When you think of a bank heist, you probably imagine a Hollywood-style robbery involving some of America’s biggest banks.
However, one of the most incredible stories involving the theft of a humongous amount from a heavily guarded vault didn’t occur in the US. This story from China is as unbelievable as it is tragic. And what’s even more difficult to believe is that one of the robbers won the lottery before staging the heist. Here’s how Ren Xiaofeng and Ma Xiangjing decided to rob the Agricultural Bank of China and how they paid the ultimate price for their crime.
A Bank Heist in the Making
The Agricultural Bank of China robbery has a long pre-history that involves a series of events leading up to the grandiose crime.
But before looking at what happened in March and April 2007, we need to introduce the two protagonists (or maybe antagonists?): Ren Xiaofeng and Ma Xiangjing.
Coming from a good family, Ren Xiaofeng had the luck of landing a pretty good job at a young age. By pulling some strings, his father secured the bank teller position at a branch of the Agricultural Bank of China. Ren had the qualities needed to enjoy career solidity. At the time, China didn’t have automatic machines to count bills. Tellers completed the task by hand, and Ren was one of the best.
Ren’s life seemed to be going great – he had a steady job, and in 2004, his wife gave birth to twins. Unfortunately, things started going downhill from there.
In 2006, the Agricultural Bank of China started losing its leading position in the country. As a result, some staff members had to be fired or demoted. Ren was one of them, and as a manager, he became the professional responsible for dealing with cash withdrawals at the bank vault.
This demotion was linked to serious financial losses, and Ren saw his salary cut in half.
A family of four needed enough money to survive. This was when Ren started trying out the lottery in an attempt to secure some cash. His decision to partake in games of luck unlocked a series of events that eventually led to Ren Xiaofeng’s death.
The Lottery That Didn’t Pay Off
The Chinese communist party made gambling illegal almost immediately after it seized leadership in the country. State-run lotteries remained one of the few permissible possibilities for testing luck and eventually winning some cash.
Chinese lotteries, however, were infamous for widespread corruption. There was sufficient evidence of state officials and party members cashing out great prizes while ordinary people like Ren went home with nothing.
In his desperation, Ren continued buying more and more tickets for the lottery. Unfortunately, he only won small amounts.
All of this seemed unfair (and it probably was), especially amid China’s economic expansion. While working at the bank, Ren saw many brand-new millionaires enjoy great fortunes and luxuries he could never afford. That’s when a plan started forming, but Ren needed an accomplice for it to be effective.
An Inside Job
Ren’s idea was pretty simple, and in his mind, it simply allowed him to bend the rules slightly, secure his financial future and continue living his life.
In his mind, Ren saw the idea of a bank heist as a simple attempt to borrow some cash. He decided to rob the bank, get enough money to buy many lottery tickets, and win the jackpot. After he’d won, Ren would return the money he’d taken from the bank, and he would live a long and happy life with the rest.
It sounds simple enough, but the plan also feels like a true recipe for disaster.
The Agricultural Bank of China had two vault managers in an attempt to ensure the security of funds. Both had to use their keys for the vault to open and allow access to the money inside. Ren decided to recruit both of the vault managers for his bold plan.
Ren first recruited Zhao Xuenan for his plan. Later on, the second vault manager called Zhang Qiang, also agreed to participate in the heist.
The first part of the heist was executed on October 13, 2006. The men took 100,000 Chinese yuan or about 12,500 dollars from the vault. With nearly 20,000 yuan from his share, Ren bought a huge number of lottery tickets (keeping his fingers crossed that luck would strike this time around).
That night, Ren found out that one of his tickets had won. He scored about 100,000 yuan from a lower prize tier. He hadn’t hit the jackpot yet, but his luck was starting to change.
The win had an immediate impact on Ren’s confidence prompting him to continue buying tickets in hopes of eventually reaching the top prize. That’s when all of his dreams would come true, Ren believed.
