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Throughout the 1990s, Budapest experienced a wave of armed robberies perpetrated by the so-called Whisky ...
2020-03-20 09:00:00
sports

A Hockey Player? You Can Take That to the Bank
The Story of the Whisky Robber

A Hockey Player? You Can Take That to the Bank

As a teenager, he was a fan of the legendary hockey player Wayne Gretzky and the train robber Ronnie Biggs. When he grew up, he started to play hockey himself – and to rob banks. In the late 1990s, he became the most wanted criminal in Europe. For six years he led the Budapest police around by the nose, earning the status of national hero. They called him the Whisky Robber.

Read in 14 minutes

Between 1993 and 1999, there was a spate of 29 armed robberies in Budapest. The targets were usually smaller post offices or bank branches, and the crimes were attributed to a single perpetrator, whom the press called the Whisky Robber. For six years they couldn’t catch the bandit, and successive heists made hm into a media star. Seeing the country’s gigantic corruption and political scandals, the citizens rejoiced that finally somebody was stealing like a simple bandit, and not – like the politicians – in a white collar.

The most humiliating job for the Budapest police robbery division was the 13th one. In March 1996, after draining two glasses of Johnnie Walker on the rocks in a nearby bar, the bandit entered a small post office on Kemenes Street with a gun in his hand, and said loudly: “I’m sorry, but this is a robbery.” According to witnesses, the Whisky Robber was dressed to look like Lajos Varjú, the head of the division, who was working on the case. An identical striped suit, the same moustache and hat.

During the robbery one of the employees managed to press an alarm connected directly to the police, but the duty officer shrugged off the alert. More than 10 minutes later, the whole division was running to the scene. They were in such a hurry that two of their cars collided with each other. When they finally arrived, the only trace of the robber was a faint whiff of whisky and empty cash drawers. There was also a camera crew from TV2, which recorded the arrival of Inspector Varjú, describing the whole affair somewhat in the spirit of Monty Python: “And at last, the police have finally arrived.”

Escape from Transylvania

Attila Ambrus – that’s the robber’s true name – was born in Transylvania, which Hungary had lost to Romania. The region is inhabited by the Székelys, a Hungarian ethnic group, whose ancestors most certainly include a certain Hun by the name of Attila. This 4th-century rowdy was the namesake of the boy who 26 years later would become the most wanted man in Hungary.

The boy had a tough life: his mother abandoned the family when he was 18 months old, and his dad was an alcoholic, who often beat him. Ambrus ended up with an aunt and uncle, who tried to care for him and sent him to school, but he didn’t achieve any great success there. He dreamt of a better life, but started to be known for having sticky fingers. When he decided to start a band with his classmates, they simply stole the instruments from another group. The case was soon solved, and Ambrus ended up in reform school for the first time.

Under Ceaușescu, ethnic minorities had practically no rights, so the situation in the lands where the Székelys lived was hopeless, and everybody dreamt of escaping to Hungary. Facing problems with the Romanian police, and without any prospects, the young Ambrus decided to cross the border illegally and seek his fortune in Budapest. He arrived at a train station near the border and hid under one of the cars. Risking a fall onto the tracks, he made it across the border, eventually arriving in the capital of Hungary. He didn’t have a penny to his name, and his clothes were covered in grease and oil.

I’m a Hungarian

“I’m a Hungarian and I want to stay in Hungary, in Budapest,” Ambrus said in the immigration office. He got a residence permit on the spot; finding work was tougher. But he quickly learned how to survive in the city, and where to get free meals. He tried his hand as an electrician, a baker and even a gravedigger. Finally, determined to change his life, he called the office of the Újpesti TE hockey club, 13-time champion of Hungary.

Hockey could be the young Ambrus’s chance. As a 12-year-old he had qualified for his city club’s junior team, and he turned out to be so fast and strong that he could compete with older players right away. But his musical ambitions put an end to any hope of a sporting career. He hadn’t been on the ice for 10 years, but now, in this new environment, he decided to do everything he could to get back into the game. Players from Transylvania have a great reputation and are real fighters, and that’s exactly how Ambrus presented himself when he talked to the club representative – who, thinking he was speaking with a professional hockey player, invited him for a try-out right away.

