Vol 1, No 20
8 November 1999
C S A R D A S:
"I didn't think they were that good."
It was business as usual on the evening of 18 October in the Ulloi utca branch of the OTP bank in Pest. Until an unwelcome visitor burst in brandishing a weapon, that is. With a security guard taken hostage as police arrived in response to the alarm, shots were fired, and the criminal injured, trailing blood over the polished floor. Although he escaped, police knew that he would be forced to seek medical attention. They contacted hospitals in and around the capital as well as private surgeries in the vicinity in the hope that the trail would not go cold.
For the moment, however, they were out of luck. Once again, Hungary's most notorious bank robber and cult figure, inspiring hatred and loyalty in equal measure amongst visitors to the websites devoted to him in virtual space, had once again slipped through the net. In the process, however, he had added another count of attempted murder, violence against an official, vehicle theft and drunk driving to his charge sheet.
The police did not succumb to despair at this latest blow to their professional pride; behind the scenes meticulous detective work continued. They had cast iron evidence that it was Ambrus who had committed the crime, ranging from eyewitness statements to the recordings made by the security cameras to blood samples that were proven to be his.
Besides, many of their theories had been borne out by this robbery: Ambrus had not left Budapest since his escape from police custody on 10 July. He had been unable to flee the country due to the heightened vigilance of frontier guards, particularly on the border with Romania, his country of origin. He had also been uncharacteristically slipshod in his work: a previous robbery at the OTP branch in Grassalkovich utca had only yielded HUF two million (USD 8250), peanuts compared to earlier hauls, forcing him to steal again. This branch was relatively new, and he had neither familiarised himself with the layout of surrounding streets, nor had he planned an escape route.
Police speculated that he needed cash for a variety of reasons. His face had become so familiar to the Hungarian public that he could have been saving up for plastic surgery to alter his appearance beyond recognition. He did not have any links with the underworld, so was left to depend entirely on his own resources and resourcefulness when it came to staying free. He would have a considerable outlay to pay for false papers, keep potential informants quiet and cover the daily expenses of board and lodgings.
On the evening of Wednesday 27 October, the police finally closed in on him, cutting off his career in its prime. A special unit had been set up and placed under the direction of Jozsef Keszhelyi. Its sole task was to hunt him down and capture him, dispelling the suspicions of incompetence and corruption that had hung over the entire force since Ambrus' audacious escape from the cells in Gyorskocsi ut.
Members of the team had demonstrated gritty determination in seeking out their prey, following the example set by Mr Keszhelyi and giving up their summer holidays in the interests of closing the case. The dramatic arrest represented the culmination of months of such unremitting effort.
The reward of HUF five million (USD 20,600) intended for anyone willing to come forward with information that would lead to his capture had not been paid out: the police had managed without an informant.
In his flat officers found two loaded pistols and his booty from the Ulloi ut hit, totalling HUF 43,250,000 (USD 178,700). Domonkos K, an acquaintance of Ambrus and fellow Transylvanian who had settled in Hungary many years previously, had been arrested earlier the same day. He immediately confessed that the Whisky Robber was indeed using his second floor flat in the Zuglo district at the crossroads of Erzsebet kiralyne utca and Nagy Lajos utca situated above a grocer's shop.
For weeks, police had kept Ambrus' relatives, friends and members of the ice hockey team for which he once played under close observation until they were satisfied that they had exhausted all possible leads. Several hundred individuals, everyone that could claim to have even the loosest link to him, were thus subjected to scrutiny. For the sake of the good reputation and prestige of the force, no mistakes could be made.
The final moments
Domonkos K was therefore only one suspect amongst many, but one aspect of his routine stuck out like a sore thumb: he regularly visited the otherwise empty flat loaded down with food to depart again a few minutes later. Police at the stake out detected movement in his absence. Detectives finally arrested him on the Wednesday afternoon, a juncture at which they hoped his absence would not be conspicuous, charging him with being Ambrus's accomplice once he had supplied them with the information they required to launch stage two of their plan.
Laszlo Osvath, head of the Special Services Unit and his team of six armed officers had only a few hours to ready themselves for what could be an extremely dangerous action, cornering a desperate criminal who had already demonstrated that he would not balk at using his weapon if challenged.
