summerreads_lastjob

The True Story of the British Grandpas Who Knocked Off One of London’s Biggest Vaults (And Then Screwed Everything Up)

In his new book ‘The Last Job,’ ‘New York Times’ reporter Dan Bilefsky looks back at one of the greatest (and most unlikely) crimes of the 21st century

“We done the best bit of work of the whole century. The whole fucking century.” That’s what Terry Perkins, a career criminal, had to say about the infamous 2015 burglary of London’s Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Company, in which four crooks made off with millions in jewels, diamonds, cash and other valuables. Perkins should know: He was one of the crooks, celebrating his 67th birthday in the midst of the Easter holiday heist. Remarkably though, Perkins wasn’t even the oldest member of the gang, nicknamed “the Firm,” which included some pensioners in their 70s. Even more remarkably, if Perkins and his crew had been a little smarter after executing their bold, brilliant strike, they might have gotten away with it.

The Hatton Garden heist captured Britons’ imagination in the spring of 2015, and when the culprits were arrested about a month later, the public was charmed and shocked by these men’s advanced age. Dubbed “the Bad Grandpas” by the tabloid press, these longtime felons — led by septuagenarian kingpin Brian Reader, who was known as “The Master” — were quickly embraced as cult heroes. But they weren’t lovable underdogs: While the crew eschewed violence, their plan to knock off Hatton Garden targeted their fellow retirees, whose life savings were inside that vault. At a stage of life when most men would focus on grandchildren and the simple pleasures of retirement, the Firm’s greed and desire to execute one last great robbery was too much to pass up, even if it took them three years to plan.

Dan Bilefsky had just started a job as a London correspondent for The New York Times when the Hatton Garden heist occurred. Living in the jewelry district where the crime took place, the reporter unknowingly frequented the same pub as the crooks. But because he covered the crime beat, Bilefsky felt not just an affinity for the area but for the kind of high-stakes burglary that Reader and his crew specialized in. Soon, an idea for a book started to develop.

The Last Job has the vibe of a straightforward procedural, but the Montreal native (who now works as the NYT’s Canadian correspondent in his hometown) takes special care not to imbue the story with any admiration for these wizened crooks. “As a writer steeped in the approach of the American art of storytelling,” he tells me over the phone, “I feel like you need to develop the characters and you need to root for them, but at the same time feel moral ambivalence because they did something bad and they victimized people their own ages.” We even hear from the gang: Bilefsky was granted access to extensive audio that Scotland Yard acquired of the criminals discussing their crimes after the fact — law enforcement had bugged their vehicles — and what emerges is a portrait of crotchety old men who quickly turned on each other, constantly jockeying for position while their failing health undermines them. (These geezers didn’t just have to contend with the police. Diabetes, weak bladders and heart disease were widespread problems within the Firm.)

When I called Bilefsky, he’d been up late the night before working on a breaking story for the Times, but in our conversation, he was fully energized and happily relayed how real-life heists are different than in the movies, what the Firm did wrong and why the desire to commit crime is as much a matter of DNA as anything else.

In the book’s acknowledgements, you mention that this story hit home because you lived so close in London to where the crime occurred. But are you a true-crime nut or somebody who loves a good heist tale?
I’m a true-crime fan — I’ve always been attracted to crime. As a reporter in New York, I covered sensational crime stories when I was a Metro reporter at the Times. I covered a case in 2011 of a man who raped a woman — when the rape victim refused to drop the charges, he framed her for a series of brazen armed robberies that never took place.

I always found that covering these true-crime stories were a bit like watching a film unspool before one’s eyes with all the drama of human relationships. And there’s something irresistible about a group of men in their 70s who are coming out of retirement to undertake one last career-topping heist. I definitely like the heist genre, but I think it was the combination of their age, the audaciousness of the crime and the fact that they were analog criminals in a digital age that all drew me to the story. Plus, as you point out, it happened in my backyard where I was living in London, which made it all the more compelling and real for me.

