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Baker Street Robbery: Random Bank Heist or Royal Cover-Up?


| LAST UPDATE 12/06/2021

By Genevieve Scott

When a group of thieves broke into one of Britain's most renowned banks, people everywhere had questions. But it wasn't the millions or mementos stolen that left spectators speechless.

The Lloyds Bank Ambush

On a fateful morning in 1971, the manager of a London bank made his way to work like every other day. Only this time was different. And as he unlocked the doors to the safe-deposit vault, he quickly found that out for himself.

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Oli Scarff via Getty Images

The state of the room before him looked surreal - almost out of a movie. From the scattered safety-deposit boxes to the massive hole jutting from the floor, it was clear something terrible had gone down. But how did a group of rookie criminals manage to pull off one of Britain's most notorious heists? It all started with one man...

An Idea Is Born

Back in 1970, Anthony "Tony" Gavin was an established photographer working his way around North London. But that wasn't the only passion of his. When he wasn't busy capturing moments, the talented artist was busy chasing a different thrill: mysteries.

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Silver Screen Collection via Getty Images

The 38-year-old had an admiration - almost infatuation - with Sherlock Holmes. So much so, that come 1971, he'd take a page out of The Red-Headed League's book, bringing one of the greatest fictional heists to life. But we're not there just yet. After all, it took months to pull off a plan this grand...

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The Story Begins

Like any good story, Gavin needed main characters - partners in crime, to help put his plan into play. But that actually turned out to be the easiest part: Tony was "a forceful personality," as journalists revealed. "[A man with] the propensity to be physically threatening."

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Steve Eason/Hulton Archive via Getty Images

So when it came to finding the right people for the job? The photographer put both connections and coercion to good use. And it wasn't long before long-time friend, Reginald Tucker, signed on to help carry out the heist. Sure, they were both rookie criminals. But they knew exactly what they were doing.

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Finding a Target

In no time, everything was falling into play. But another question still remained: Where would they strike? They were ready to walk home millionaires, but they needed the right bank to do just that. Not to mention, how would they manage to make it past security?

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ANL via Shutterstock

There were endless factors to consider here. But as far as Tony was concerned? The answer was actually quite simple. He knew exactly their target, long before he even voiced the plan into existence: Lloyds Bank, situated on none other than Sherlock Holmes's Baker Street. Next, it was time to take action...

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They Opened a Bank Account

On a chilly afternoon in December, Reg Tucker arrived at 187 Baker Street, ready to make the next move. As he entered Lloyds Bank, he put on his best smile and approached the counter. He carefully took out the £500 bills (roughly $667) in his wallet and proceeded to open a bank account.

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Dr. Paul Wolff & Tritschler/Corbis via Getty Images

But that's not all he did. Just a few weeks later, the stealth Brit returned to their target location. This time, to rent a safety-deposit box. But as he returned to the bank in the months that followed, Reg wasn't coming to check in on his stored valuables.

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Scoping Out the Scene

Well, what was he up to? During the estimated 13 times Mr. Tucker returned to the Baker Street establishment, he had one thing and one thing only on his mind. With each visit, he'd head straight towards the back until he arrived at the safety-deposit vault. But not for the reasons he claimed.

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Felix Man/Picture Post/Hulton Archive via Getty Images

Back in the '70s, bank tellers were required to give renters privacy when they came to check in on their stowed boxes - something Reg knew all too well. And as he stood alone in the cleared out vault, the next phase of the operation was already well underway.

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Mapping the Vault

Tucker took a deep breath as he took in his surroundings - there was lots of work to be done here. Over the course of those next 12 visits, the smooth criminal mapped out the entire place. Every inch, every crevice, every floor tile; But that's not all he did.

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Paul Wright/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

He then took out the compact umbrella he'd brought with. With the help of the travel accessory - and his very own wingspan - Reg proceeded to measure every point in the room. The 9-inch floor tiles, the bulky drawers, and every other item in his path. But the hard part was far from over.

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Forming the Perfect Team

It was time to call in backup. Sure, he and Gavin were up for the challenge. But robbing one of Britain's most guarded properties was going to be next to impossible - even they knew that much. They needed every muscle, every brain cell, every resource they could scrounge up.

