The Burrowing Burglars
On the morning of June 9th, 1986, employees at Hollywood's First Interstate Bank showed up for work, preparing for the long week ahead. However, they would discover that the bank's vault had been looted. Whoever the culprits had been, they had burrowed through 100 feet of soil from a nearby sewer drain, and had drilled their way into the bank vault…
On June 9th, 1986, employees at the First Interstate Bank in Hollywood, California - located at the intersection of Spaulding Avenue and Sunset Boulevard - began showing up for work.
For many of these employees, the day had started off like any other Monday morning. However, shortly after arriving at work, they discovered that it was anything but.
Inside the bank - in particular, inside the bank vault - a small hole was discovered. Little more than 20-inches-by-25-inches, a small hole had been punched into the center of the bank vault. It was just large enough for an individual or two to make their way into the bank vault, and pilfer the inside.
Bank officials and police would later learn that the hole in the vault had been drilled and sawed at from the outside, over the span of several days - if not weeks. Those responsible had tunneled into the vault from a nearby storm drainage system, and then made their escape.
More than $150,000 in cash was missing, as well as dozens of security deposit boxes - whose total overall value was estimated to be in the millions.
It was one of the biggest robberies in Hollywood history, but the culprits - who would later come close to pulling off the "crime of the century" - would go unidentified.
This is the story of the Burrowing Burglars.
Roughly one week before the robbery of Hollywood's First Interstate Bank, it had been the Memorial Day holiday. Investigators would later state that the mysterious thieves had likely planned to strike then, as they would have had an extra day to loot the bank. However, based on the hole drilled through the bottom of the bank's vault. investigators theorized that their electric drill had failed, and they had then had to turn to drilling and sawing the remainder of the hole by hand - a process that had taken them days, if not close to a week. All of which happened in an incredibly uncomfortable, cramped tunnel.
Hence, the discovery of this bizarre overnight bank robbery on the morning of June 9th, 1986.
In the week prior to this discovery, staff at the First Interstate bank had reported some odd occurrences. On a few occasions, the alarms in the bank vault had gone off at-random, sporadically throughout the day. Because there was no discernible issues with the vault, the staff chalked this up to a faulty alarm system.
At another point, the bank had lost power - an incident that investigators would later state was likely due to the robbers themselves tapping into the bank's electricity grid... which had then powered their electric drills.
Then, there was the instance of a bank manager - who had been working late at-night - calling the bank's central security offices. She complained about an odd grinding sound coming from the walls, but the security guard that she spoke to informed her that it was likely just a rat or two.
Now, days later, this bank manager would get vindication, but it came at an immense cost. The thieves that robbed the First Interstate Bank had stolen an estimated $172,000 in cash from the bank vault, as well as the content of 36 security deposit boxes. Included in the stolen possessions was a painting of a girl from French artist Henri Matisse, which was worth a pretty penny in its own right.
In total, it was believed that the thieves had stolen more than $2.5 million, when all was said and done. That was as close to an honest accounting as investigators would reach in their investigation. However, due to the items being ill-gotten, it was believed that the thieves would only be able to get "pennies on the dollar" for the total overall value of these stolen valuables.
So... how had these thieves managed to drill into a bank vault without getting discovered? Well, after police were notified of the robbery that Monday morning, they arrived at the scene and discovered one of the most intricate crime scenes they had ever seen.
The burglars involved had created a 100-foot tunnel to access the bank vault from a nearby storm drain. This meant that they had figured out the exact measurements needed to tunnel into the bank vault, and then began tunneling out from the sewer.
It was clear to the investigators that the individuals involved had been at this for weeks, if not months, covering the hole in the storm drain with plywood and fresh mortar after each visit. It was believed that the operation had included the movement of more than 3,000 cubic feet of dirt, and somewhere around 1,500 wheelbarrow trips would have been necessary to move that much soil.
Ingeniously, the culprits had figured out a way to use the built-up sewer water to sweep away the dirt that began filling up the storm drain each day, meaning that their path would be relatively clear on the day in-question.
In the process of tunneling, the men had used a gas-powered generator for electric power, and had begun drilling into the bank vault more than a week before the robbery was reported to police. Based on the drill patterns, investigators believed that the men’s diamond-studded drill had died - probably on Memorial Day weekend, when the bank was closed for three straight days. When that happened, the men had to continue drilling into the bank vault by hand - using hand saws and handheld drills to cut through the 18-inch concrete vault.
In their wake, the culprits had left very little evidence of them ever there. They had left behind some worthless pieces of equipment, in addition to dozens of empty Styrofoam coffee cups, but had disappeared completely by the Monday morning that the robbery was reported.