The building was surrounded by plain-clothes policemen at the height of the rush hour, with the din of the traffic drowning out their voices. Having reached their appointed positions, a nerve-racking moment ensued. Two patrol cars, sirens blaring, arrived at the crossroads, oblivious to what was going on, to deal with a completely unrelated incident. Ambrus, who had been sitting peacefully watching TV, came out on to the balcony to investigate. He returned to the room, but a few minutes later, a dark red Mercedes left the building through the gate leading to Erzsebet kiralyne utca. This unsettled the police, as they had no way of knowing in the gloom whether Ambrus had been behind the wheel or hidden in the car. They ordered the sealing off of all roads leading out of the city to be on the safe side before returning to the plan of action. Luckily for them, it proved to be a false alarm: Ambrus was still ensconced in the flat.
Just before seven, police cordoned off the streets at the crossroads. An unusual calm descended. The lack of vehicles and passers-by may well have alerted Ambrus, speed was of the essence. Officers, armed to the teeth and equipped with bullet-proof helmets and shields, knocked on the door of the neighbouring flat, warning its occupants of the danger and ordering them to allow access to their home. As it would have been relatively easy for Ambrus to leap from the balcony of his flat to that of the neighbours, officers were stationed there. The officers of the Special Service Unit, intimidating in their black outfits and balaclavas, were deployed in such a way that resistance, let alone attempts to flee, would be futile.
"Police, open up!" cried the first officer.
The fugitive obeyed meekly, yelling "Don't harm me, I'm unarmed, I surrender!" and opened the door dressed only in a pair of Bermuda shorts.
According to Mr Osvath, this unusual state of undress was proof of his good faith, that he was telling the truth and that he had no intention of resisting arrest.
"Are you Attila Ambrus?" he was asked.
When he replied in the affirmative, he was forced to the ground and had his hands cuffed behind his back before being allowed back to his feet. Before being taken from the flat to the cells in Gyorskocsi utca from whence he had escaped, he was permitted to dress in a black silk shirt and suit.
Questioning began the following morning, in the presence of his lawyer, Mr Gyorgy Magyar. The records of the medical examination carried out on his arrival in custody show that he had recently suffered minor injuries, ending speculations that he had been shot in the exchange at Ulloi ut One of his thumbs had been damaged.
The scene of the drama has become a place of pilgrimage to journalists and sensation-seekers. The result of the "match" between the Ministry of Home Affairs (BM) and the Whisky Robber (the epithet by which Ambrus has become famous, viszkis) has already been daubed on the walls: BM - Viszkis 2: 29.
The throng of reporters, TV cameramen, photographers and the idly curious has soured the lives of the other residents. One middle-aged woman living on the same floor was harassed whilst trying to get out of the lift: "Excuse me, but do you live here?" came the blindingly obvious question from the assembled representatives of the media.
"Unfortunately, yes," came the reply as she slammed the door in their faces.
Other intrepid newshounds have fared little better whilst trying to maintain public interest in this convenient potboiler. Is the Whisky Robber's allure beginning to fade? Is his myth falling apart at the seams or was it ever more than an artificially produced media event?
They muse in a navel-gazing exercise typical of the post-modern. This is echoed in the hostility of some of the remarks made by interviewees. A well-dressed man in his 50s was approached by a journalist as he gazed at the "match result." He wanted to take a look at where the "uninhibited criminal" had been dragged from his hideout. One of the man's acquaintances had been unfortunate to work at the branch of the OTP in Raday utca, which had been robbed twice by Ambrus. The individual in question was had still not recovered from the psychological trauma of the events.
"I find it astounding that such vicious individuals as the Whisky Robber are treated like heroes," he commented.
Similarly, a young employee of the amusement arcade opposite the building expressed delight that Ambrus had finally been caught: "There's nothing likeable about a robber. The whole hullabaloo around him was stirred up by journalists and TV channels."
One of his colleagues agreed: "He never gave a penny of the proceeds to the poor, squandering all his millions on travel. Why should I look up to him? If I were to commit robberies, I'd be locked up too. Why shouldn't he go to jail?"
Left alone to contemplate his future in an empty cell, Ambrus has invoked his rights in order to prevent police from broadcasting the video they made of the action leading to his downfall. The heads of the investigation will not permit other recordings to be made for an unspecified length of time, so Ambrus will be unable to court the media at will, satisfying his voracious appetite for publicity and sympathy.
A group of teenagers standing around outside the grocer's shop below the flat articulated the feeling of many when they confidently asserted that "He'll get away again anyway."
Perhaps one day a commemorative plaque will grace the walls above the shop. Until then, the rest of us will echo in our thoughts the last line of his autobiography: "To be continued?"
Gusztav Kosztolanyi, 31 October 1999
Sources used for this article: Magyar Nemzet, 20 and 29 October, Nepszabadsag, 29 October and Magyar Hirlap, 29 October.
See Gusztav Kosztolanyi's other recent article on Ambrus.
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