Attila Ambrus: From villain to national hero

Attila Ambrus pulled off a string of outrageous, costumed robberies, tormented the Clouseau-like police chief on his trail and won his victims' hearts. Now this ice-hockey playing, whisky-mad bandit has become a Hungarian national hero
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The Independent Online

"Too bad I won't be able to clink glasses with anyone," Ambrus said from the prison in Satoraljaujhely on the Hungarian-Slovakian border where he is serving a 17-year sentence. "But I'm not a folk hero."

In fact, Ambrus, who hails from a one-street village in Transylvania, would appear to be the definition of such a figure, a man whose legend came to symbolise his countrymen's frustration with the early years of capitalism. Though his adoration inside Hungary is no longer at the 80 per cent mark it hit in opinion polls when his streak came to a wild end in 1999, some still view him as enough of an anti-establishment icon to invoke his name at protest rallies. "I can't believe that several million people exist in this country who can be a fan of a criminal," says Lajos Varju, the head of the robbery division of the Budapest police department, who unsuccessfully tracked Ambrus for years before retiring in 1998. "But the social situation created this."

Between the heady, scandal-plagued years of 1993 and 1999, Ambrus robbed 29 formerly state-owned banks, post offices and private travel agencies in a crime spree that played out like a serialised satire of the times. Wearing a flea-market selection of bad costumes and hairpieces, he handed flowers to female bank tellers during his heists, mailed bottles of wine to his police chief nemesis and once even disguised himself as the officer in question to pull off a job. Since his identity was then unknown, the media dubbed him the "Whisky Robber" because witnesses always spotted him downing shots of Johnnie Walker in a bar across from the bank before shaking the place down. "He didn't rob banks," editorialised the Hungarian daily Magyar Hirlap after Ambrus's arrest. "He merely performed a peculiar redistribution of the wealth that differed from the elites only in its method."

Today, Ambrus resides in a small cement cell in Satoraljauhely, a quaint village in a rural, hilly part of Hungary near Tokaj, the famous wine region. The maximum-security prison, a former underwear factory, is situated on the town's high street, between a barber shop and an Italian restaurant. Inside are several hundred of Hungary's most violent criminals, and Ambrus, who despite never seriously injuring anyone is treated as a major security threat, mostly because of the cartoonlike escape he made in July, 1999, on a bedsheet from a fourth-floor window of the previous facility in which he'd been kept, the city jail in Budapest.

That event made his story international news, with coverage of the frenzied hunt for him making papers from London to New York to Sydney. After three more outlandish robberies, including one after which he out-swam police on the Danube River, he was finally captured, convicted and sentenced.

In the four years since my first interview with him in the Budapest Municipal Courthouse during a break in his sentencing hearing, Ambrus has mellowed at least a little. On that occasion, when I asked if he'd ever consider escaping again, he said, while eyeing the flock of armed guards hovering over us, "I couldn't say. I wouldn't be sincere."

But even today the fighting spirit that has been with him since his rocky childhood doesn't need much provocation to show through. When the prison guard, who has been smoking a cigarette outside the small glass-partitioned booth in which we're speaking, tells us we have only half an hour left, Ambrus begins arguing that more time should be added because of wasted minutes bringing him down from his cell. (He eventually loses the argument, turning to me and rolling his big hazel eyes.)

Even dressed in thick prison-issue black-spotted shirt and grey trousers, it is easy to see why Ambrus had a Stockholm Syndrome effect, particularly on women. (One female teller who was an early victim, before Ambrus thought to bring roses with him, was quoted in the Hungarian press as saying, "It's a shame we were at the beginning, because we didn't get the flowers.")

Bearing a close resemblance to Colin Farrell (though it is Johnny Depp who is rumoured to be portraying him in the Warner Bros production), Ambrus has a strong jaw, a knowing grin, and an athletic build befitting the day job he held during the years he was robbing: hockey goalie for one of Hungary's best-known teams, UTE.

