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The E-Sylum: Volume 13, Number 14, April 4, 2010, Article 21

GERALD BLANCHARD, HIGH-TECH BANK ROBBER

While non-numismatic, we can't help but be intrigued by the audacity and cleverness of bank robbers who make off with piles and piles of cash. The April 2010 issue of Wired magazine has a fascinating article about a high-tech thief who got away again and again until finally brought down by a team of investigators from Winnipeg, Canada. Here are some excerpts from that lengthy and fascinating article. -Editor

Blanchard began mastering the workings of myriad mechanical devices and electronics. He became obsessed with cameras and surveillance: documenting targets, his own exploits, and his huge piles of money. Befitting a young tech enthusiast, he emptied an entire RadioShack one Easter Sunday. At age 16, he bought a house with more than $100,000 in cash. (He hired a lawyer to handle the money and sign the deal on his behalf.)

In 2001, Blanchard was driving around Edmonton when he saw a new branch of the Alberta Treasury bank going up. His internal algorithm calculated low risk, and he began to case the target meticulously.

As the bank was being built, Blanchard frequently sneaked inside — sometimes at night, sometimes in broad daylight, disguised as a delivery person or construction worker. There’s less security before the money shows up, and that allowed Blanchard to plant various surveillance devices in the ATM room. He knew when the cash machines were installed and what kind of locks they had. He ordered the same locks online and reverse engineered them at home. Later he returned to the Alberta Treasury to disassemble, disable, and remount the locks.

The take at this bank was a modest 60 grand, but the thrill mattered more than the money anyway. Blanchard’s ambition flowered, as did his technique.

Blanchard targeted a half-dozen banks over the next few years. He’d get in through the air-conditioning ductwork, at times contorting his body to fit inside really tight spaces. Other times, he would pick the locks. If there were infrared sensors, he’d use IR goggles to see the beams. Or he’d simply fool the sensor by blocking the beam with a lead film bag.

He assembled an arsenal of tools: night-vision cameras, long-range lenses, high-gain antennas that could pick up the feeds from the audio and video recorders he hid inside a bank, scanners programmed with the encryption keys for police frequencies. He always had a burglary kit on hand containing ropes, uniforms, cameras, and microphones. In the Edmonton branch of the Bank of Nova Scotia, which he hit in 2002, he installed a metal panel near the AC ducts to create a secret crawl space that he could disappear into if surprised by police.

Such evasive action was never required, however, in part because Blanchard had also memorized the mechanics of the Mas-Hamilton and La Gard locks that many banks used for their ATMs. (These are big, complicated contraptions, and when police later interrogated Blanchard, they presented him with a Mas-Hamilton lock in dozens of pieces. He stunned them by reassembling it in 40 seconds.)

After midnight on Saturday, May 15, 2004, as the northern prairie winter was finally giving way to spring, Blanchard walked up to the front door of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in the Mega Centre, a suburban development in Winnipeg. He quickly jimmied the lock, slipped inside, and locked the door behind him. It was a brand-new branch that was set to open for business on Monday, and Blanchard knew that the cash machines had been loaded on Friday.

There were seven machines, each with four drawers. He set to work quickly, using just the right technique to spring the machines open without causing any telltale damage. Well rehearsed, Blanchard wheeled out boxes full of cash and several money counters, locked the door behind him, and headed to a van he had parked nearby.

Eight minutes after Blanchard broke into the first ATM, the Winnipeg Police Service arrived in response to the alarm. However, the officers found the doors locked and assumed the alarm had been an error. As the police pronounced the bank secure, Blanchard was zipping away with more than half a million dollars.

After spending so much time chasing Blanchard — and then talking to him — McCormick and Levasseur developed a grudging regard for his abilities. And Blanchard grew to admire their relentless investigation. Like a cornered hacker who trades his black hat for white, Blanchard took on a new challenge: working the system from the inside. He provided such good information that McCormick and Levasseur were able to put together an eight-hour presentation for law enforcement and banking professionals. “When those guys hear what Blanchard told us,” McCormick says, “you can hear their a**holes pucker shut.”

To read the complete article, see: Art of the Steal: On the Trail of World’s Most Ingenious Thief (www.wired.com/magazine/2010/03/ff_masterthief_blanchard/all/1)

Wayne Homren, Editor

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