A few days later, a new goalkeeper appeared on the UTE rink, to square off against several players from the core team. Unfortunately, even his entry onto the rink showed that something was off, and when Ambrus made it to the goal, he was completely lost. After a few straight shots, the pucks started bouncing off the goalie’s mask and helmet – the players had set up a shooting gallery.

After the try-out, it was clear that he had no chance to become a goalkeeper, but he started work as a janitor. He also had a small room to live in, and that was all he needed. He did small repair jobs and cleaning, but in the end he did make it onto the ice – as a Zamboni operator. Soon he had integrated so closely with the team and the coach that he could take part in practices, and with time he became the unofficial third goalie – meaning he never played, and didn’t get a player’s salary, but was on the list of players.

This is a robbery!

The times of economic and political transformation at the start of the 1990s were just as difficult for Hungary as for the rest of the countries of the crumbling Eastern Bloc. Sudden, unrestrained privatization allowed a select few to get rich, while the rest had to fend for themselves. It was no different with athletes, who once had state salaries, and now couldn’t survive on their club paycheques. Almost all of UTE’s players were moonlighting. One player had a video rental shop; another worked for a used car dealer; and although nobody said it out loud, two brothers, forwards, most likely provided cars to that dealer. Right off the street, without papers.

Using his contacts in Romania, Ambrus started to smuggle furs to Austria. The business was starting to move, and he was increasingly confident. He found a girlfriend and bought a car. Life was beautiful – until the moment when the customs guards on the border were changed, and the smuggling became impossible.

The road from fur smuggler to bank robber seems like a long one, but Ambrus, seeking to improve his material status, quickly came up with the idea of knocking over a post office. His childhood idol, Ronnie Biggs, was a member of the gang that pulled off the Great Train Robbery in 1963, which netted the equivalent of £53 million in today’s money. Biggs escaped from prison, and used some of the loot to have plastic surgery. With a new identity, he ended up first in Australia and then in Brazil, where with no fear of extradition, he lived the life of a celebrity. His book became the young Ambrus’s favourite.

For his first job, he chose a small post office – he knew it had no alarms or armed guards. He dressed in an unfashionable suit, a wig and shoes that were too large, in case the police looked for the suspect based on footprints. But before the robbery, he had to stop in at the bar next door and have a whisky. For courage; to loosen up. Soon thereafter, he appeared in the door of the post office. An employee was just locking up. Ambrus acted instinctively, shoving the woman inside and pulling out a fake pistol. “This is a robbery,” he said, and the women froze in fear. Fortunately, the cash drawers were open. Ambrus started to shove the money into a bag, and after precisely three minutes he ran out, without looking back. After a moment, one of the employees leaned out of the post office, shouting “Stop, thief! Robbery!” Ambrus started to run, and almost tripped over his too-large shoes. But thanks to his hockey training he had no problem getting a safe distance away, where he could check his haul. It turned out that he had ‘earned’ 548,000 forints, or about £4500. He threw up from nerves.

Easy come, easy go

The stolen money went fast. Ambrus spent it on women, cars, suits and travel, which became his favourite activity. The young man who had never been on an airplane came to enjoy exploring exotic lands: Indonesia, Madagascar, the Canary Islands – he travelled several times a year, each time taking his partner and friends. Interestingly, several travel agencies whose services he had used also fell victim to robberies. And Ambrus had a weakness for casinos. On a typical night, he’d lose sums that were astronomical for a mere mortal. He quickly achieved the status of a playboy, telling his teammates that he was still making money on fur smuggling, or that he was supported by rich women. And although his spending grew, money was never a problem: when it ran out, he planned and executed another heist.

In choosing the location for a robbery he followed the rules he had learned from Biggs’s book. He measured the distance from the nearest police station, precisely planned out at least two escape routes, observed the building and the people who worked there. He approached the task so seriously that at a certain point he started to keep a book where he wrote down the details of potential targets. For each job he prepared wigs and disguises, sometimes painting on facial hair. And he always stopped off at a bar for a whisky on the rocks.

