A dubious accolade, but here it is: the largest, most successful hotel robbery in history took place in New York City in the venerable Pierre Hotel and was listed as such in the Guinness Book of World Records.
The robbers have been burglarizing one New York City hotel after another without ever being caught, but the vaults of Pierre beckoned them with such a loot that they would never have to do another job ever again. It was supposed to be their last heist.
The robbers were well-dressed, polite, and efficient. On January 2, 1972, a group of dapper gentlemen clad in tuxedos arrived by car to the 61st Street entrance of The Pierre at 3:50 am. Having reserved a hotel room in advance, they proceeded into the lobby, calmly rounded up the staff, and tied them up. They informed the horrified employees that no one would be hurt, as they were just after the money. When anyone from the hostages exhibited any kind of anxiety, they were reassured that their lives were not in danger. This robbery went smoothly: while one of the robbers kept an eye on the hostages, the others went about their respective roles of answering the phones, taking care of the elevators, and, most importantly, working the vault.
The success of the operation was ensured by months of meticulous planning. Robert “Bobby” Comfort and Sammy Nalo, the operation’s masterminds, studied every detail. They rented a room in the hotel and spent many hours in the lobby watching the patterns of the hotel activity. They knew the staff, the daily routines, and the guests. They practiced driving the getaway car and timed the route many times over.
The date of the assault was chosen carefully and perfectly. It was January 2, the night after the New Year. Most of the guests rested peacefully after attending New Year’s Eve parties, to which they wore their most dazzling jewels. The jewels were left in the hotel’s secure vault for safekeeping, and the smallest number of staff was on duty on the day after the festivities.
The trickiest part of the robbery was to find out which boxes contained more valuable treasures. Having studied society pages for months in advance, the robbers knew the guests by name along with their worth. The hotel auditor was persuaded to provide the index cards that matched the boxes to depositors.
The burglars were polite to the hostages, never raising their voices, and even provided medical assistance to one of them with a heart condition. They called one of the hotel residents – a doctor – to come down to help and, of course, also held him hostage.
The entire robbery took two and a half hours. It was done by 6:15; by 7 am, the morning staff would arrive, and the hotel guests would wake up. Bobby Comfort asked the hostages to tell the police that they wouldn’t be able to identify the robbers. He made a very convincing case suggesting that if they did, they would be murdered. Before departing, Comfort gave a $20 bill to each hotel employees for their time and trouble.
The robbers looted 50 safe‐deposit boxes that yielded about 28 million. The perfect robbery was an astounding success; however, the FBI had been watching Bobby Comfort and Sami Nalo for some time in connection with prior robberies. They got caught, but only a portion of the jewels was recovered.
The heist didn’t bring the robbers comfortable retirement as planned. Instead, the masterminds went to prison. Within ten years, Bobby Comfort died of cancer, and Nalo got killed. Instead of anonymity and wealth, they got notoriety and the dubious glory of planning and executing the largest hotel heist in history.