In The Last Job, you quote one of the crooks, Danny Jones, who says of their heist, “[W]hat a book you could write.” There have been movies made about this story already, so did you feel any pressure: How can my book compete with all these other projects?
I have to say: That really wasn’t on my mind. There wasn’t much [in terms of competing projects] out at the time when I was writing and reporting the book, and I’m so used to the discipline, as a reporter for the New York Times, of just trying to do a deep dive into stories. I was so into the case, and into the story, that I tried not to let the white noise of the sensational interest in the crime distract me.

Having said that, because the story really is like Ocean’s Eleven-meets-geriatrics, and because it really is like a film, it did influence the way I wrote the book. I’m a visual writer, but I wrote it in an episodic and cinematic way because the material so much seemed like a film.

Even the old guys in the car, when Scotland Yard surreptitiously [bugged] their cars and eavesdropped on them — I had access to a lot of that audio, and sometimes I felt like I was listening to Pulp Fiction, because the men would argue about whether they wanted to have Indian food or Chinese food. As soon as one left the car, the others would mercilessly make fun of him and complain about him. So there was something very cinematic about the idea of these old guys — these old East End criminals — driving around London in a white Mercedes boasting about the crime, talking about what they’re going to do with the money. It felt like a film from the first moment I went through the material.

Brian Reader is sort of a tragic figure. He’s the leader of the Firm and has this elevated sense of himself — but he ends up panicking during the heist and making a run for it. He’s laid low by his age and cowardice — I almost feel bad for him.
There is something a bit pathetic about him — and some of the guys, who were some of the greatest burglars and criminals of the century, and were involved in these very audacious and brazen heists. But as he got older, [Reader] was reduced to selling cars on his driveway and would get together with his friends and try and relive the glory days. He’s quite a pathetic or bathetic character. He lost his wife, who was his big love of his life, to cancer. He didn’t really have a lot of friends, and he was kind of a shadow of his former self.

Part of the reason why, hopefully, the story resonates is because they’re old guys and they embody the time of life when loss, missed opportunities and regrets [accumulate]. But I have to say: After living with the characters for two years — listening to them and seeing the way they victimized people their own age — they’re quite amoral in many ways. I don’t think he’s a very attractive character. He’s very human, but they’re pretty nasty, these guys. Even though they didn’t use violence, they’re not nice guys.

You chronicle how locals felt a great deal of sympathy toward these men after they were arrested. It’s almost as if we can’t imagine sweet older man capable of such crimes.
Absolutely, and one of the big frustrations for Scotland Yard and the London Police was that the public — every taxi driver in the city, people hunched over their beers at pubs — saw these guys as endearing rogues who took on the establishment in the great tradition of the Great Train Robbery, where criminals broke into a government post office train and stole millions of dollars. There’s a long tradition in British heists for people to idealize the bad guys, and that was a big challenge for the police to retake that narrative.

At the same time, now we’re kind of at a moment — with Clint Eastwood and other films in Hollywood — where there’s a real interest in older characters. It’s a very compelling demographic. Also, [the Firm] tried to do something extraordinary, however malicious, at a time when many men and women their age are in retirement homes drinking prune juice or playing Canasta. They were climbing down elevator shafts with diamond-tipped drills. It’s hard not to admire that.

In heist movies with older criminals, there’s almost a certain nobility to the characters — they’re defying societal perceptions that they be decrepit and doddering. While doing the research, was that part of it for these guys? Did they have no other hobbies and this was the only thing that they really loved in their lives?
My experience in the criminal underworld in London, talking to a lot of career burglars, is that this is so much in their DNA — this is so much what their M.O. is — that there’s not much else they can do. There’s not much else they want to do.

Freddie Foreman, one of the guys who didn’t end up going on the crimes, said to me, “It was one last roll of the dice.” And even though he was, like, 82 at the time and getting a bit frail, I think he would have loved to go. For these guys, this was a chance to do one last career-topping heist. This was the great hit that everyone in London, in the criminal underground, had dreamt about. It’s very hard to escape their vocation, because it’s pretty much what they spent their lives trying to do.

