Ham radio and work at the walkie talkie bank
In these days of cell phone communication, it is often difficult to remember that radio communication between two parties is not private. Every radio amateur knows this, but in 1971 some bank robbers didn’t seem to get the point, so when Robert Rowland, a radio amateur from central London, settled down with his radio and a nice cup of tea on a Saturday night he overheard a much more interesting conversation than he expected. We know because he recorded much of what he heard, and in 2008 dug up the tapes so the event could be turned into a movie. At the time, the crime became known as the “walkie talkie robbery” and the movie was called “The Bank Job”.
When Rowland first heard the robbers’ conversation, he thought they were robbing a tobacconist’s shop and called the local police. They seem to find Mr. Rowlands more amusing than important, suggesting that if he hears any more “funny voices” he should write them down. An exasperated Mr. Rowland did just that, using a tape machine he had used to learn Spanish.
Eventually a local police officer came, but was soon called away. Mr Rowland called the police again, but eventually, irritated by the lack of response and the apparent continuation of the robbery on the radio, he called Scotland Yard, the headquarters of London’s Metropolitan Police.
Two plainclothes officers arrived at Rowland’s 4th floor flat on Wimpole Street in London and sat with Rowland all night listening to the burglars. Two more officers arrived in the morning and listened to developments on Sunday, but a police check of local banks revealed nothing unusual (exterior) Monday morning when officers arrived at Lloyd’s Bank in London’s Bakers Street (not far from the flat of the famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes) they discovered that most of the safes had been emptied by thieves who had dug a tunnel from a nearby store and entered the bank vault through the floor.
So far this sounds like a story of incompetence. Rowlands knew that in order for the radio to pick up such a strong signal, the robbery must have taken place within a mile and a half, the robbery had started on Saturday night and continued all through Sunday – certainly enough time for the authorities to find the culprits .
The story made headlines and then suddenly stopped. Scotland Yard took the tapes and reporters were warned when they tried to question Mr Rowland. The police then actually threatened to prosecute Mr Rowland for listening to an unlicensed radio station.
No one knows exactly what happened, four robbers were caught and jailed, but the money and other stolen items were never recovered, and since safes were involved, no one knows exactly what was taken. And therein lies the mystery. In the years that followed, there were many scandals involving senior police officers and a rumor that one safe contained compromising photos of a member of the British royal family, while others contained evidence of police corruption at the highest levels, leading to a flurry of prosecutions and resignations in the late 1970s.
With the release of the film, several British newspapers sought out Mr. Rowland, the radio amateur who had recorded the conversation. He said the records were returned to him six years after the robbery. The Daily Mail also reported speaking with one of the actual robbers, who declined to comment on photos of any royals, but said the robbers were disgusted to find very salacious pornographic images in the boxes they left behind, so the police can find the owners.
And it all goes to show that when you settle down with your radio, you never know who you’ll talk to or what you’ll hear, one of the reasons why amateur radio is still such a fascinating and absorbing hobby.
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