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ANL via Shutterstock

And that's exactly what they did. With the help of car salesman Thomas Stephens and gang member Benjamin Wolfe, Tony's grand vision was becoming more and more a reality. They hauled in an explosives expert, an alarm expert, and 2 other members to fully complete the team. What next?

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A Business Deal Arises

The days continued to pass, and things continued to fall into place. But as Gavin scrounged the newspaper one fateful day, their next move was practically written out before him. It couldn't be. Could it? Staring back at him from the daily paper was a new property listing. But not just any listing.

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Roy Illingworth/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

Le Sac was officially going out of business. As the ad read, the owners were eager to find a replacement and were open to negotiations. But it wasn't the property listing's attractive price that had caught Gavin's eye - it was its address: 189 Baker Street.

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Keeping Surveillance

Located just 2 doors away from the bank, it almost seemed as if fate was on their side. How could they not jump at the opportunity? Sure enough, that's exactly what they did. For  £10,000 (roughly $13,380), Wolf leased the entire building - including its basement, a room that would come into play very soon.

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Evening News/ANL via Shutterstock

Now that they had eyes on their target - literally - the team moved on to their next hurdle: security. Even if they were to go undetected, surely they'd be ambushed by alarms. Right? Thanks to a contact at the bank, they soon found out otherwise: the vault's sensor had been disabled due to local roadwork. In other words? It was go time.

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Getting to Work

On a summer day in 1971, Tony's team entered the basement of 189 Baker Street, ready to get to work. There was no going back now. But how would they manage to enter the vault completely undetected? To Gavin, the answer was simple - they'd work from the inside out.

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Blackbrow/Daily Mail via Shutterstock

The men grabbed their tools and began drilling into the wall's stubborn concrete. Their plan? Form a tunnel from Le Sac all the way to Lloyds, passing through the neighboring restaurant's basement. But as they soon found out, that was something easier said than done.

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The Tunnel

In the weeks that followed, the gang worked endless late-nights, plowing desperately through the 6-inch concrete walls. But were they in over their heads? With 40-feet of distance to account for, perhaps they were. It was exhausting, physically and mentally.

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Wikimedia Commons via Mirror Newspaper

But all of that was about to change. After making an 18-inch wide entry hole, their drilling finally led them next door. It was the reassurance they desperately needed: just 5 more feet, and it'd all be over. Gavin and the rest of the group continued to work their way through the remaining concrete.

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Arriving at the Vault

Sure enough, 17,920 pounds of debris, 40 feet of tunnel, and endless hours later, the exhausted criminals finally arrived at 187 Baker. But what now? They surveyed their latest surroundings and reached a painful realization: The hard labor wasn't over, not yet.

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Dick Whittington Studio/Corbis via Getty Images

They would have to dig 15 feet upwards to finally reach the foundation of the vault. Sure enough, after 3 seemingly endless months, they managed to do just that: on September 10, 1971, Gavin and his crew were finally a few feet away from taking part in one of the biggest heists in Britain's history. But there was one last step.

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On The Lookout

In order to finally reach the inside of that vault, the group had to plow through yet another block of concrete - 3 feet, to be exact. They split the work up accordingly, placing one member on guard duty atop the bank's roof. In theory, it was a foolproof plan. But was it really?

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David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The scattered criminals began using walkie-talkies to communicate with one another, something intended to make things easier. But what they didn't know, was that the same thing meant to help their heist was about to be the downfall of their entire operation.

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Enter Robert

What went wrong? On Saturday, September 11, a London local was relaxing at home when he suddenly found himself propped in the middle of the crime. He'd been flipping through the channels of his radio set, looking for some late-night entertainment. Little did Robert Rowlands know what awaited him.

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David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

As he tried - unsuccessfully - to tune into his favorite station, Radio Luxembourg, fate had other plans. Instead, Robert was met with something entirely different: an unfamiliar broadcast he'd never heard before. He began to listen to the voices on the other end of his radio. And that's when it hit him.