This isn’t an easy profession — there’s a ton of risk. You’re not a psychiatrist, but is there something psychological going on where they can’t fathom another way to make a living?
There’s definitely something in their nature that keeps compelling them, particularly for that old-school generation of criminals who are always trying to do the next Great Train Robbery. In my experience with talking to criminals of that generation, they’re motivated by money. Money and more money. It’s the raw smell of money that attracts them.

Foreman, a notorious enforcer for the diabolic Kray twins, was the guy who got rid of the body, in some cases, after somebody got whacked by the Krays. When I asked him why he did that, he said, “Well, the biggest sin is not being able to support your family.” Brian Reader loved his wife, loved his children — he wanted to provide them with a nice bourgeois, middle-class lifestyle with ski trips to France and country homes. Robbing, being a burglar, was a means to an end.

A lot of these guys were working-class people who came from poor backgrounds who didn’t have educational opportunities. In a way, they were victims of the class system, and this was the avenue that they saw open to themselves. Of course, many people choose not to be criminals, so that doesn’t give them a moral get-out-of-jail card. But for many of them who had limited horizons, this was a way to get big money and get it fast.

In The Last Job, it’s suggested by others that age finally caught up to them after they pulled off the heist. Do you think that was the case?
One of the prosecutors said, “It was as if they had been transported from a time machine from the 1950s to 2015.” I think they were really undone by being criminals in a digital age who didn’t really understand modern-day policing. The planning and the actual crime were really sensational. They didn’t leave a single fingerprint at the scene of the crime, and so their disciplined study of Forensics for Dummies seems to have served them well. But in the end, one guy drove his own distinctive white Mercedes to the heist. Brian Reader took the bus. So they weren’t the most insightful criminals, and they became undone by that.

Also, they didn’t really understand CCTV technology. In a post-terrorism age, London has thousands and thousands and thousands of cameras that are monitoring people from morning until night. They didn’t understand the automated license-plate technology that photographs cars as they’re whizzing around London. Some of them used their own phones.

And they disobeyed the number-one rule of the criminal handbook, which is that they blabbed and boasted about what they had done, probably as a result of their age, because they were so excited. The juices were flowing again — they were back in the game — and so they started blabbing about it rather than just going underground. One of the police said to me if they had bought disposable phones, buried the money and just gone underground, they might have gotten away with it.

When writing a book like this, do you ever think, “I’m helping a new generation of bank robbers learn from the mistakes of the past”?
Well, I hope it’s not like an Anarchist Cookbook for geriatric burglars. [Laughs] But part of the fun of reading such a book is deconstructing what they should have done — or what they could have done to get away with it. At the end of the day, we can’t help ourselves: We want them to succeed. Even though we know that they’re baddies, we kind of want them to succeed.

You devote a good portion of the book to law enforcement — specifically, Paul Johnson, of the famed Flying Squad crime unit, and Philip Evans, the prosecutor. They’re two of the most interesting characters — I assume because you actually were able to spend time with them, as opposed to the crooks.
Johnson was a massive challenge to get to talk. Scotland Yard is very resistant to talking with the media in the aftermath of the phone-hacking scandal — the Murdoch press was bugging the phones of famous British people and in some cases bribing police for information. Also, the Flying Squad — this legendary branch of Scotland Yard that investigates economic crimes and are called the Flying Squad because they can fly anywhere around London, they’re not limited to one jurisdiction — they do hostage-crisis situations and armed robbery, and they’re involved in gang violence. So a lot of them are undercover, and they’re trained — it’s in their DNA — to kind of be invisible.

On top of that, Johnson is a very laconic, self-effacing bloke who doesn’t like talking about himself. He’s so by-the-book he would never have a beer on the job. The first [rule] for a crime reporter is take the cop — or the burglar, for that matter — and have some beers and have a chat, get to know them. Not once, in all the time I have spent with [Johnson], would he ever have a beer with me. So he was a challenge, but it was very important to the book to have that counterpoint between the criminals and the good guys. The cat-and-mouse game is one of the more compelling and fun parts of the book. Also, [the title] The Last Job — it was a last job for the criminals, but it was also Johnson’s last big case before he retired from the Flying Squad. So, that gave the book a nice framing.