Police began circling around some persons-of-interest, but none of the leads they received ever panned out. They had received numerous tips, claiming that the men responsible were either disgruntled city employees or construction workers, Vietnam veterans familiar with Viet Cong tunnels - or Viet Cong themselves, or a:
"... gang of troglodytes, derelicts and winos who inhabitated sewers."
More than a year would pass with no developments in this case.
On August 22nd, 1987 - a Saturday more than a year later - it was reported that the culprits from the first crime had likely struck again.
Police were called to a Bank of America on the corners of Pico and La Vienega Boulevards, where a robbery attempt had ended up triggering the bank vault's alarm system. When a bank manager had begun entering the vault - alongside another employee and a security detail - the culprits had been forced to make a quick getaway in the elaborate tunnel system they had again dug into the earth beneath the bank itself.
It was reported that the culprits - of whom they were at least two - had made their escape on 4-wheel all-terrain vehicles (also known as quadrunners).
Because they had been interrupted in the middle of their robbery, the thieves had only been able to abscond with around $90,000 - but that didn't mean that their hard work was all for nothing.
The two cases were almost immediately linked, with John Popovish - a spokesman for the First Interstate bank that had been robbed the year prior - stating:
"You look at the modus operandi in our burglary and the one (over the weekend) and it would sure seem to be the same, wouldn't it?"
Bill Rehder, a retired FBI agent that later examined the case, stated that he "had never seen anything like this."
Police believed that the burglars were incredibly methodical, having extensively surveilled the underground sewer systems. That is, in addition to being incredibly conscious about the above-ground regions, and knowing exactly where they were digging. It was as-if they had models or blueprints of the bank itself, and were able to pinpoint exactly where they needed to dig.
Lt. Doug Collisson, a Los Angeles police officer that headed the special burglary detail, stated about this underground labyrinth:
"This was no wormhole or anything."
Lt. Collisson also stated that the burglars:
"... would have had to require some knowledge of soil composition and technical engineering. The way the shaft itself was constructed, it was obviously well-researched and extremely sophisticated."
Analysts believed that it would have taken the culprits of this robbery at least 4 to 5 weeks of work to accomplish this kind of digging feat, with a team consisting of multiple members.
Investigators would later state that the men involved had at least some kind of working knowledge of the tools they had been using to burrow through sewer pipes and bank vaults, implying some kind of construction or other similar blue-collar work experience.
A thorough analysis revealed that the burglars had managed to dig a 60-foot tunnel to the bank vault from a nearby sewer; a tunnel that was roughly 5-feet high and approximately 8-feet wide, and supported by wooden beams. It seems like the culprits had learned from their prior mistake, and were looking to construct a tunnel that was slightly-more forgiving and allowed for more maneuverability.
When the time came to drill into the bank vault, the culprits had drilled directly into the center of the vault. Ed Hain, a spokesman for Bank of America, stated:
"You get the impression that they knew where they were at all times."
Shortly after this robbery was reported to police, it was announced that four quadrunners had been found in a storm drain near the scene of this second robbery.
Just for reference, quadrunners are just 4-wheel all-terrain vehicles: ATV's. It seemed like the men that committed this robbery had been using them as getaway vehicles; likely planning to haul away much more money than they actually had (right around $90,000).
Police began reaching out to ATV dealers in the surrounding region, and soon discovered a potential link to culprits. A dealer recalled a small team of men coming in and buying four of the quadrunners, and described these men as being:
"... white males, in their early 30's, slim and muscular, dressed in construction-style clothes, speaking accent-less American English."
At one point, these men were described as being "Top Gun-types," implying that they seemed to be of military stature and physique.
The only name that investigators were ever able to obtain - in relation to the recovered ATV's - was "Robert Spaulding." Sometimes referred to as "David Spaulding" in the reporting of this story, it was believed that this was nothing more than an alias - a joke thought up by the men responsible. After all, the first robbery had taken place along Spaulding Avenue, and usage of that name, Spaulding, seemed to be little more than a gag.
Police would be unable to link the quadrunners to any real persons-of-interest. However, they were able to come up with a description of at least one suspect, who would become the subject of a composite sketch.
Following the botched second robbery - at the Bank of America - police had accidentally stumbled upon a 3rd tunnel dug by the culprits.
It was reported that this tunnel led from the sewers nearby to a Union Federal Savings and Loan, along Wilshire Boulevard (in Beverly Hills). In fact, this tunnel went underneath a busy street nearby, and police had to shut down traffic on a busy summer day in order to ensure that the road wasn't at-risk of collapsing. It wasn't, thankfully, but this road blockage led to many furious drivers and curious newscasters, who began inquiring about the increased police presence.
