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Top 10 Infamous Cat Burglars

by Josh Fox
fact checked by Alex Hanton

Professional burglary is a crime that is often dramatized in movies. The Hollywood master thief would drive expensive cars and live a rich lifestyle, only to commit daring and creative heists by night. Movie burglars can routinely dance between laser beams, or abseil down buildings, to accomplish a clean getaway. This may seem like a meaningless fantasy to some, but throughout history there are examples of amazing individuals who made it big in the art of theft. Bearing in mind that almost 90% of burglaries go unsolved (in the USA that is, though statistics around the world are similar), there are almost certainly many expert thieves out there who have lived a criminal life and never seen the inside of a prison cell. For obvious reasons I can’t include them in my list. The entries provided are listed in order of notoriety and success.


Colton Harris-Moore


Colton Harris-Moore is a well-known burglar of recent times who earned the nickname: “Barefoot Bandit”, after committing various burglaries without shoes on. He isn’t what most would call a “professional” burglar, though I included him, due to his infamous reputation. Moore ran away from home at the age of 7 and began living in the wild. To survive he would break into holiday homes and steal food and water. He eventually received a 3-year sentence at the age of 13, though he soon ran away. As a fugitive he went on to commit over 100 burglaries in Washington, Idaho and Canada. Initially, he would steal only what he needed to survive, though he soon began to loot more expensive items from houses, such as laptop computers.

He even started to steal vehicles in order to travel. He would typically break into houses at night and steal car keys before driving them as far away as possible and abandoning them. He even stole several single-engine airplanes, after reading books and watching instructional DVDs on how to fly. He attempted several times to land a plane in the Bahamas, and he eventually crashed and destroyed it. Harris-Moore was captured in July 2010, when officers surrounded him while he was attempting to steal a speed-boat. He put a gun to his head and threatened suicide, though officers talked him out of it. He currently faces burglary charges and a 6 year sentence is expected. The picture above was taken by Harris-Moore of himself with a stolen camera.


Anthony Spilotro

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Spilotro was a clever and cunning gangster who operated in Las Vegas during the 1970s and 80s. He was originally ordered to oversee “The Skim” by the Chicago Outfit. “The Skim” was a scam used by many Mafia crime families to steal money from Casino counting rooms that they owned, in order to avoid taxes. However, Spilotro became impatient and wanted to make some extra money. He started a burglary gang with his brother and eight other mafia associates. The gang successfully carried out some high-profile heists, and made Spilotro very wealthy.

In a typical burglary the gang would find a hidden location to drill through the outer wall of a business to gain access. They would then locate the safe and crack it using expert safe-cracking techniques. They also stole other valuable items and fenced them for extra cash. The money made from the proceeds of the burglary would be laundered (made to appear legitimate) through Spilotro’s business; a hardware store named “The Gold Rush”. Eventually Spilotro had to end his burglary spree after a botched burglary resulted in many of his gang receiving long jail terms. Spilotro had planned a burglary at “Bertha’s Gift & Home Furnishings”, with the expected takings to be over $1million in cash and jewelry. However, shortly after the gang started drilling, the police surrounded them from all angles – an anonymous tip off had been received weeks earlier. Spilotro somehow managed to avoid a conviction, despite members of his gang informing on him. Eventually, he was brutally murdered by Mafia associates who were angered at his roguish and arrogant personality.


Madhukar Mohandas Prabhakar


Madhukar Prabhakar is a wealthy and successful thief living in Pune, India. He has stolen vast amounts of money over four decades and is now a millionaire. He owns four plush Bungalows and runs his own Hotel business with the help of his son. Despite being arrested multiple times, the police have failed to put a stop to his criminal career, and haven’t managed to put him behind bars due to lack of evidence. He seems to steal in order to offer financial help to the poor and needy in his local area; he even financed the construction of a Ganesh Temple in Pune.

To commit his crimes he takes a flight to Mumbai, landing during the evening. He finds a wealthy area of expensive houses and notes at least five as potential targets. Later he returns and breaks into the houses stealing objects made of gold or silver, which he proceeds to melt down at an unknown location. The money he makes from selling the metals is carefully laundered through his hotel business, which makes it almost impossible for the police to confiscate. His most recent arrest was in May 2011, after being caught red-handed at the scene of the crime. He hasn’t been forthcoming with a confession.


The Hillside Gang


The Hillside Burglary Gang is the name given by police to a group of master thieves who targeted celebrity mansions in the Beverly Hills area of Los Angeles, during the last few years. Victims include movie directors, musicians, actors and sports stars. They are thought to consist of at least four gang members, who are said to be experienced ex-convicts with prior criminal records. Police have attributed over 150 burglaries to the gang in a period of 3 years. The gang garnered such infamy that a special task force was assembled to take them down, financed by the immensely rich victims.

