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Using backhoes to barricade and break into an armored van on an Italian highway or unleashing chemical spray to blind guards delivering millions to a Japanese bank… both sound like plots of an action movie, but unfortunately, these two tales happened in real life.

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Episode Transcript

If you didn’t notice by now, the true-crime genre reigns supreme as a source of entertainment worldwide.

I mean, let’s be honest, there’s a reason it has its own podcast category. There’s a reason we thought the concept of this show would attract listeners.

Millions of people across the world are obsessed with crime stories that happened in real life.

Our social media feeds and binge-worthy TV shows all have tendrils of true-crime related content. The world will never get enough of it.

Because of that, it often feels like there are more crimes happening.

But in reality, just the opposite is true. At least, that’s the case in America. Since the mid-90’s while people’s interest in true crime has skyrocketed, the number of violent crimes has gone down.

According to annual data released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the FBI violent crime rates in the U.S have been declining steadily since the early 90’s. Robberies in particular went down 68 percent from 1993 to 2019.

Countries across all of the continents have their own unique crime rates that ebb and flow with time but here in North America true tales of historic armored truck heists sort of pale in comparison to some of the sophisticated jobs that have been pulled off overseas.

This is Armored… the untold stories of murder, mayhem, and million-dollar heists. 

In today’s episode we’re going all the way to the bustling streets of Tokyo and as far as the tranquil hills of Italy to look at two robberies that left lasting marks across two continents…and one of them is still unsolved.

*Intro Music*

At 8:20 am on Tuesday, November 25th, 1986, 38-year-old Seichi Aizawa parked his armored van in front of a branch of Mitsubishi Bank in the commercial district of Tokyo, Japan.

Seichi was scheduled to make four cash deliveries that morning to different Mitsubishi Bank locations in the greater Tokyo area.

According to UPI News, Seichi’s van was fully stocked with hundreds of millions of dollars of Yen, Japanese currency, which would roughly equate to approximately $7 million U.S. dollars.

The reason he was transporting so much money was because all of the banks in the area had just returned from a long three-day weekend and were in serious need of cash as they reopened. Tuesday the 25th also happened to be payday for most Japanese employees and if the banks were low on cash, then people coming to make withdrawals were bound to run into problems.

UPI’s reporting in 1986 claimed that Japan was predominantly a cash transaction nation at the time, so most banks and currency transport companies made it a high priority to replenish vaults at banks and ATMs as often as possible.

Right after Seichi parked at the curb, his partner got out and went inside the bank to handle some paperwork with staff members. Seichi was left alone outside and walked to the back of the van to start unlocking the doors. It was a task he’d performed multiple times a day, every day. It was his job to retrieve cash from the shelves in the back and take the deposits into the bank.

As soon as he swung open the doors and went to step inside, two men wearing motorcycle helmets jumped out of a nearby parked car and rushed up to him.

One of the two attackers sprayed a can of a chemical substance into Seichi’s face and eyes and the other suspect clocked him on the back of the head with some sort of club. 

UPI News quoted officials who said the chemical spray used on Seichi was quote– “a stimulating smell.”—end quote. So, I’m not really sure what exactly that means but either way, Seichi was temporarily blinded by the attack and left helpless on the side of the street. 

With him incapacitated, the robbers jumped into the back of the van and snatched several aluminum cases filled with money along with a few canvas sacks of checks and securities documents.

The entire ambush and robbery took place in under a minute.

According to witnesses, the attack was so fast that many people believed the thieves struck in less than 30 seconds.

In their haste, the robbers had been unable to clean out the entire van. News reports state they actually left several metal cases containing $4 million in yen behind because they couldn’t carry anymore.

News outlets that interviewed people who saw the crime state that the helmeted assailants didn’t return to the car they’d come from, instead they’d hopped into a white van not far from the bank.

The two bandits and a third accomplice who was driving sped off into the morning rush hour traffic and were gone in a matter of seconds.

Seichi was able to collect himself right after the robbery and he ended up calling the police to report what happened.

The robbery shocked the Tokyo community and made headlines across the globe. The brazen nature of the crime and violent tactics used by the thieves was rare for Tokyo at the time.

According to research compiled by, in general, Japan has a much lower crime rate than the United States. It always has.