It was believed that the thieves had been digging the second and third tunnels simultaneously, and planned to strike both banks back-to-back. If so... then they would have become some of the most prosperous bank robbers of all-time. An analysis showed that a successful robbery of both banks would have resulted in a payday of anywhere between $10 and $25 million.
Following the interrupted second robbery, it was theorized that the men involved had given up their life of crime. After all, the first robbery had netted a high reward - roughly $172,000 in cash and countless other valuables, which could have been sold off for upwards of $2 million. However, this second robbery had resulted in around $90,000 - which had to be split up at least two ways (likely more).
This was likely a huge disappointment for the thieves, and nearly getting caught had probably put the fear of God into them. They had been just moments away from capture, and if their getaway had not gone off flawlessly, they likely would have been detained by police in the immediate aftermath.
Following the announcement that this gang of bank robbers had been so close to glory and riches, the media decided to come up with a name for them. They were named the "Hole in the Ground Gang" by some local reporters, which seemed to be a spin on the name given to one of Butch Cassidy's gangs from the Wild West: the "Hole in the Wall Gang."
However, this name - the "Hole in the Ground Gang" - was later co-opted by the animated program the Simpsons. Thankfully, they had earned themselves a much more fitting moniker by then.
The Burrowing Burglars. This name seemed to be more fitting, and more indicative of the accomplishments of the group. After all, they had not actually killed or harmed anyone. Their only crime had been burglary and theft. Thankfully, this is the nickname that would stick in the ensuing years.
Because banks had been robbed, the FBI would get involved in the investigation pretty early on, and contribute their criminal profilers to the case. These profilers worked with local investigators, and came up with a working theory about the Burrowing Burglars:
- This was a small gang, perhaps just 2 to 4 members.
- They were expert tunnelers, with working knowledge of the tools and procedures needed to dig underground. However, they were complete amateurs at robbing banks, and seemed to be totally unprepared when it came to the inside of the actual bank vaults.
- In addition, the burglars seemed to not have the expertise needed to break into security deposit boxes. They either lacked the tools or the knowledge to break into them, and had stolen several of the boxes themselves instead of simply looting them.
In the end, the Burrowing Burglars had been close to achieving what one investigator described as the "crime of the century." But, they had fallen just shy of accomplishing that goal, and would seemingly choose to retire from their criminal careers just as they were getting started.
The case of the Burrowing Burglars was featured on the February 22nd, 1989 episode of "Unsolved Mysteries with Robert Stack." By then, close to three years had passed since the first bank robbery, and all of the investigators' leads had dried up. The case was on the precipice of going cold, and investigators hoped to feature the show in an effort to attract more leads.
Truthfully, it did. The leads began pouring in... but it was more of the same. Tipsters accused communists, Vietnam veterans, and other perceived sewer-dwellers for the crime.
In 1992, author Michael Connelly used the story of the Burrowing Burglars as an inspiration for his debut novel, Black Echo - which introduced the character of Harry Bosch to the rest of the world. In an amusing story, Connelly claims that one of his first critics told him that the plot of Black Echo:
"... was too far-fetched when, in fact, it was the only part of my novel that was based on fact."
Retired FBI agent Bill Rehder analyzed the case in the early 2000's, when he was co-writing a book about bank robberies in Los Angeles. Him and crime reporter Gordon Dillow dedicated a chapter of the book to the Burrowing Burglars, eventually theorizing that the men responsible had been construction workers:
"... who had been members of an elite military unit at one time or had played football together. They were getting older. And maybe they wanted to experience a big thrill one last time."
Unfortunately, we are unlikely to ever discover who was responsible for the bank robberies attributed to the Burglars. That is because the state of limitations for grand theft have since expired, having run out in 1992. Police have abandoned their investigation into the case, as no charges can be filed.
For what it's worth, retired FBI agent Bill Rehder doesn't hold any ill will towards the men involved. In fact, they managed to accomplish their goals without killing or even harming anyone, and seemed to abandon their criminal lifestyle after robbing just two banks. Rehder says that if the men came forward, police would not be able to file any charges or attempt to reclaim the money - and he would like to buy them a beer and discuss how they had nearly pulled off one of the most miraculous robbery schemes of all-time.
As of this episode's recording, the story of the Burrowing Burglars remains unresolved.
Written, hosted, and produced by Micheal Whelan
Originally published on Patreon on January 12th, 2019
Published on March 31st, 2019