The gang established a modus operandi that police have used to link their crimes together. It is believed that one gang member typically scales a target’s balcony to reach the second floor, and then proceeds to disable the building’s alarm systems. When the coast is clear he signals his accomplices that it is safe to enter. The gang proceed to raid the house of all valuables, usually tearing the place apart in an effort to locate a safe. When the safe has been found, they steal it and load it into a vehicle to crack later with the help of power tools.

In 2010, the police got a break in the case after finding some discarded safes containing DNA evidence. They identified a suspect and tailed him over a period of several months in an attempt to get further proof of his misdeeds. Eventually they arrested and charged a man named Troy Thomas (pictured above), whom they found to be living in a multi-million dollar mansion. Thomas received 17 years imprisonment and the burglaries have since stopped.


Charles Peace


Charles Peace is commonly cited as one of the most prolific cat-burglars in history. He broke into thousands of houses during his lifetime, and maintained his criminal activity throughout his natural life. He was born in Sheffield, England, in 1832, though he earned his infamous reputation for burglaries committed while living in London. Peace was also a violent individual and he committed various murders during his lifetime, and often attempted to kill police officers who took him into custody.

Peace started off his life of crime in Sheffield, where he was convicted of stealing a gold watch from an elderly man’s home. Over the following two decades he was constantly in and out of jail for sophisticated burglaries in Manchester, Kingston upon Hull and Doncaster. He became a wanted fugitive after shooting a man in Sheffield following an argument. Eventually his travels brought him to London, where he committed his most skilled heists over the course of 2 years. During the day he was a well-dressed and respected violinist who performed at local concerts. By night he would burgle fancy houses while the owners were asleep. On one notable occasion, the owners woke up during a burglary and set their Bulldog on Peace, who responded by punching it in the face, killing the poor animal, before escaping. He bought multiple houses with his burglary proceeds and decorated them with expensive furniture.

Eventually Peace was captured during a mansion burglary. Police officers noticed Peace climbing through a window and ordered him to halt. Instead he opened fire on the officers, hitting one in the right arm with a bullet. However, he was wrestled to the ground and charged with burglary and attempted murder under the alias John Ward. His girlfriend then betrayed his identity to the police in order to collect a £100 reward on his head. Peace was executed in Armley Prison, in Leeds, at the age of 47.


Blane David Nordahl

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Blane David Nordahl , known as “The Silver Thief”, made his living pilfering expensive silver items, from fancy homes across the East Coast of America. He is believed to have netted $3million in around 150 burglaries throughout his criminal career. Despite his professional approach to burglary, he has been caught numerous times and is currently serving an 8-year sentence after being convicted of stealing $50,000 worth of silver cutlery from the home of Ivana Trump. He is a very clever individual, and has stated in interviews that his motive for a life of crime was to escape the boredom of a working life.

In a burglary typical of his modus operandi, he would approach a target house at night while the owners were asleep and carefully remove panes of glass from a French door, thus avoiding any alarms that may be triggered by picking the lock. This is potentially time-consuming work and sometimes could take hours to achieve silently. Once inside, Nordahl would utilize his vast knowledge of alarm systems that he researched at a local library. He would stealthily avoid motion sensors, before creeping up and deactivating them. He would even sometimes sneak past sleeping dogs. When all alarms were disabled, he would remove entire drawers full of silver items and take them outside to test them with his own silver test kit; plate silver would be thrown away at the scene and he would leave with only the finest and most expensive items. Nordahl would steal an average of around $20,000 worth of silver in a single burglary.


Ignacio Del Rio

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Ignacio del Rio originally moved to the USA from Barcelona, with a dream of becoming a famous martial arts champion. When this didn’t work out, he fell in with a gang of thieves who taught him the art of distraction burglary. Del Rio wasn’t happy with the idea of preying on working-class elderly citizens, so he split from the gang and began to hone his own methods of burglary, aiming to target mansions and fancy houses. He also began to practice climbing techniques and taught himself how to pick locks and crack safes efficiently.

His modus operandi involves prior research of a particular house. He would learn about each and every resident of the target house and find times when they weren’t likely to be home. When a time for the burglary came, he would scale a second floor balcony, sometimes with the assistance of a home-made grappling hook. He would then proceed to pick the lock of the balcony door and carefully disable any alarm systems. Del Rio stole anything of value he could find including jewelry, watches, ornaments and paintings. After stealing what he wanted he would cover his tracks and clean up after himself, so the residents of the house took a long time to realize they had been robbed.

He was eventually arrested after a man stumbled upon his stash of stolen goods at a Public Storage facility, in 2005. Inside was over $16million worth of items, including 74 Rolex watches, 546 necklaces and $250,000 in cash. Del Rio had barely spent any of the cash he made from his robbery spree and soon began to cooperate with police; drawing maps to places where he had buried his loot. He is currently serving a reduced 7 year sentence.