While crime does still happen there, the data shows that there are 37 times more robberies in the U.S. than in Japan. According to the Washington Post, there were 72 robberies directed against banks and cash delivery vans in all of Japan in 1985, the year before the crime. Meanwhile that same year in the United States, the number of robberies carried out at banks or against armored vans was 6,097.

One reason Japan has had such a low crime level is because for years its government has banned handguns. Doing something like that on a national level makes it harder to carry out violent crimes.

Because of Japanese gun control laws, even Seichi, the armored truck driver, was prohibited from carrying a firearm for protection. Handguns were only allowed to be owned by law enforcement personnel.

According to BBC News, handguns are still banned in the country today. The only guns allowed for private ownership are shotguns and air rifles. And even then, owners must go through a rigorous process to legally buy one of those firearms.

Back in 1986, the Mitsubishi armored van robbery cast international attention on the nation of Japan. Japanese authorities started their investigation in earnest and the first thing detectives determined was that the substance the robbers had sprayed in Seichi’s eyes was a strong form of mace. Thankfully, it had no lasting effect on him or his eyesight.

The fact that the robbers had even used the chemical told police they did not have access to illegal firearms and were being resourceful with what they could get their hands on to weaponize.

According to the Associated Press, within a half hour of the robbery police helicopters circled over the commercial district in Tokyo and beyond looking for any sign of the suspicious white van the thieves got away in.  An hour after the robbery, authorities found the vehicle about a half a mile away from the crime scene. 

The Washington Post reported the van had been ditched in a basement parking lot of a shopping plaza in Ginza, Japan. 

Japanese detectives ran a check on the van’s VIN number and discovered it had been stolen a few days before the crime.

According to the AP, the police found several helpful clues inside of it. There were canvas bags filled with bank securities documents, which were useless to the robbers. Along with the bags were two motorcycle helmets and jackets that the robbers had been wearing. Next to that stuff was a blanket, a few knick-knack belongings, and two aluminum cases that had held the money stolen from the armored van.

It was obvious the thieves had transferred the cash into other bags before fleeing the parking garage. When police examined the steel clamps on the aluminum cash boxes they saw marks that indicated the robbers had used bolt cutters to get inside.

Investigators theorized that the preparation and forethought that had gone into the crime meant the suspects had likely planned the heist well ahead of time. They’d known exactly when and where Seichi’s armored van would be on Tuesday morning coming off a long weekend. They’d figured out it would be carrying a large amount of yen and they’d specifically struck on a Japanese payday.

Detectives collected statements from multiple witnesses who were near the crime scene, but very few were helpful.

According to the Associated Press, some witnesses said the incident had happened so fast that they actually thought it was just a light quarrel over where the van was parked. Some witnesses said they even thought the quick scuffle was some sort of training exercise for the armored van company. Almost every witness who’d seen anything useful had NOT intervened.

One witness did report seeing what they described as a toy gun in the hands of one of the robbers…but that report was never corroborated by anyone else.

When Mitsubishi Bank tallied up the amount of cash that had been stolen, they determined $333 million yen…or what would have equated to roughly $2.5 million in U.S. dollars had been swiped…which made the heist the largest armored truck robbery in Japanese history.

Reports state that initially the police in Japan believed this robbery was linked to the Yakuza, Japan’s equivalent of the Mafia. Police also theorized the heist may have even been the work of biker gangs that were growing in popularity at the time.

The problem was detectives never developed strong enough leads to link either of those groups to the crime.

So, as days turned into weeks and weeks into months Japanese investigators widened their focus…and slowly started to suspect that perhaps a more secretive group of foreigners were behind the heist.

That belief was all based on a piece of evidence found in the getaway van…that was soft, flat, and the least suspicious thing you’d associate with a brazen robbery.

After a few months, the story involving millions of dollars robbed in a matter of seconds right outside one of Japan’s major banks fell out of international headlines but that didn’t deter police investigators.

They kept working the case day in and day out searching for any clues or information that could lead them to the three culprits they knew were involved in the crime. At that point, it was 1987.

They got a stroke of luck when they studied that blanket that had been left behind in the robbers’ getaway van. The van that officers found abandoned in the parking garage in Ginza. 