Evans is a younger guy. He’s kind of a rising star in the world of London prosecutors. This was a massive case — the biggest case of his career — and he’d been involved in some very sensational cases already. So I think he was more interested to talk to me. And the fact that I was a reporter for the New York Times — the fact that I came from an American newspaper, the fact that I wasn’t British, maybe me having an outsider perspective — gave me an advantage in terms of talking to these guys [and them] thinking that I would give them a fairer shot.

You mentioned how the crooks were like the guys in Pulp Fiction, riffing on the oddest, most banal topics. In heist movies, the crooks often fall into types: the hothead, the smooth operator, etc. In this actual heist, were they types?
They’re pretty unique, but they do fall into certain tropes. You have the cautious ringleader who has charisma and who the others begrudgingly respect but also resent, and that was embodied by Brian Reader. You have the athletic, wily person, like Danny Jones, who can contort their body Houdini-like and slither through a hole — he’s kind of impressive for his physical acumen but not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Then you have the dopey, sleepy getaway driver, like Kenny Collins, who falls asleep during the heist. But you can’t really invent these characters — they’re pretty singular.

All that bickering and backstabbing — did that end up hurting them, too? To pull off a heist, does the team all need to get along?
Like I said, they were undone in the aftermath partly by the fact that they boasted about what they did. But also they immediately began fighting over who would get what, and they were deeply suspicious of one another. That suspicion — which they articulated, and which was being listened on by the bugs put in their cars by Scotland Yard — ultimately helped undo them. The sniping and their infighting made them make some mistakes. For example, the fact that some of them were burying the loot in pots and pans underneath their sink — or, in one case, in a Victorian cemetery in North London. They were constantly trying to outmaneuver each other. So instead of focusing on how to get away with it — and how to be smart about it — they were more focused on who was going to get their piece of the pie.

It seems like that’s always the lesson with heists: You can plan the robbery perfectly, but you can’t really anticipate what will happen afterward.
Most sensible criminals wouldn’t return to the pub where you plotted the crime and have beers and boast about what you did and gesticulate wildly in a big public place. They were quite brazen and naïve — and that’s also part of their charm, I suppose.

The book contains a juicy mystery, which is the identity of the team’s final member, who’s only known as Basil and wasn’t apprehended with the rest of them.
Well, Basil is one of the most compelling characters in the book: this lanky, mysterious burglar who wears a red wig, and no one exactly knows who he is, and where he comes from, and how much he knows. I was very, very compelled by the mystery of “Who is Basil?” I wanted to do the reveal at the end and tease the reader along the way, giving clues as to Basil’s identity. I was slow-dripping that a little bit, but I wanted to wait toward a later chapter to unload the goodies about what we know about Basil.

As you’re probably aware, in the aftermath of the book, Basil was actually arrested. So now we know a lot more about who he actually was.

Now that we know who Basil is, what do you make of this guy?
He’s fascinating because pretty much all of the people involved in the crime were working-class and from the wrong side of the tracks of East London. Basil — his actual name is Michael Seed — is a 58-year-old electronics expert. His father was a Cambridge professor. He came from an upper-middle-class family. He’s in a completely different part of the British class system and criminal ecosystem.

At the same time, he was living in very down-and-out social housing in North London. A lot of people thought Basil, who was the alarm man and who let the guys in from the inside, could be from abroad. The fact that he turned out to be this homegrown British guy is fascinating.

The other thing that’s fascinating about him is that he disappeared in a puff of smoke after the heist. Even after [the police] arrested [the rest of] the guys, there was a 10-million-pound reward for his capture, and no one knew who he was — and the entire time he was living within a 10-minute drive from the crime scene. It’s a delicious detail that the most wanted man in Britain for this sensational heist was actually living in plain view. In all likelihood, Scotland Yard perhaps knew that. But it’s pretty remarkable.