Bill Mason


Bill Mason is an infamous Jewel Thief, notably the author of “Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief”, a book in which he describes his most memorable heists. He targeted celebrity apartments in Florida during the 1970s and 80s. Victims included Johnny Weissmuller, Bob Hope and Phyllis Diller. Eventually Mason collected a haul of jewelry worth $35,000,000. The bulk of his criminal riches were confiscated after his numerous short jail sentences, though he is suspected to have still earned a significant amount of money in unsolved burglaries attributed to him.

Mason’s heists were often extremely dangerous, as he reached high-rise apartments utilizing his climbing talent. During the night-time burglary at the apartment of Armand Hammer, he scaled a 15-story building during a storm. He would plan a burglary extremely carefully, researching any possible security system that could possibly thwart him, before finding ways to overcome them. In his book he attributes his success to the errors of his victims, such as accidentally leaving a safe unlocked (as was the case with Bob Hope). He also tricked realtors into telling him everything about the security measures of his targets, by posing as a potential buyer for a nearby apartment. Mason once stole an Olympic Gold Medal belonging to Johnny Weissmuller, though he mailed it back to Weissmuller months after the theft, because of the guilt of stealing something with such sentimental value.


Leonardo Notarbartolo


Leonardo Notarbartolo is a high-ranking member of a notorious Italian burglary ring known as the School of Turin. The School is widely known for conducting some of the most successful jewelry heists in history; most notably the vault burglary at the Antwerp Diamond Centre in 2003. As a teenager Notarbartolo had many brushes with the law, and ultimately resigned himself to a life a crime. He and his childhood friends graduated from petty criminals into skilled jewel thieves as they aged, and soon gained respect from Mafia crime families, who often fenced their burglary takings.

Notarbartolo would typically case jewellery stores under the cover of a shopping expedition. To appear inconspicuous he would always bring a woman along with him to browse the jewelry, while he took high-definition photos of the store interior with a camera disguised as a ball-point pen. After this, he would carefully plan a possible break-in with fellow gang members. If they deemed the target too difficult to attempt a burglary, they would simply move on to a different store. Once their plan was perfected, they would organize potential fences before the robbery in order to sell off the goods as quickly as possible, thus eliminating evidence.

In 2003, Notarbartolo led a gang of four individuals from the School, to burglarize the vault of the Antwerp Diamond Centre, stealing approximately $100million. He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment after police found a half-eaten sandwich near the crime scene that had traces of his DNA. The other gang members were not caught and remain unknown. After he was paroled in 2009, Notarbartolo was arrested again after police found a significant amount of uncut jewels stashed in his BMW. However, police failed to prove that these jewels were from the Antwerp Diamond heist, and were forced to return them to Notarbartolo. As of 2011, Notarbartolo is a free man still living in Italy.


Jack “Superthief” MacLean

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Jack MacLean had never called himself “Superthief”; that was an appellation cops and robbers had used to define this legend they knew so little about. Before his eventual arrest and incarceration, MacLean stole over $133million worth of jewels in thousands of burglaries in Florida during the 1970s and 80s. His life of crime made him so wealthy that when police caught up with him he owned a multi-million dollar mansion, a Hughes 300C Helicopter and a $40,000 speed-boat.

MacLean is widely accepted as one of the most intelligent burglars ever to be arrested, with genius level IQ and an extremely vast knowledge of alarm systems and electronics in general. MacLean would always carry a police scanner with him on heists, in order to stay aware of 911 calls and keep track of any nearby police cruisers. His trademark would be to never inflict damage on a property that he burglarized; instead he would resort to non-violent methods of gaining entry, such as lock-picking. As a result, high-value items seemed to simply vanish from people’s homes, resulting in many of the victims suspecting family members for the theft, or just assuming they’d misplaced their items. He would always carry a change of clothes with him in order to appear inconspicuous if seen near the scene of the crime. MacLean usually disabled alarm systems and then reset them before he exited, though if the alarm was new to him he would carefully cut it from the wall to study later. He would often leave sarcastic notes at the crime scene. For example, he once robbed a mansion adjacent to a police chief’s house and left a note on the officer’s car that read: “Glad to see you’re doing your job”.

MacLean’s downfall came when he broke one of his own rules and recruited an accomplice to help him on a particularly profitable burglary. The accomplice was arrested after he tried selling off the burglary takings on the open market, thus attracting unwanted attention. He then informed on MacLean, who was arrested and sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment for multiple counts of burglary. While in prison he wrote books advising homeowners on how to protect themselves from a skilled thief, one of which (“Secrets of a Superthief”) is shown in the picture.

fact checked by Alex Hanton