The Washington Post reported that the blanket was similar to ones rented by a home furnishing store in Tokyo. That particular store, authorities found out, catered predominantly to foreign visitors…not Japanese nationals. Reports aren’t super clear what kind of blanket this was…like, if it was a moving blanket or just a regular house throw…but either way, it was distinct enough for police to pinpoint it to this specific store. 

Authorities used that information to track down every person who’d rented that kind of blanket from the retailer before the robbery, and wouldn’t you know it, two foreigners had. The home store gave police the names of two men who’d rented a blanket like that around the time of the crime and when police looked them up, they learned that the tourists had left Japan on a flight to Singapore the same day as the robbery.

Japanese news reports are a little slim on information, but at some point in 1988 Tokyo Police had identified a small group of Frenchmen as the prime suspects. The group included the two men they were sure had rented the notorious robbery blanket from the home store.

The men Japanese authorities named as being involved were Philippe Jamin, Nordine Tifra, Rene Pastore, and Richard Leroy as well as an accomplice of theirs from Algeria, a guy named Youssef Khimoun.

According to the Associated Press, all of the men had criminal records and by the time Japanese police narrowed in on Philippe and Nordine they were actually sitting together in a French jail serving time for robbery offenses they’d committed in Mexico and Paris. In 1991, police found Rene Pastore living alone dying from AIDS. 

Throughout the 1980’s the crew was known and wanted by several European law enforcement agencies for a variety of art theft crimes. French publications state they had been involved in some of the most high-profile international art thefts during the decade. 

The men had been in and out of prisons in countries all over the world. Authorities determined that during one of their stays in a French prison they’d come to know a Japanese art thief and drug dealer who they began doing repeat business with. Investigators believed that person was who gave the Frenchmen the idea to rob the armored van in Tokyo. 

Philippe, Nordine, and Rene stood trial for the Tokyo robbery in 1992. The proceeding took place in Paris and Japan did not request the men be extradited. The most Japanese officials did was provide evidence for French prosecutors to use at trial. 

Rene was acquitted in December 1992 but Philippe and Nordine were found guilty and sentenced to serve six years in prison. News reports state they were eventually allowed to go free when the Parisian court factored in the time they’d already served. News reports are not specific but it’s probably safe to assume the men faced prison time for the other art crimes they eventually were charged with. Where they are today or if they’re even still alive is not something we could find in our research.

Richard Leroy and Youssef Khimoun escaped criminal prosecution…the AP reported that Richard was shot and killed in a “gangland” slaying in 1987, the year after the robbery. Meanwhile, Youssef’s whereabouts were never determined. Police believed he’d likely returned to his home country of Algeria right after the Tokyo robbery.  

The money the group acquired from the daring robbery in Tokyo has never been recovered. 

Just exactly why the crew targeted a Japanese armored truck remains unclear. Authorities who worked the case and media outlets who covered the crime surmised the robbers knew they would more than likely not face violent repercussions from the truck guards. Because Japan banned guards from carrying weapons for self-defense, it made them easy targets to pick off. At least, that’s what the police believed. 

In the end, whatever the thieves’ reasoning was and wherever the missing money ended up remains a secret sealed away in the memories of the perpetrators and was even taken to the grave with some of them.

Like Japan, Italy has a very low crime rate compared to the United States, but similarly to the U.S., Italy has a violent history of organized crime and over the top criminal enterprises that run. Well pretty much everything.

According to America’s Overseas Security Advisory Council also known as OSAC, Italy has long been known as the motherland for organized crime. Namely, the Sicilian Mafia also referred to as “The Cosa Nostra”.

The Cosa Nostra is one of the longest-lasting and most deeply-entrenched criminal organizations in the world. For decades the organization embedded its members in many Italian cities, neighborhoods, and reportedly even branches of the country’s government. These days the Sicilian Mafia isn’t as much of a menace as it once was. Thankfully.

Over the last few decades, Cosa Nostra has reportedly been defanged in large part by the Italian government’s crackdown on gang-related businesses and killings.

In recent decades Italian news outlets reported that police authorities believe that members of Cosa Nostra’s hierarchy have actually ceded much of their former glory to other criminal organizations – both foreign and domestic.