To secure the cash for lottery ticket buying, Ren and the two vault managers stole an additional sum of 100,000 yuan. Once again, Ren bought lottery tickets, and once again – he won. This time around, the sum was even more impressive. Ren had become 210,000 yuan richer.
At this time, Zhang got scared and decided to back off. He even replaced the money that he’d stolen from the bank. Ren and Zhao also used some of their winnings to return cash to the bank, and they even ended up with a bit of surplus cash after the score got settled.
Winning twice, however, made Ren bold and a bit careless. He felt somewhat addicted to the thrill of defying odds and cashing out in such an easy way. So, he didn’t just stop when the time was right; he kept on going.
Things Getting Out of Control
After the initial robberies, Ren got demoted once again. He had now been made one of the vault managers. That was great luck for our lotto enthusiast. He now had access to the cash in the vault without needing to engage two other people.
In March 2007, the bank hired another vault manager by the name of Ma Xiangjing. Very different from each other, the two men found some common interests and background similarities that helped them forge a bond and move forward with their plan.
On March 16, 2007, the two men disconnected the vault’s security system from its power source and stole 50,000 yuan. Ren once again bought lots and lots of lottery tickets… and they lost.
Ren and Ma continued taking out cash and buying tickets. Sadly, they continued losing. Eventually, the sum taken out of the vault reached two million yuan – a massive sum by all accounts.
The growing losses, however, didn’t make Ren stop. On the contrary, they fueled his desire to repeat the earlier wins. A big jackpot win could still help him accomplish his earlier goal. He was hoping to repay the bank and keep the extra cash for himself.
Roughly at that time, Ma started losing his nerve. The fact that bank officials were coming around for an inspection didn’t help either. By that point, Ren and his accomplices had stolen about 33 million yuan from the bank, or about 4.3 million US dollars.
Instead of trying to cover his tracks, however, Ren decided to engage in one final robbery. He planned to take out 1.8 million yuan and pour all of that cash into lottery tickets. All that was meant to happen in a provincial town that altogether printed lottery tickets worth 50,000 yuan.
While there were some hiccups along the way (like Ren activating the security system), our duo managed to take 1.8 million yuan out of the vault. That wasn’t an easy operation, and it involved the lugging of deposit boxes and the conjuring of multiple lies. Coworkers were curious about the operation. Ma and Ren had to come up with a story about a wealthy man making a withdrawal.
Once the money was taken out, it was funneled into the bank accounts of ticket vendors, what seemed like a mission impossible had happened. The heist, however, wasn’t worth the effort. Even if they managed to win the jackpot, Ren and Ma would barely cover the theft amount.
That’s when Fortuna decided it wasn’t meant to be.
Ren and Ma won a mid-tier prize like before. The 98,000 yuan was insufficient, and our protagonists decided that the time had come for them to disappear.
A Story of Lotto Addiction Ends Tragically
Ma disappeared to Beijing. He was caught only two days later.
Ren tried to travel farther away, but news broadcasts showed his face all over China. A prize of 50,000 yuan was also announced. Hence, getting Ren turned in was only a matter of time.
The story came to an end when a salesman saw Ren take more than 200,000 yuan out of a Honda to buy a new car. A taxi driver and Ren’s landlord had also gotten suspicious, and all three of them submitted tips to the authorities.
In court, Ren appeared to be remorseful. He even offered to assist banks, helping them prevent such heists from ever happening again.
Feeling sorry was not enough, and it would never have been in a country with draconian laws about theft.
Ren Xiaofeng’s execution and Ma Xiangjing’s death were scheduled for approximately one year after the end of the court case against them. Three other people received prison sentences. Several other bank employees lost their job due to the heist.
Later on, the Agricultural Bank of China banned employees from ever discussing the case. The court files were sealed, but that didn’t keep people from talking about Ma and Ren. In some sense, the two men had become local heroes. After all, two ordinary men without serious connections (a must-have if you want to make it big in corrupt Chinese entities) had managed to fool one of China’s biggest banks while pursuing their dreams. The story of Ma and Ren lives on, even though their endeavor was very bold but somewhat foolish.