But the Whisky Robber’s growing popularity in the media and the investigators’ tightening net meant that Ambrus started to slip into paranoia, and lost control over his life. He spent more and more time in casinos, so he needed more and more money. In 1997, the Whisky Robber struck as many as seven times, but during the heists he started to get careless; he became aggressive, and to loosen up he drank not one or two glasses, but a whole bottle.

Heist in the morning, hockey at night

Despite his criminal activities, Ambrus never stopped playing hockey. Though Újpesti TE, once a powerhouse of the Hungarian hockey league, was past its prime, playing on a first-league team fulfilled Ambrus’s childhood dreams. His trainers and teammates from 1994–1998 remember him as a Stakhanovite, who never missed practice. After one robbery he went straight to the rink, skating as if nothing had happened. That same evening he also showed up at a league game, sitting on the bench in his goalie mask for the entire match. The afternoon newspapers had published a composite photo of the robber, and Ambrus was afraid he’d be recognized.

But the Whisky Robber didn’t play so often, because despite his dedication and his exceptional fitness, he just wasn’t a good goalie. Over time he gained experience, of course. There was even a moment – after the club’s financial problems meant it couldn’t hire another goalkeeper – that he became the starter. Fans of the Budapest team remember this period as the worst in its history: in one game, Ambrus managed to give up 29 goals; another time he let in 88 over six matches. Interestingly, the name Ambrus never appeared on the players’ pay list, though he was considered the richest player in the league.

The fortune-teller’s words

The effectiveness and audacity of the Whisky Robber, who could hit the same post office as many as four times, laid bare the helplessness of Hungary’s forces of law and order, for whom armed robberies were something completely new. The Budapest police created a special unit to handle the case. It was led by Lajos Varjú, who despite his sincere desire and great dedication, simply didn’t have any experience, and even admitted that he had learned detective work from the series Columbo. The investigative team that arrived at the scene of the crime had neither the tools nor the skills to preserve evidence, or even to take fingerprints.

The Whisky Robber remained elusive, and the press time and again criticized the police, which couldn’t get its arms around the case. At a certain point, the detectives turned to a fortune-teller to use her crystal ball to find the location of the next robbery. The only way to catch the thief was to catch him red-handed.

The last match

Gábor “Gabi” Orbán was the son of the coach, and also a younger teammate of Ambrus. Fascinated by the older player’s lifestyle, he tried every way he could to find out what the goalie was really up to. Preparing for the next jobs, which were to bring a bigger haul, Ambrus knew he’d need a partner. After a few weeks of checking out candidates, he decided to reveal that he was the one the media called the Whisky Robber. Orbán didn’t hesitate for a moment, and agreed to everything.

After 12 more or less successful two-man jobs, in March 1998, disguised in suits bought for the occasion and wigs, they attacked a small bank branch. Orbán stood guard; his job also included disabling the cameras and measuring the time, while Ambrus threatened the staff with a pistol and demanded that they open their cash drawers. Ambrus, clearly fuddled by alcohol, took too long to pack up the money, giving the police time to arrive. The robbers fled; pursued by the police, they made it to the bank of the Danube. Ambrus leapt into the water and got away, but Orbán was captured.

At that evening’s hockey match, it turned out that two players from the home team were missing, of whom one had been detained by police in connection with the Whisky Robber case. The assembled UTE fans quickly realized that the famous bandit had to be none other than their team’s goalie, and they chanted his name until the end of the match.

During this time, Ambrus managed to swim across the river and make it home, where he took cash, his car and his beloved dog. He lit out for the Romanian border, counting on arriving there before his pursuers. This time the police were up to the task, and the Whisky Robber was finally captured.

Media stardom

Detailed media reports made the Whisky Robber a semi-legendary figure, often compared to Sándor Rózsa, the 19th-century outlaw who robbed the rich (the Habsburgs) and gave to the poor. Though Ambrus never gave any money to anyone, according to many Hungarians he stole money from rich banks that were preying on the common man. The popularity of the bandit who sipped whisky before a heist, and brought flowers to the women in the banks he robbed, had at one point been so great that a crime programme on television asked him to commit his robberies on Mondays and Tuesdays, so that journalists could be ready for their Thursday broadcasts.