In southern Italy in particular, The Cosa Nostra’s influence has largely been replaced by other prominent gangs, primarily Sacra Corona Unita and ‘Ndrangheta Those gangs have become two of the largest criminal organizations in the entire world according to reporting by BBC News.

The Guardian reported in May of 2020 that a third major gang – which has gone unidentified to authorities may also be on the rise in southern Italy. In particular, near the city of Foggia, which is right around the corner from where a brazen armored truck robbery like something out of Fast and Furious took place in 2019.

On Wednesday morning, January 2nd, 2019, a blue security van used by the company called I.V.R.I. – which is the Italian equivalent to Loomis or Brinks – was traveling through southern Italy on highway 96.

The driver was navigating the truck on winding roads about 30 kilometers southwest of the town of Bari in the Basilica region. Two guards were sitting in the truck’s front cab while a third was in the back accompanying the van’s cargo. The payload required three guards for good reason, it contained millions of Euros that were locked in a metal safe headed to the town of Matera.

The money’s final destination was the Italian post office’s pension fund. A piggy bank for millions of hard-working Italian citizens who were employed by the federal mail system.

According to one Italian Newspaper, at 7:30 AM during morning rush hour the van’s driver pulled onto a two-lane road that was just wide enough for two vehicles. On the left side, there was a metal guard rail, and on the right, there was a grassy area with shrubbery.

While traveling at normal speed, the van suddenly came to an abrupt stop. In its path was a pretty noticeable and unavoidable obstruction.

On highway 96 in Southern Italy, three armored truck guards found a serious problem blocking the road in front of them. There, lined up ahead a few yards were two large construction trucks, and a long line of cars.

The guards weren’t expecting that much traffic but it was rush hour after all and sometimes construction zones just held everybody up longer than expected. Following directions from a few men directing traffic, the van’s driver was forced to fall in line with trudging traffic.

Before anyone could blink though, the van became isolated from the car line and two more construction trucks fell in line behind it, blocking its path forward and backward.

Immediately after that, two men driving large bulldozers that had been parked on the shoulder began moving towards the van. Within seconds the dozers’ mechanical arms were on the van and ripping the top and sides clean off.

Once the armored van was opened like a can of tuna, a handful of masked armed robbers appeared from behind vehicles in the construction zone and fired several rifle rounds into the air. The shots served as a warning to deter the three guards inside the armored van from making a move or reaching for their weapons.

After the robbers subdued the guards and jumped down into the back of the van, they had to move fast. According to at least one Italian newspaper, the armored van was protected by a security feature that filled the back with a hardening foam in the event someone tried to rob it.

The substance is called Spuma Block and according to the manufacture’s website, it’s made in Italy. Basically, if there is a perforation inside or top of the valuables compartment, the driver or even a person back at the van’s headquarters can remotely turn on several faucets that shoot out a thick yellowish foam. That foam coats the inside of the van and everything then becomes inaccessible to thieves. 

News reports aren’t clear if this foam was discharged or not, because remember, there was a guard still in the back of the van with the money at the time the robbers first struck. I have to think the van’s driver didn’t initiate the foam knowing one of his colleagues would be smothered in the back.

The source material is too slim to know for sure if at any point the Spuma Block was triggered by the van company’s headquarters either. Because the robbers struck so fast and so violently, no one may have had time to remotely initiate the security feature.

What reports are clear on is the fact that as soon as the robbers did get inside the van, they cracked open the safe and began moving the money into additional containers they’d brought with them. Right after loading it all up, they got into a vehicle on the other side of the construction trucks they were using to act as blockades and took off.

Before leaving, the masked men lit the construction trucks on fire. This act delayed emergency responders from being able to get to the scene quickly and assess what had happened.

A big problem that faced police investigators from the start was the fact that the region’s Fire Brigade had to put out the construction truck fires before any law enforcement officers could even get into the scene. It took several hours for detectives with the Carabinieri, Italy’s domestic police force to even start processing the crime scene.

Based on what they first saw, two massive pieces of construction equipment set aflame, traffic backed up for miles, and an armored van with its top and sides literally peeled off by bulldozers. The police told reporters they were initially thinking the incident was terror-related.