It blows my mind, in today’s age, that he could escape detection that long without really hiding out.
Yeah, right? On the one hand, it could be that he’d been seen by Scotland Yard, who were gathering evidence on him. One of the challenges of a case [involving] a jewel heist is, once the jewels are fenced and disappear into the world of fencing and melted down into gold, it’s hard to implicate someone in the crime.

But Basil also was a lot more judicious than the others — he didn’t say very much. He was very careful about when he talked. He’s not on the [bugged] audio. He’s not in the cars with the guys. He was a much more risk-averse, careful character, and he seems to have understood much better than the other guys, perhaps because of his electronics prowess and knowledge, what not to do if you don’t want to get caught. Him and Brian Reader were much [smarter] about being careful and cautious than the others, who were brazen and foolhardy. That’s part of the reason it probably took a long time for Scotland Yard to gather enough evidence to link him to the crime.

That speaks to the other remarkable issue with this case, which is that Johnson was incredibly patient. The impulse is to wonder why the police don’t just arrest the criminals as soon as they know who they are. But they need to collect evidence in order to ensure a conviction. And when you have a case like this where the public is salivating over these seemingly endearing rogues and working-class heroes — the narrative is in favor of them — the police really wanted to make sure that they have the goods on these guys before they arrested them.

For Americans, one of The Last Job’s most amazing bits is that the U.K. police don’t carry guns. We always hear that, but it’s still unbelievable. Can you explain that to me?
Just to clarify, there are units in the British Police — in an age of the Islamic State and given what a huge problem terrorism is — that use firearms. And the Flying Squad and Johnson are very well-trained with firearms. But it’s absolutely true that most police are not armed. And for an American sensibility — where we’re so used to heavily armed police forces in the U.S. and North America — it seems shocking that these so-called “bobbies” are walking around London with clubs but no guns.

The murder rate is, of course, exponentially lower in the U.K. than it is in the U.S., and most of it is just a culture of gun ownership and the legal framework where it’s much harder to acquire guns in the U.K. — and London in particular — than it is in the U.S. because of the Constitution. So as a result, there’s less of a need for British Police to be armed.

In the case of the Hatton Garden heist, I was also surprised, when they finally went to arrest them, they didn’t go with guns blazing. But, as [the police] pointed out to me, [the Firm] did the crime over a long weekend to avoid violence. They were old guys, and [the police] had spent enough time observing them to think they weren’t going to turn violent upon their arrest. The only one who tried to get away was Danny Jones, the athletic one who tried to run away through the back of the house when they were [caught].

The Firm spent three years planning this crime. Three years! Talk about patience…
Yeah, these guys had a lot of time on their hands. They’re pensioners — they’re retirees — and a lot of their planning involved sitting around in pubs over fish and chips and beers. They’re shooting the shit and reminiscing about old times, and then along the way, talking about the best drill to use to breach 20 inches of reinforced concrete.

Also, the Hatton Garden vault was [thought] to be impenetrable, and they had to do a lot of reconnaissance in order to figure out how the hell to get past this massive, bombproof vault and 20-inch wall in this close-knit jewelry community in Hatton Garden where everyone knows everybody. So to get in and out of that building and not get caught was a huge challenge. They were pretty exercised about the risks of the crime, and they had to do their due diligence.

The Last Job is almost entirely about men. Is there something about these kinds of crimes that attract men more than women?
Maybe women are just more clever than men about doing something so stupid and foolhardy where the risks are high. The book is about a bunch of old-school criminals, and many of them have long-suffering wives. The women were not, generally speaking, involved in the greatest heists of the century because of the sexism of that era. There’s something very macho, testosterone-fueled about this kind of risk-taking. But Freddie Foreman did train with a group of female thieves who used to go around — I think it was in the 1940s — and put jewelry and fur in their bloomers and underwear. So it’s worth pointing out that there are great female thieves as well.