On the morning of September 23rd, 2009, Stockholm residents awoke to news of a crime so daring it seemed to be ripped right out of the script of a Hollywood thriller.
Armed men stole a helicopter and landed it on the roof of a G4S cash depot in south of Stockholm in the wee hours of the morning.
After smashing through a skylight and hoisting up untold millions of kronor, the helicopter flew off again under the cover of darkness, leaving police and local residents shaking their heads.
While American journalist Evan Ratliff only learned of the incident almost a year later while researching cash protection measure, he was captivated by the story.
Before he knew it, he was engrossed in researching the crime and what the Swedish authorities knew and didn’t know before the now infamous helicopter heist was carried out.
Ratliff recently compiled his findings into a short e-book entitled “Lifted”, which shot to the upper ranks of nonfiction best sellers for Amazon’s Kindle e-readers.
How did you first hear about the helicopter heist?
I was looking into a story about cash protection, and spoke to a company here in the States that creates DNA tags to place into the protective dye used by armored cars. An executive there mentioned that the company was working on a project with the government of Sweden, due partly to a large robbery that had happened in Stockholm.
I believe his almost exact words were, “they used a helicopter; it was like something out of a Bruce Willis movie.” That certainly caught my interest, and I started researching the robbery itself.
What interested you about the case most?
At first, I wasn’t planning on writing about it. But then doing a little more digging I started to see some details about the people that had been caught, and the unusual details of the plot–the fake bombs, the real explosives.
When I first read about the accused robbers, particularly what (even from afar) seemed like a strange mix in folks, I had the feeling there was something fascinating there. So I decided to go ahead and book a trip to Stockholm.
When did you start to think that the case could be the subject of a book?
Well, it is a short book…or something in between a very long magazine article and a short book. But even at that length, I don’t think I had confidence that it could work until I had done some interviews in Stockholm and seen the volume of documentation that came out of the trial.
Both sides of the robbery — the robbery and the investigators — had this unusual combination of brilliance, daring, and unbelievable mistakes. The robbers pulled off an elaborate plan involving probably 20 or more people, a helicopter, fake bombs, and the rest. Yet they left so much money behind, a GPS device in the helicopter, and DNA all over the place.
The investigators perhaps missed a potential chance to stop the robbery before it happened, and then had this very slow response when it did. But afterward their investigation was completely brilliant in the way they pieced the information together. For me, those contradictions create great tension for a story.
Why has an American journalist/author written such a comprehensive account of this Swedish crime?
No English-language journalist outside of Sweden had ever really followed up on it, so I knew that I would have the story all to myself! But even inside Sweden, I had the impression that people had been inundated with news about the crime and the trial as they happened, so perhaps no journalist felt like it was worthwhile to go back and reconstruct it all again. For me, all the details were new; and every twist seemed more exciting than the last.
What was the most remarkable discovery or piece of information you made during your work?
The most remarkable fact, to me, barely made it into the story at all. That was the fact that this robbery which seemed so extraordinary to me, seemed so commonplace to many people I talked to there. Investigators, prosecutors, cash security people all said to me some version of “You know, this isn’t really that unusual a robbery. All that is unusual about it is that they used a helicopter as their getaway vehicle.”
The fact that the use of explosives, automatic weapons, chains, and fake bombs were so common as to be a little boring, well, that struck me as a remarkable. I’m not passing any cultural judgment on it — god knows America has plenty more aspects that are commonplace to us but shocking to others. But it surprised me.
Any theories about where the money may be?
The most likely theory to me was the one that seemed to prevail among the prosecutors: the money was moved out of the country quickly, to Russia or elsewhere in Eastern Europe, and is long gone by now. But my favorite theory came from several people I and the photographer encountered when we went out to Kaaanbadet [public beach near Stockholm]. Some of the locals there said people still wondered if the money might be stashed in the woods. I love the idea of some kids coming across it years from now.
Why did you decide to do an e-book rather than something traditional? What was the process for publishing it in this way?
In part because I was involved in starting this e-book venture, The Atavist, in which we are assigning these kinds of short books. But there were other ways in which the story was perfect: it had video that we could use in a multimedia format (the CCTV video from G4S is part of the story, in the iPhone and iPad versions), which of course you can’t utilize in a print book.
We could create character profiles of the people involved, timelines of the whole event, maps of all the locations, and layer them into the story. We could publish it all quickly, much faster than a traditional book.
How has the response been so far? Have you received any feedback?
So far it’s been great, it’s found a surprisingly large number of readers in a short period of time here in the U.S. — particularly on the Kindle — and people seem to be enjoying it. Of course the Millenium trilogy showed how people all over the world are interested in Swedish crime, so perhaps it’s catching some of that wave.
Do you think Sweden is still vulnerable to such spectacular robberies? Did you learn anything to shed light on why so many have happened in Sweden?
I should preface by saying that in the story I tried to avoid making any broad pronouncements about Sweden or Swedish culture; I didn’t want to seem like I was coming in and judging from a place of ignorance.
I could only observe that it seemed like a striking number of robberies were common there, and the statistics certainly placed Sweden among the top countries in the world when it came to cash robberies. As to why, the one thing I did discover is that nobody seems to have an absolute answer to that question — even the governor of the central bank, who convened meetings on this very topic.
It seems reasonable to assert that the level of penalties could play some role in it (but I’m coming from a country that has insanely, overly harsh criminal laws). And the fact that the guards were not, until recently armed (although I believe that also probably also avoided unnecessary deaths, too). Or perhaps there are cultural factors at work — clearly there is a culture of pursuing grand heists among the criminal population.
The strangest explanation I heard was that Swedes just use more cash than other countries. As with many cultural phenomena, it’s probably a mix of it all.
As to whether there are still vulnerabilities, the changes in the law after the helicopter robbery seemed to make some sense. But I didn’t meet a single person who felt like the problem was solved. If anything, the heightened security in Sweden might spread the robberies out into neighboring countries that are comparatively more vulnerable.