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He Heard Criminal Behavior

Sure, he didn't quite know what exactly he'd stumbled upon. But what he did know? Was that the conversation he was suddenly eavesdropping on was... weird. Something didn't seem right. What was going on? Rob turned up the set's volume, eager to get a better listen.

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Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images

As Gavin and his counterparts continued to argue on their walkie-talkies, Robert continued to listen on in amazement. Had he just stumbled across a crime in the making? He listened as the criminals continued to disagree on the "right" way to break through the vault's doors. What vault? And why were they breaking through it?

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He Called the Police

He didn't know where, he didn't know why, nor how, but Robert Rowlands had enough of the pieces to know that something illegal was going on. He reached for his landline. With shaky hands, he punched in the number of the local police department and waited for an answer.

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Fulton Archive via Getty Images

As responders answered the call, the flustered caller explained everything - the radio broadcast, the conversation, the shady behavior. Something was seriously wrong, he explained. Unfortunately, the police didn't see it that way. And as Rowlands continued to plead his case, he was met with a final warning.

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Caught Red Handed?

"Call us back when you have concrete evidence," the irritated officers told him before hanging up. After all, it was 1 a.m. on a Saturday night. The local P.D. had experienced enough drunk dials to know not to take every call seriously. If only they knew then what we know now.

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But while they were skeptical, Mr. Rowlands was all-too sure in himself. He was going to prove them wrong. He reached for his cassette tape, tuned back into the radio dial, and braced himself for more confusing chatter. But even he couldn't believe what came next.

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A Race Against Time

"If security comes in and smells the fumes, we are all going to [escape], and none of us have got nothing," the voice on the radio was heard saying. "Whereas this way, we have all got 300 grand to cut up when we come back in the morning:" As Robert continued to listen in on the conversation, he suddenly had everything he needed.

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Illingworth/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

The excited bystander raced for the phone... again. This time, he knew exactly what was going on. He dialed Scotland Yard's hotline as his heart continued to race. Was he already too late? Or perhaps more importantly: what if he was mistaken? There was no going back now.

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The Manhunt Begins

From the chilling conversation to now, the concrete evidence, it didn't take long for cops to piece everything together: Mr. Rowlands had stumbled across a bank heist. But not just any bank heist. If their suspicions were right, these criminals were in the process of pulling off one of the most shocking crimes in Britain's history.

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PA Images via Getty Images

Time was of the essence, that much was given. And so, the startled officers hopped in their cars and set off on their search for Britain's stealthiest criminals. But where would they even start? They decided to scour 750 banks within a 10-mile radius of Rowland's home. But was that even doable?

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A False Lead

On Sunday, September 12, as uniformed officers swarmed through Llyods Bank's doors, they were in for the surprise of their lives. A robbery had been going on in that security-deposit vault - they'd heard it with their own ears. But one look at that vault door? And they certainly wouldn't know any better.

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ANL via Shutterstock

Not only was the entrance secured tightly, but the time-sensitive lock it boasted showed no evidence of a break-in. How could that be? The officers were baffled, but they had to face the facts. They packed up their patrol cars, closed the case, and headed home. For now...

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The Other Side of the Vault

Little did they know, on the other side of those vault doors, a catastrophic crime was busy taking place: Gavin and his companions scrambled as they pried through each of the security-deposit boxes. They sifted through shiny jewelry, securities, and crisp wads of cash, scrounging up whatever valuables they could.

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Robert Pearce/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

After breaking open 270+ boxes, the criminals gathered their collection of stolen goods and braced themselves for the hardest part yet: the escape. Sure, in theory it was simple - hop back down the tunnel they came from and disappear for good. But how exactly were they to pull off the latter?

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The Aftermath

Safe to say, their troubles were just getting started: just 2 days later, as the manager of Lloyds Bank headed to work, their actions were about to catch up with them. The employee fumbled with his keys and made his way inside the establishment. Nothing out of the ordinary, as expected. That was, until he reached the vault.

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Evening News/ANL via Shutterstock

As he opened the doors to the sealed space, he couldn't believe his eyes: stacks of empty safety-deposit boxes, lying strewn across on the floor. A massive hole on that same floor, spanning majority of the room. Lloyds Bank had been robbed. Only this nightmare was just beginning.