His exploits on the ice, however, were not as successful as off. "I was a disaster as a goal keeper," he admits, which could even be an understatement. In a single game in 1995, he let in 23 goals, needless to say they didn't win. But he was kept on both because the team had no money to pay better players and also because he was so devoted - never missing practice - that his discipline and maniacal work ethic were legendary around the league. Now, because of his notoriety as a bank robber, a flag flies above the dilapidated UTE stadium where he played reading, "Tally ho Whisky Robber!" His jersey, or replicas of it, are regular items at Budapest auctions, reportedly garnering over £100 apiece.

Ambrus seems sincerely surprised by his following. Yet it wasn't completely by chance. He says he took weeks, sometimes months, to plan a job. "Anyone can go and grab money," says Ambrus, who can recite minute details of the lives of such cult outlaw figures as Ronnie Biggs and Che Guevera. "But that's not the point. I wanted it to have an afterlife."

The Whisky Robber's streak began on 22 January, 1993, when the world geopolitical order was experiencing a brief hiccup, namely the post-Communist era. Like the rest of the former Soviet bloc, Hungary was struggling with by-products of democracy it hadn't before seen: unemployment, homelessness, and a spiralling crime rate. And the corruption and cronyism that were rampant under Communism were now plaguing the process of privatising the country's resources, property and businesses, leaving those without connections to power with nothing. The level of disgust was so high that people began describing the era they were living in as "szabad rablas" or "free robbery," a term that hadn't been used in Hungary since the Nazis pillaged Budapest at the end of the Second World War.

Attila Ambrus was also nearing a breaking point. He still had no Hungarian citizenship despite having applied for asylum after escaping from Ceausescu's Romania in 1988 underneath a freight train. And though he'd recently secured an official spot on UTE's hockey roster, he wasn't being paid a player's salary because of the way he had landed the job.

Five years earlier - only month after arriving in Hungary - he had phoned the hockey club, which had just won its seventh straight national championship, and claimed to be a goalkeeper. He talked his way into getting a trial that went so incredibly badly - the players made a sport of trying to break his nose, and succeeded - that, out of pity, he was taken on. "We thought it was amazing that someone wanted to be a part of our team so badly even though they'd obviously had nothing to do with hockey in their life," says George Pek, team captain at the time.

Ambrus was made the club's janitor. Among his duties was to drive the Zamboni, the ice-clearing machine, around the rink before games. He slept on a camp bed in a cupboard at the stadium. "He had literally nothing," said Janos Egri, a UTE player.

Ambrus ate his meals at churches and to make ends meet, worked as a gravedigger, a door-to-door pen salesman and a dog walker. In 1991, he found that he could make some money smuggling animal pelts into Austria. The scheme worked for two years until the border guards began demanding too much in the way of bribes to let him through.

By January, 1993, Ambrus was deep in debt from another bribe to a ministry official he hoped would get him his citizenship papers. "I tried to toe the line," he says. "But I finally realised I didn't have a chance."

There was a post office near his flat that many people used as a savings bank. It clearly had no security guard or camera and had a staff of just two or three.

On Tuesday, 19 January, Ambrus skipped hockey practice and stayed in his flat (he'd moved here from the stadium after a spell living in a former paddock) for three days, drinking whisky and pondering the commission of a robbery. It wasn't as if this was the first time he'd done such a thing. He had spent two unspeakable years in a Romanian juvenile detention facility for stealing musical instruments from a bar in Czikszereda, a town near his birthplace, Fitod. That conviction had earned him a classification as a "class enemy", further darkening whatever bleak future awaited him there.

Seeing no other viable options, he decided to commit the crime but resolved not to hurt anyone. He went to a flea market, where he bought a wig and a toy gun. The following afternoon, he burst into the post office, yelling, "Freeze!" Within minutes, he had collected the loot from the tellers, locked the employees inside and run a circuitous route home, where he promptly threw up.

