In 2006, an army of police officers surrounded the Banco Rio in Acassuso, Argentina, and negotiated for hours with a bold group of robbers inside.
The criminals took hostages and demanded the police bring them pizza, as the nation watched on live TV. Snipers perched in trees, ready to shoot if needed.
Finally, one robber told the police they were ready to surrender. But when law enforcement entered the bank, there wasn’t a perp to be found. They’d vanished without a trace, taking with them a reported $20 million in cash and valuables from safety deposit boxes.
“We use[d] [a] tunnel, not to break in, but to break out,” says the robbery’s mastermind, Fernando Araujo, in the new netflix documentary “Bank Robbers: the Last Great Heist,” which debuts on Wednesday.
“No one [had] ever planned to do a heist this way.”
Araujo, an artist and small time pot grower, started concocting the plan in 2003, when he rented a house near the bank and began exploring the sewage tunnels beneath. Inspired in part by the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” he dubbed his scheme the “Donatello Project.”
Posing as an architecture student, he called the public works agency in Acassuso to get information on how the ground might handle tunnels. Then he convinced Sebastián García Bolster, a local motorcycle mechanic to join his team as a civil engineer.
They calculated how to drill 15 meters diagonally into the bank, essentially making their tunnel a triangular hypotenuse between the building’s basement and the sewer. Doing so would require some heavy machinery.
“To make a hole the size of a soda bottle [with pickaxes] took one hour. It was impossible. So we had to bring in a 220 watt generator so we could use an electro pneumatic drill,” Araujo says.
As their plans came together, they found more men to be part of the heist. Career crook Rubén “Beto” de la Torre was recruited as muscle and Luis Mario Vitette Sellanes came on as well — he would become designated police negotiator. They recruited another man referred only in the film as “the Doc” and said to be both a lawyer and a sophisticated thief.
After years of tinkering, the plan came into focus. Rather than going through the sewer to exit to local waters, as law enforcement would likely predict, Araujo’s team would go deeper into the city’s bowels.
The crew bought an old van and customized it to have a floor hatch so they could park it above a manhole and climb directly into the vehicle without ever going out onto the street. They recruited a man named Julián Zalloecheverría to be their driver and someone called “the kid” to serve as extra muscle.
At around 12:38 pm on Friday, Jan. 13, 2006, the team of robbers stormed in through the front door of the bank, guns in hand and ready to take hostages. Sellanes went to the top floor to get the bank manager, then brought the man to the base where the safe and security boxes were. There, he forced a security guard to surrender his weapon and then leave the building.
Araujo and Beto focused on the bank’s ground level, managing hostages and securing exits.
Police quickly descended upon the bank, and Sellanes began fake negotiations with the cops to get more time for his accomplishments to gather the loot. He threw on a fake mustache, yarmulke, and glasses to throw off police and snipers peering through the bank’s windows. At 2:30 pm, he made a point of releasing two hostages.
Meanwhile, Bolster was in the basement using a special cannon to break open deposit boxes as quickly as possible.
“I didn’t stop to see what was inside or if it actually opened or anything,” Bolster says. “Just breaking, breaking, breaking all the locks.”
After two hours, they’d cracked open 143 boxes and it was time to escape. Sellanes told authorities they were ready to give up.
“Bring us some pizzas, bring us some soda, we’ll have a little food and surrender,” Sellanes recalls telling the negotiators. He knew they would be out of the building by the time forces entered.
The robbers splashed chlorine throughout the bank to cover their DNA and tossed random strands of hair around to throw off crime scene investigators. Then they escaped into their tunnels and into the sewer without a trace.
There, two small boats, one with a motor awaited them. But the motor wouldn’t start, so the men had to paddle through the sewer to reach their van 14 blocks away. Araujo ugly sprawled out atop the loot in one of the boats to secure it.
They successfully made it to the van and drove to their safe house. The cops were none the wiser.
“Right away, the first thing I wanted to do was turn on the TV and make sure they weren’t behind,” Araujo says in the film. “Here we were with the money so far away.”
The men then divided the money evenly among themselves and shared ways.
Sellanes says he drove off with “four trashbags full of cash.”
Authorities were at first baffled by the escape. They didn’t even realize the gang had tunneled out until a bank worker spotted a piece of out of place furniture covering the hole.
In it, they found booby traps and a note from Araujo that read, in Spanish, “in a rich neighborhood, without weapons or grudges, it’s just money and not love.”
It was a picture perfect job, the take was massive, the police had no leads and no one had been injured. Araujo and Co. seemed to have gotten away with the heist of the century and would be able to enjoy their riches in peace.
One loose end
Then, weeks after the robbery, Beto noticed something amiss.
“I come back [home] one day and find my [stash] bag is out of place,” he says in the film. “I saw the stack of money had dropped, quite a bit.”
His wife, Alicia di Tullio, admitted to him that she had taken about $300,000 and some safety deposit loot from Beto without asking permission.
The two, who had been together 18 years, got into a blowout argument. Beto demanded she bring back what she took immediately and left the house with his remaining loot in a huff. Furious, di Tullo called the police and turned in her husband.
The men realized their perfect plan had been rejected. Sellanes recalls the Doc calling him frantically, saying “De la Torre’s wife is going to turn us all in soon, she’s asking for each of us to pay her $300,000, if we won’t she’s gonna give us up.”
Sellanes replied: “Doc, she can go f–k herself. I’m not giving her a thing, let Beto fix all this with her and leave me out of it.”
But Beto couldn’t fix what his wife had done.
Beto, Bolster, Sellanes, Araujo and Zalloecheverría were all arrested and charged, with di Tullio serving as a confidential witness.
“She told us she had knowledge about the situation…for the purposes of this case, there is no proof that allows us to say what happened between [Beto and Di Tullio],” prosecuting district attorney Gastón Garbus says in the film. “I feel like it’s related to the cash and it wasn’t induced from matter of spite over the presence of another lady.”
Beto confirmed that her motivation was money. “She valued [it] more than family and that was it, the tragic ending of my story, I think of everyone’s too,” he said.
In 2010, Beto was sentenced to 15 years, Araujo was given 14, Zalloecheverría got 10 and Bolster got nine. Sellanes agreed to a separate, expedited trial where he was given 14 years for not just the robbery but other miscellaneous crimes he was found connected to around that time as well. The Doc and the kid were never caught.
A happy ending for all?
None of the men ended up serving the sentences in full and all are now free and celebrated for their notorious heist.
“There were people who suddenly idolized this and see it as, I don’t know, something out of the ordinary,” Araujo says.
Sellanes has amassed over 30,000 Twitter followersand the gang’s story was immortalized in a 2020 thriller-comedy “The Heist of the Century.”
Araujo says their story has a happy ending.
“Everyone who played a role in this story won. Prosecutors advanced careers, police officers became detectives afterwards and the judges were recognized. The victims’ insurance got them more than they had,” he says.
In the documentary, several of the men hint that much of the cash and valuables they scored was never recovered.
“Everybody’s curiosity, it’s great…where is [the rest of the loot]? It’s in the Cayman Islands in the, you better write this down, CBU [account] number 24!” Araujo says sarcastically.