Their minds quickly changed though once they got deeper into their investigation and started finding more and more clues.

Some news publications reported that the robbers used two getaway vehicles but it’s unknown for sure.  According to an interview with Ilussidiario News one of the guards said that he and his colleagues had been unable to react or observe much during the robbery because everything unfolded in a matter of seconds.   

In total police determined that approximately 2.3 million Euros had been boosted.

What was astonishing to investigators was the fact that the group had not injured any of the guards inside the van. The group also had not endangered any members of the public. They’d specifically allowed traffic to pass through and only pinned in the armored van.

For Italian police, it was pretty clear that whoever was behind the crime was organized, methodical, and had not intended to be violent.

When detectives talked to witnesses and collected shell casings at the crime scene, it was clear that despite being armed to the teeth with assault rifles, the robbers had only fired a few warning shots into the air.

While the investigation unfolded, Highway 96 was shut down in both directions and traffic was rerouted to other roads in the region.  According to News 24 Italy, multiple witnesses on the roadway who’d seen the construction trucks set on fire and a vehicle speed away described seeing at least four men wearing masks and carrying firearms they described as “submachine guns.” 

According to at least one Italian news publication, the men were also described as wearing camouflage bodysuits or military fatigues.

It was initially reported that four men were involved in the crime but as the investigation carried on, some news outlets began reporting that authorities believed that at least five men were involved—maybe more. Investigators told reporters that they felt certain the fifth man was the crew’s getaway driver.

Italian authorities felt confident believing the theory that the robbery had been rehearsed.

Detectives looked into the construction equipment that had been used in the crime and determined that the backhoes two of the robbers had used to rip off the top of the armored van had actually been positioned along the highway several days before the heist. No one knew to question it though because the area was part of an actual construction site and everyone, even the authorities had assumed the equipment was going to be used for road maintenance.

At that particular time, several local construction crews who’d been contracted to perform several highway maintenance projects had been staging their equipment on sections of the roadway.

For two years, Italian police have been one step behind the robbers and unable to track them down.

Authorities being delayed in accessing the crime scene gave the thieves a tremendous head start that police officials have admitted hurt the case a lot.

As of this episode’s writing, the bulldozer armored truck robbery remains unsolved.

According to several Italian newspapers, investigators have said they believe that the robbers could be affiliated with a group of gangsters from northern Bari, Italy who are believed to have carried out other similar crimes in the region over the past few years. 

Other incidents that group is suspected of include a robbery from 2016 which netted 4.7 million Euros and a robbery from 2015 that yielded 5 million Euros. Authorities have described both of those crimes as quote— “well-orchestrated” and military-style assault” —end quote. 

The perpetrators of those crimes have extremely similar MO’s as the 2019 heist. Witnesses described seeing at least four men stop an armored vehicle, then fire dozens of rounds from rifles into the air to stop and quickly use tools or machinery to remove their target’s roof. 

In January 2020, authorities believe the group tried to strike again in Milan but was thwarted. In that incident, it was reported that a group of at least twelve men blocked a multi-lane road with a dozen cars. They then set those vehicles on fire and ensnared an armored van. The robbery attempt failed because the driver of the van was able to evade the burning cars around him and getaway.

The suspects also peaced out when they realized they’d failed and have never been seen since.

Italian police have never publicly said if they think any of the suspects are members of organized crime syndicates or gangs. But let’s be honest, the group’s tactics and approach kind of make you think they have to be, right? I mean somebody is funding these robbers’ ability to come by resources to pull off these heists.

A larger organization has to be behind robberies this wild right? It can’t just be a few Italian guys sitting in their living rooms with a few bottles of wine scheming of ways to get rich? Right?

But who knows, maybe it is.

Despite the robberies I’ve told you about in this episode happening decades apart, in totally different countries and under very different circumstances, the way they played out I think definitely puts them in a league all their own.

They shouldn’t be glorified by any means, but it is staggering how long they’ve gotten away with it and how many questions are still left unanswered. 

*Outro Music*

Armored is an audiochuck original.

Hosted by Jake Brennan.

Research and writing by Micheal Whelan with writing assistance from executive producer Delia D’Ambra.

Editing by Eric Aaron.

So what do you think Chuck, do you approve? *howl*