$42 Million Bank Robbery in Northern Ireland

After the daring bank theft that used kidnapping, a profile of the crime that netted almost worthless money

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) - On an icy, black Sunday night, police officers brought terrible news to the rural idyll of Kevin McMullan's home: A relative had just been killed in a car crash, they said. It was a lie -- and it launched one of the world's biggest bank robberies.

Once inside, the phony officers put a gun to McMullan's head and tied him up, blindfolded his wife, Karen, and then took her away at gunpoint in her own car into the forest.

They told McMullan, a senior executive at Northern Bank in his mid-30s, that he must get the gang into the bank's major cash vault the next night. If he or another abducted bank official, Chris Ward, refused to help or raised any alarm, their families would be put to death.

Police said Wednesday that the gang got away with more than 22 million pounds, or about $42 million, more than originally estimated. And the 45-strong detective task force admitted it would be hard to track down a gang that left no apparent forensic evidence during their meticulously planned heist.

Police didn't learn of the crime until after 11 p.m. Monday, three hours after surveillance cameras recorded the gunmen's cash-packed van disappearing down Belfast's major highway. McMullan's wife -- free of her blindfold but in soaking wet sneakers and suffering hypothermia in near-freezing temperatures -- emerged from the forest to raise the alarm at a farmhouse.

Around the same time, on the edge of Roman Catholic west Belfast, gang members released the 23-year-old Ward's mother, father, brother and brother's girlfriend.

"This was a carefully planned operation by professional criminals who obviously had done their homework,'' Detective Superintendent Andy Sproule said.

Sproule said the gang took extensive precautions against leaving traces of their identities at either victim's house or the bank. "We have a long way to go before we have recovered the money or arrested the individuals,'' he said.

The gang remained masked and gloved and wore workmen's overalls, which Northern Ireland paramilitary groups regularly wear on operations and then burn afterward. Police said they suspect the robbers also trimmed their hair short to reduce the chance of dropped strands. The gunmen burned McMullan's car to destroy DNA and other forensic traces.

Both McMullan and Ward are "key holders'' who work in Northern Bank's confidential underground vault, which stores cash from businesses and supplies the bank's 95 branches and hundreds of automated teller machines. The vault received exceptional volumes of cash Monday, reflecting the bustling build-up to Christmas.

The gang let both executives go to work around noon Monday, then ordered one of them -- the police won't say which -- to carry out a trial run about 90 minutes after the bank closed. He carried a gym bag containing more than $2 million to a man disguised in a cap and scarf, then went back inside to await orders.

Once the gang decided police hadn't been alerted, they drove a large white van equipped with a lifting device to the bank's high-security vehicle entrance on a quiet side street. Inside, McMullan and Ward triggered codes that opened an outer steel door and then a second internal door.

Sproule said no member of the gang actually went inside the bank, but remained at the other end of a conveyor belt as Northern Bank's own officials below cleared out the vault, one plastic container of cash at a time -- enough bundles to stand in a stack 30 stories high.

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