Thousands of marriage propositions started to flood into the detention facility where Ambrus was held. And there was no shortage of people wanting to adopt his dog. Politicians and celebrities vouched for Ambrus, and he himself, tired of the life of crime, cooperated with the prosecutors, describing his accomplishments in detail. But his celebrity status didn’t lessen the weight of the crimes he had committed: for armed robbery, he could be sentenced to as many as 10 years in prison, and in reality he could face a much longer sentence. After long negotiations, he agreed to sign a confession and accept the court’s verdict, on one condition: that he not be charged with attempted murder. Ambrus didn’t want to agree to the accusation that during one of the robberies, he shot at a police officer. He maintained that he shot into the air.

On 10th July 1999, taking advantage of the guards’ inattention, Ambrus escaped from the third floor of the detention centre on Gyorskocsi Street. He used sheets and extension cords tied to a rope, which proved too short. An hour after Ambrus landed on the pavement, twisting both his ankles, all of Budapest was shut down. The city was patrolled by helicopters and thousands of police, and the renowned Hungarian lawyer who had decided to represent Ambrus free of charge announced: “The Whisky Robber is not a murderer, and will never let himself be caught.”

The goalie had never been so popular. During a police press conference, the chief was asked whether he knew that polls showed a clear majority of Hungarians didn’t want the Whisky Robber to be caught. He replied that if more than 10 million citizens supported a bandit rather than the police, it said something about the condition of the country.

The trial

Being at large was worse for Ambrus than being locked up. Some believed he had fled to Romania, but he stayed in Budapest, hiding in rented apartments. He lived like a ghost, walking on tiptoes and leaving the lights off. Trusted people brought him food, and he never left his hideout. After a few weeks of silence, in desperation he decided to pull another job: he dreamt of getting together enough money to pay for plastic surgery and an escape to Brazil, just like Ronnie Biggs had done. He didn’t have much to lose.

But robbery No. 28 turned out to be a complete failure. Ambrus was so drunk that the bank employees laughed at what he said to them. Upset, he took only the money from one till – not quite 230,000 forints (£730) – and truly escaped only by a miracle. The police had to put up with another wave of mockery from the press, and T-shirts appeared for sale on the streets bearing the inscription “GO Whisky Robber!”.

From his hideout, Ambrus prepared the next job – this time, with as much precision as at the start of his career. Three weeks after the previous caper, he entered an OTP Bank branch on Üllői Street, taking a record haul of 51 million forints (about £165,000). He managed to escape. But the police found a phone at the scene that led them to Ambrus’s hideout – and this really was the end of the Whisky Robber’s criminal career.

The trial lasted 10 months and was a huge spectacle, covered by the global media. The story of the hockey goalie who robbed 29 banks, escaped from prison and was considered a national hero was fodder for Hollywood. Ambrus’s lawyer used this, selling the film rights to the story without his client’s knowledge.

The Whisky Robber was sentenced: 15 years in prison. In a speech in the courtroom, he apologized for his actions, but he couldn’t keep from commenting on the politicians and businessmen who steal billions of forints with impunity. Ambrus served his sentence in the Sátoraljaújhely prison, on the border with Slovakia and Ukraine; as he himself said, “at the end of the world, where even the birds can’t fly.”

Epilogue

Today Attila Ambrus runs a pottery workshop in central Budapest, and is still present in public life. He left prison in 2012, freed after almost 11 years. The sentence was cut short for good behaviour, after Ambrus spend most of his sentence reading and working out. He made up for the shortcomings in his education, and even earned a Master’s degree in art.

His story became the inspiration for several books and an action film. To the repeated question “Was it worth it?” he always replies: “In fact, prison was my rescue. I was rolling downhill through alcohol, money, adrenaline and numbness. What I did was bad and selfish. I committed many crimes and errors; I can’t change that now. I’ve done my time, and I have no intention of returning to the past. Now I want to do everything I can to return to society, and just concentrate on living.”

 

Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino

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