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The Investigation Begins

With roughly £3 million stolen, several valuables lost, and endless questions from the public: Lloyds Bank had lots of explaining to do. And that's when the investigation truly began. As local police tried to wrap their heads around the mess before them, it wasn't long before they stumbled across their first clue.

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William Lovelace/Express/Hulton Archive via Getty Images

Scribbled on the walls of the trashed vault, the officers were instantly taken back: "Let's see how Sherlock Holmes solves this one," the amused robbers had written. Only they wouldn't be laughing for long. At least so long as the public had a say...

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Public Outcry

In the blink of an eye, the Baker Street robbery had gone viral. Just about everyone in Britain had either heard of the disturbing news, or were the ones breaking it to friends and family. And perhaps with good reason. After all, a crime this big was rare - almost unheard of - for a place like London.

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Illingworth/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

Back in 1971, as news broke of the shocking heist, it instantly captivated citizens. But perhaps the most striking part of it all? The idea that a group of inexperienced criminals could successfully pull off such a robbery - especially one targeting some of Britain's most powerful, most wealthy.

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The D-Notice

Word continued to spread like wildfire about the unusual crime. And soon, the case soon took an even weirder turn: On September 17, 1971, after endless chatter about the Baker Street heist, suddenly everything... stopped. Everyone had gone silent, almost as if nothing ever happened. But it was actually anything but random.

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Daily Mail via Shutterstock

As the case continued gaining momentum, the British government decided to issue a D-Notice. In other words? News outlets were no longer allowed to discuss the crime - for national security purposes, as enforcers put it. Why was the Queen interfering with an ongoing investigation? Was there something much darker going on here?

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The Conspiracy Theories

Granted, the D-Notice was intended to help keep both the story and civilians at rest. But the consequences it led to did anything but. Spectators were captivated by the mysterious story, desperate for answers. And as the government attempted to get involved, they set off to fill in the blanks themselves.

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Derek Berwin/Fox Photos via Getty Images

Chilling conspiracy theories began to arise about the famous heist. Were there other unknown parties involved? Were we looking at a government cover-up? As theorists continued pointing fingers, they soon settled upon a familiar face: Princess Margaret.

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Was the Queen Involved?

Back in the day, Queen Elizabeth II's sister was no stranger to scandal. The Countess of Snowden was constantly being named in British tabloids. But this time around, her ties to the case were too obvious to ignore. At least where conspirators were concerned.

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Lisa Sheridan/Hulton Archive via Getty Images

As they alleged, the heist was hatched after revealing Polaroids of the Princess ended up in the wrong hands: those of London criminal, Michael X. The same Michael X who had rented out a security-deposit box at Llyods Bank. The same Michael X whose deposit box had gone missing after the heist. Coincidence?

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Game Over

As the days continued to grow, so did the shocking conspiracy theories surrounding the Royal Family. But by October 1971, the case reached a new development as 4 criminals were brought in for the famed robbery: Wolfe, Tucker, Stephens, and, of course, Gavin. As for how police finally connected the dots?

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Sunday Mirror/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

While the criminals spent endless time crafting the perfect crime, they didn't realize their biggest mistake was hiding in plain sight: the store. After tracing the tunnel back to Le Sac, it wasn't long before cops were led to Mr. Wolfe - the same man who used his real name to lease the shop. After that? It was game over.

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Did they Catch the Right Guys?

What started as a fascination with a fictional character led to one of the most pivotal crimes in Britain's history. But 50+ years later, and one question still remains: How? Sure, we now know all about the months of planning - the drilling, security bypass, storefront property. But how much do we really know?

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Evening Standard/Hulton Archive via Getty Images

How did 4 men with no criminal backgrounds manage to pull off such a feat? And perhaps more importantly: why had the police been inclined to check 750 banks in a 10-mile radius when Rob's radio could only pick up signals from a 1/2 mile radius? Was this a case of pure luck? Or perhaps was there more to the conspiracy theories?…

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