didn’t just hang out in Tel Aviv and lay low. That, of course, isn’t his style. Instead, he hid out amongst the Orthodox community. He studied Hebrew. He learned about Judaism. He even wore a yarmulke to denote his daily devotion to the teachings of the faith. And maybe, per rumors, he converted to Judaism, too. Truthfully, though, there are few confirmable facts from Faïd’s time in Israel. All we really know is that sometime in 1997, Faïd slipped back into Europe.

His first big job was a Swiss bank. But like how it often went for his many cinematic heroes, things didn’t go as planned, and in order to make his getaway, Faïd had to take a policeman hostage. He used the Swiss cop’s life like a poker chip, eventually cashing it in to save himself. But it was only a temporary reprieve — later that same year in France, Faïd was charged with eight bank thefts and armed robberies. The French courts had a surfeit of evidence to indict him and his crew. Ultimately, he was sentenced to 30 years in a French penitentiary.

He was just 26 years old.

In 2009, after serving 10 years of his 30-year sentence, Faïd was granted parole. He told the parole board that he was determined to no longer be a danger to society and swore he was a changed man. Behind bars, he’d seen the error in his criminal ways. He’d found God, repented for his wickedness and left that life behind. Now the only way he planned to profit from his criminal know-how was by writing a book recounting his exploits and bank capers.

His tell-all crime memoir is titled Braqueur: Des Cités au Grand Banditisme, which roughly translates to Robber: From the Streets to Great Banditry. As you might guess, it was a smash hit. The handsome and charming folk hero bank robber who never hurt his hostages became a star in French media. He got a new honorific — “the most talented thief in France” — and became a regular guest on French TV to discuss how French authorities should deal with the recent wave of gang crime.

Faïd, though, never really left his life of crime behind. And so, while he charmed on television, he continued to mastermind robberies, too. In 2011, in fact, he had a crew biding their time waiting for an armored truck to arrive at a Banque de France in Créteil with a big delivery of cash. It was still early in the morning when a patrol car from Villeneuve-Saint-Georges cruised past. Two bullet holes caught the cops’ attention. After all, your average work vehicle isn’t typically disfigured by such violent perforations in its metal skin. The police stopped their patrol car and attempted to investigate.

Meanwhile, inside the utility van, a small squad of heavily-armed masked man began to grow nervous. This wasn’t at all what they needed — a pair of over-curious cops with nothing else to do. The driver hit the gas, and the van shoved its way into traffic. The cops gave chase. The heavily-armed men came up with a new plan — they pushed open the back doors of the van, aimed their AK-47s at the cop car and fired off a swarm of angry bullets. The police car swerved and crashed. The van and its masked men escaped.

Thanks to Faïd’s careful and detailed planning, the getaway driver was able to follow the original escape plan to the post-robbery rendezvous point. The masked men, still dressed in camo and bulletproof vests, hopped out and set the van on fire to destroy any forensic evidence. Then they piled into a second getaway vehicle and headed for the freeway.

They almost made it, too. But this botched robbery was doomed from the start. What they didn’t realize was that the second getaway vehicle had a police geolocator secretly attached to it. Basically, the cops bugged the car. How were they aware of the plan? The likeliest answer is someone got popped before the robbery and snitched. So just when it looked like they might actually get away with it, a cop car was waiting for them at the top of the freeway exit.

But there would be no stopping. No surrender. The masked man aimed their Kalashnikovs at the cop car and again emptied their clips. The windshield gave way with a crystalline whine, as if glass could feel pain. The two cops inside were both struck. Bullets tore into them. The female officer, Aurélie Fouquet, was shot in the head. Her male partner, Thierry Moreau, was hit in the chest. Both slumped in their car seats and bled all over their uniforms. Within hours, Fouquet, a mother to a young child, was pronounced dead.

She turned out to be the first female metropolitan Paris police officer killed in the line of duty. Her death and the shock of military-style violence in the streets of a Paris suburb stunned the nation. The president of France at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy, took the shooting personally and launched a nationwide manhunt to bring to justice those responsible for her death. It didn’t take long. That night, police arrested their first suspect, a man named Malek Khider. In his hideout, they discovered a cache of assault rifles, grenades and a set of balaclava masks — the same ones used in the bungled robbery. Police forensics was able to use the collected DNA samples from the balaclava masks to incriminate several other members of the crew.

After that, though, the trail went cold.

Specifically, Khider wouldn’t talk. The case stalled for several months. Police suspected Faïd’s involvement, but couldn’t prove it. Seven long months went by — months Faïd spent as a talking head on TV, most egregiously in a movie by shock documentarian Jerome Pierrat. In it, Faïd was portrayed as a man raised in the violence of the neglected French public housing system. Throughout, Pierrat charged Faïd with the responsibility of telling France the truth about the state of their nation and elevated him to the role of a cultural critic, one logically fit to discuss the rampant violence of Parisian street gangs — to dispel the fear so many people felt by offering cogent solutions to the exploding patterns of violence and assault.

