The Crazy Way $30M Was Stolen From Safe Deposit Boxes

Pilar Melendez
·3 min read
Paul Faith/AFP via Getty
Paul Faith/AFP via Getty

Three New York City men allegedly stole more than $30 million in cash and other valuables as part of an elaborate money-laundering scheme that involved using spy cameras to break into safe deposit boxes around the world.

The Department of Justice on Tuesday charged Val Cooper, 56, Alex Levin, 52, and Gari Smith, 49, with money laundering and conspiracy, as well as conspiracy to violate the Travel Act after they allegedly stole the massive sum from banks’ safe deposit boxes between March 2015 and October 2019. Some of the banks were in Ukraine, Russia, North Macedonia, Moldova, Latvia, Uzbekistan, and Azerbaijan—businesses that “appeared to lack security features, including video surveillance cameras in certain areas,” prosecutors said.

The feds allege Cooper was the ringleader of the criminal enterprise, while Levin used his bank accounts in the United States to buy the sophisticated camera equipment used during the heists—and later launder the proceeds. All three Brooklyn men were arrested on Tuesday morning.

“The crimes we allege in this indictment read like something straight out of Hollywood fiction,” FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge Sweeney said in a statement. “The thieves used sophisticated tools to thwart security systems at foreign banks and tried to cover their tracks by laundering money through U.S. banks. However, thanks to the outstanding work of our FBI Eurasian Organized Crime Task Force and our international partners, these criminals now face real federal charges and the possibility of real-time in federal prison.”

According to court documents, the group sought out banks with weak security systems, and then would pose as a customer, renting a safe deposit box in order to gain entry into the room they would eventually hit. Once inside, the group would use a series of “sophisticated camera equipment (often a borescope typically used in medical procedures)” to “take photographs of the inside of safe deposit box locks,” prosecutors said in court documents.

“Another co-conspirator used these photographs to create duplicate keys, and then other co-conspirators used the duplicate keys to open the victim safe deposit boxes in order to steal the contents, including currency, gold bars, jewelry, and other property,” a DOJ press release said. After the heist was complete, the trio would leave the country.

Prosecutors say the scheme went on for years—with Cooper and another co-conspirator even bribing local law enforcement officials in the various countries they hit for information to ensure they could evade prosecution. Finally, New York authorities caught up to them, and on Tuesday, agents executed a search warrant at Cooper’s house. There, they found safe deposit box keys without any identification numbers, cash, jewelry, and several high-end bags. In Cooper’s storage unit in Brooklyn, investigators also found a borescope and safe deposit box lock.

Authorities noted that Cooper and Levin have criminal histories. Levin was convicted in April 2000 after pleading guilty to securities fraud for his role in a $100 million stock scheme operated by members and associates of La Cosa Nostra and a Russian organized crime group. Cooper was convicted in the former Soviet Union of theft in 1986 and was cited in another criminal office against the USSR in 2001—but did not face criminal charges before he evaded prosecution.

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