The bizarre story of China's most prolific bank-robbers, who stole literal tons of cash and spent it on losing lotto tickets

Writing in Marker, David Gauvey Herbert gives us an extended-play version of China's legendary bank-robber, Ren Xiaofeng, a bank official in a small industrial city who tried to make ends meet by stealing cash to buy lottery tickets, planning to return the money out of his winnings — but instead lost, and kept on losing, until he'd stolen literal tons of cash.

Ren's story is a snapshot of China in the early 2000s, when banking jobs were corrupt sinecures handed out via patronage and nepotism, allowing Ren to first suborn and then bypass the vault guards; it's also a portrait of China during the peak of its boom, when millions in cash were sloshing around, passing from business-people (many of them out-and-out crooks) to government officials to safe-deposit boxes in the vaults of banks like Ren's, the largest branch of the Agricultural Bank of China in the city of Hendan.

Ren cycled through various confederates during his years of theft, and it was only due to the lax security and corruption in his bank that he continued to get away with it. But things came to a head when he got wind of a looming cash audit that would reveal his thefts, and he planned a final score with his accomplice and fellow vault guard, Ma Xiangjing.

The two stole millions in a breathtaking daylight raid, brazenly carrying it out past the guards, and handed it over to crooked lottery ticket sellers who labored through the day, printing out hundreds of thousands of tickets — which still didn't net the pair a jackpot.

They split up and went underground, leaving behind a giant plastic bag of losing lotto tickets in the vault. They were ultimately caught and executed — but they became weird folk heroes on the way.

Handan is an industrial city of three million people in northern China, about a two hour bullet train ride from Beijing. Pollution from coal-burning factories regularly fills the sky and blots out the sun. On April 16, 2007, the fuzzy, grey star had just set, and the bustling streets cast further into darkness, when police detectives arrived at the Agricultural Bank of China. Nervous employees led them to the vault. They didn't have the keys to open it, so officers broke through the heavy steel door.

When detectives entered the vault, they were stumped by what they found — or rather, what they did not find. There were no tasered guards with their hands bound: Round-the-clock watchmen had worked their shifts without incident. The vault itself showed no sign of forced entry: The 60-centimeter-thick, steel-plated walls were intact. Security cameras and trip alarms operated normally.

Bank officials struggled to explain why they had waited hours to call the police. A lot of money was unaccounted for.

And the suspects had left behind only one piece of physical evidence: a bag full of lottery tickets.

Jackpot: How two lottery-crazed bank clerks cooked up China's biggest bank robbery of all time [David Gauvey Herbert/Marker]

(Thanks, David Gauvey Herbert!)

(Image: Ruohan Wang, cropped, for Marker)