Daring, audacious – but who did it? LA $30m cash heist has it all except clues

<span>Armored trucks are parked outside the offices of GardaWorld in the Sylmar section of Los Angeles.</span><span>Photograph: Richard Vogel/AP</span>
Armored trucks are parked outside the offices of GardaWorld in the Sylmar section of Los Angeles.Photograph: Richard Vogel/AP

It was a Tinseltown heist that belonged in a movie.

A gang of audacious thieves struck at night, dodged security measures like ghosts in the night and disappeared with a staggering $30m in cash in a record-breaking robbery that played out for real on Los Angeles’s streets, not the fevered script of a thriller writer.

But now – weeks after the Easter weekend sting – investigators appear to have few leads on the remarkable crime, or if they do they’re not saying.

The heist – technically a burglary, not a robbery, since there was no aspect of force or fear – has left the public stunned and in some cases secretly celebrating a professional and highly sophisticated operation that was only discovered when workers at GardaWorld, a nondescript warehouse in Sylmar, a sleepy, suburban area of the San Fernando Valley, entered the safe to find $30m in cash missing.

The thieves had been able to breach the warehouse, apparently through the roof but perhaps through a hole cut in the side of the building, break into the safe and swipe the cash without triggering security systems. Police received a call for service at 4.30am on Easter Sunday, but by then the largest cash burglary in city history was already executed.

Related: Los Angeles thieves steal $30m in cash from safe without setting off any alarms

Based on records obtained by the celebrity/crime website TMZ, police had made more than a dozen callouts to GardaWorld in the past year that were logged as false alarms, including the day before the heist.

As investigators set about unpicking the crime, the Canada-based cash security giant GardaWorld has yet to comment. The LAPD and FBI have said only that they are jointly investigating the theft “to determine the person or group responsible”.

Joan Renner, an investigative crimes historian who runs a blog, Deranged LA Crimes, said Los Angeles has a unique relationship with crime, and in this case because “it’s so audacious, and an Easter Sunday, which was a really good move on their part”.

“For the longest time, and especially in the 1980s, LA was the bank robbery capital of the world. But this has happened since the Dunbar robbery in 1997,” she said, referring to a robbery when six men made off with $19m in cash from a Dunbar security depot while the night guards were on a break.

“People are intrigued because of the amount stolen but also because of the problems involved with what to do with 7,500lb of money,” Renner added. “What do you do with that? Where do you keep it? How do you transport it?”

Renner theorized that the robbers must have spent at least six months planning it and there must have been someone on the inside. “This type of crime is so site-specific, you have to have someone who knows the facility. What’s appalling about it is GardaWorld. Where were the alarms, the motion-detectors? It’s beyond lax.”

Security expert Jim McGuffey told the Associated Press that for “for that kind of money, you don’t just walk in and walk out with it,” he said.

Except someone did.

But as the days tick by with no arrests, the escapade appears certain to enter into the rich folklore of brazen robberies, and more broadly the cinematic history of Los Angeles crime.

“What’s different about Los Angeles crime is its cinematic quality,” said Renner. “Florida crimes are crazy. But Los Angeles crimes are cinematic, and this writes itself as a screenplay. You’ve got the thieves plotting, LAPD robbery-homicide on the other side, and tax-free riches.”

As many criminal self-enrichment schemes now revolve around crypto- and cybercrime – the recent Sam Bankman-Fried case being the most recent example – the physicality and brazenness of stealing cash has captured the imagination, said the retired FBI special agent, Gannon University lecturer and crime author Jerry Clark.

“These things fascinate us because they take planning and meticulous knowledge of what you’re doing,” Clark told the Observer. “This is a planned offense that took a heck of lot of consideration and effort to put together. Somebody had to have knowledge of the building and how much cash might be available at any one time.”

Statistics show that impulse-control robberies – the armed bank robbery, complete with demand note and use of a weapon – have declined 60% over the past 15 years in the US and typically net only $7,500 on average.

Meanwhile, retail and identity theft crimes have soared. The US Bureau of Justice Statistics placed the value of identity theft crime at $16bn in 2021; the US national retail federation puts the yearly cost of organized retail crime at $94bn. The global value of cybercrime is placed at more than $9tn in 2024, according to estimates by Cybercrime Magazine.

“That doesn’t mean that people aren’t robbing or stealing from places,” said Clark, who has co-authored a series of books, including On the Lam, a study of the 2003 Pizza Bomber case, later made into the Netflix series Evil Genius, and a history of US bank robberies.

Nowadays, Clark said, “they’re more concentrated on having done their homework, having inside information. Somebody had to have had some connection to that place to know that kind of money was in the place.”

But the opportunity for big cash thefts such as the Easter LA heist have been given an unlikely boost thanks to the legalization of cannabis in most US states. Most banks (those insured by the government) cannot deal with the cannabis industry, valued at $57bn in the US this year, leading to a boom in cash storage and the transportation business.

GardaWorld has carved itself out as significant player in the cannabis industry, where security costs are a significant expense. The company says on its website it “is well aware of the vulnerabilities at every stage of production, distribution and retail”.

In this case, GardaWorld was not. Whether the LA heist becomes a folklore tale like DB Cooper, Bonnie & Clyde, Dillinger or the JFK Lufthansa heist that features in Goodfellas, or is open to question. But Hollywood has long feasted on the heist dramas, fictional or dramatized, that find ready audiences.

Clark said he did not understand the public’s attachment until he was chasing the prison escapee and cop killer Ralph “Bucky” Phillips in 2006 and saw people in “Run, Bucky, run” T-shirts. Also, he said, the LA heist isn’t political. “It’s still the us-against-them mentality, the wealthy getting beat by a Robin Hood. But it’s all made-up. There’s no reality to it.”

The LA heist has gone viral, with social media users demanding a film adaptation. Clark said you never know when something is going to become folklore – now via social media, but it’s often something to do with its uniqueness that catches public attention. But this case is missing some elements.

“The longer it takes to solve makes it more fascinating, but it can’t take too long or it gets forgotten or lost. It will get regenerated when they make an arrest, which they will do, and figure out the backstory: what was the plan, and what was the scheme, and then that becomes the story,” he said.

The Dunbar heist was only solved, some years later, when cash wrapped with a Dunbar clip was used for the deposit on a property, and the plot traced to a disgruntled employee.

“Whether it takes a few months or a few years, they better have a party right now because they’re going to end up in the penitentiary,” said Renner. “And the LAPD and FBI can take their time.”