Whether connected to the film or not, the police decided not to wait any longer. About a week after the documentary first aired, they named Faïd as a prime suspect in Fouquet’s murder. True to form, Faïd responded by going on the run. This time, he stayed underground for six months. But on June 28, 2011, he was captured and immediately returned to prison for violating the terms of his parole.

Nearly two years later — on April 13, 2013 — Faïd’s wife showed up for a visit at the detention facility in Lille where he was being held. Shortly thereafter, the scene turned to chaos. First, Faïd used a bomb to blow up a heavy prison door. He followed that with four more explosions, blowing open door after door as he worked his way to freedom. A witness, a woman named Rose Lafont, a mother who’d come to the prison to visit her incarcerated son, described the scene thusly: “I thought my last hour had come. Suddenly, everything started blowing up. The walls started shaking, as did the windows and the doors. I was really scared.” A prison warden representative described the escape to the press as “an act of war.”

At one point, Faïd used a gun to take four prison guards hostage. In this footage from inside the jail, he shouts at them, “Don’t let yourself get killed for 1,500 euros a month!” Once they were free of the prison walls, Faïd — staying true to his modus operandi — released one hostage unharmed. A short while later, once he was hundreds of feet from the prison, he released the second. Next, Faïd met up with his accomplices. Together, they disappeared into the streets of Lille. Once he was convinced he wasn’t being followed by police, Faïd released his final two hostages.

For the next six weeks, he did as he pleased. He grew out his beard. He bought a wig for when he wanted to go out in public. He was again free to be the sort of man he enjoys being: a strange collision of reckless hubris and carefully calculated caution, a man whose whole life is a thumb in the eye of France.

It didn’t last long, though. The authorities finally found him and an accomplice in a cheap motel not far from where Fouquet was shot and killed. They’d been holed up there for five days. (Faïd’s wife wasn’t with him; to this day, she and his lawyer maintain her innocence of any kind of involvement in her husband’s escape.) Sixty uniformed officers surrounded the flophouse motel. The cops would take no chances to allow him to escape — not this time. They denied all options with the brute force of their sheer numbers.

The various police squads of tactical commandos took up their positions. A team in all black and armed for war approached the motel room Faïd was renting with cash. They caught him in a moment of complete surprise. One officer said his face looked completely relaxed, yet also shocked. It was the quiet acceptance that, yes, he was indeed, going back to prison. Again.

Yet somewhere in the recesses of his mind, he was likely taking a vow, too — a promise to himself that he wouldn’t let them lock him up for good.

Three years after his escape from a Lille detention center, the murder trial for the 2010 shooting of Aurélie Fouquet got underway. The case was scheduled to last for 33 days. Faïd was tried with eight other men. Throughout, hundreds of witnesses gave their accounts; 25 experts also provided testimony. All nine accused men faced the promise of a life spent behind bars if they were found guilty. Three of the men — Daouda Baba, Rabia Hideur and Olivier Tracoulat — stood accused of being the gunmen responsible for murdering Fouquet. The others all faced serious charges and would likely spend their lives in prison.

Faïd wasn’t charged with murder, since it couldn’t be proven that he was physically in the van. Nor could it be proven that he directly participated in the robbery, a fact he constantly brought up in his defense. His remaining defense was a charm offensive. At one point, he even told the jury, “I may not be Robin Hood. I’m not a hero. But I never killed anyone.” Later, during a three-hour monolog to the court, Faïd admitted to jurors that, after his world-famous 2013 escape from prison break, if they found him guilty, he’d likely attempt to escape again. With a smile, he told the confused jurors, “But nothing is written yet.”

Ultimately, it wasn’t a convincing argument as he was eventually found guilty — not for Fouquet’s murder, but for various other charges — and ordered to fulfill his previous prison sentence, along with his new convictions.

He didn’t forget that promise to the jury, though. And a week ago Sunday — two years from that conviction — Redoine Faïd did what he does best: He busted out of prison and went on the run. All the while, with a cinematic sense of drama and intrigue that captured the world’s attention and imagination. (Helicopters! Commandos! Smoke bombs! Cement grinders!)

His legend is further solidified by the existence of his published memoir, the book that offers his account of his life story. In light of his most recent epic escape, one assumes his memoir is selling well, which means that, perhaps, one day Hollywood will make a movie about him. And then, just like his fictional hero De Niro, he’ll finally exist as a cinematic bank robber.

On that day, his circle will be complete. Redoine Faïd will become what he’s always dreamed of being: a real-life movie gangster.