His haul wasn't much by Thomas Crown standards, but the 548,000 forints (£1,500) was more than he'd ever seen. The only problem was that it was too easy. Within a year, he'd pulled 10 jobs and the Budapest police realised they had a serial robber on their hands.

"We used to say he was born under a lucky star," says Lajos Varju, Budapest's former robbery chief, who dejectedly quit the force in 1998 with the Whisky Robber still at large. Puffing on a Salem, Varju concedes it is only recently that he has been able to talk calmly about the case that dominated his life for six years.

Fairly or not, Varju took most of the heat for the slapstick mishaps that enabled the Whisky Robber's streak to continue. Once the police confused another building for the bank and ran right past Ambrus. Another time, two members of the department crashed their cars into each other en route to a robbery scene.

But the bigger problems with the investigation had little to do with Varju, who told me that for lack of a better training programme, he taught himself to be a detective by watching Columbo reruns. He led his 13-man team from a ramshackle command post with no working computer. His deputy had crashed so many police cars that he had earned a nickname that translates as "Mound of Arsehead". His forensics expert, who occasionally reported for duty in top hat and tails, was known as the Dance Instructor because he taught ballet on the side. The department had so few cars that his men often had to hitch rides with journalists. Once, in 1996, Ambrus was caught in action on a low-quality bank surveillance camera. Varju sent the tape to Scotland Yard to be enhanced, but they were unable to salvage a usable image. Despondent, Varju resorted to seeking help on the case from a psychic.

"We knew he was a soldier or some kind of athlete because he ruled the situation when he was in action and would jump over counters like a cat," Varju says. "He was focused, disciplined and, oddly, really polite."

It wasn't much to go on but the media ate it up. "It's not impossible that he's giving the money to the poor," wrote the daily Nepszava in 1996.

In fact he wasn't. Ambrus became a regular at the city's roulette tables and at the Cat's Club, a brothel just north of Budapest, frequented by politicos and mobsters. (The owner, later killed in a mafia car bombing, used to yell, "Chicky Panther!" when he showed up, referring to his hockey nickname that was derived from his catlike speed and his roots in Czikszereda.)

Attila had also never been on a plane before, but after becoming a bank robber he visited exotic locales around the world including Egypt, Kenya, Thailand and Bali, with a revolving group of girlfriends.

His teammates were shocked when he first showed up at the stadium in a shiny new Opal car. "After all, he was still wearing our borrowed underwear," says Janos Egri. Ambrus claimed he was working as a bodyguard, or that his pelt-smuggling was going well. No one pried further. Almost all of them had their own questionable sidelines, and Ambrus was generous with the money, even paying for the renovation of the team's foetid locker room.

But as the years wore on and his criminal profile grew, the strain of living a double life began wearing Ambrus down. He was paranoid about being recognised. And thanks to his well-publicised success, the banks around town were hiring armed guards and installing alarm systems and time-lock safes.

But Ambrus couldn't stop. "I gave the authorities a ride so often, it became something of a sport," he says.

He spent nights scouring the city, drawing up an illustrated list of financial institutions, and giving them a score between one and five for degree of difficulty.

In the summer of 1996, he took on an accomplice, his teammate Gabor Orban, whose father was the team's coach and a famous name in Hungarian hockey. The two UTE players pulled off 13 robberies together, once hitting two banks in the same day, disguised as policemen.

Their last gig was on 15 January, 1999. The police were on their heels as soon as they burst out of the bank and they caught up with Orban on the banks of the Danube. Ambrus made it back to his flat, where he grabbed his passport, his dog and his car and zoomed off toward the Romanian border. Minutes before he reached the checkpoint, a fax arrived at the border with his description. He surrendered without a fight.

Ambrus, who somewhat gleefully confessed to all of his crimes, was relieved at first to be in custody. Finally he could tell his secret - and the fact that he was handsome and bright ensured that every media outlet let him do just that. The Hungarian rapper, Gangsta Zoli, wrote a hit song called "The Whisky Robber is the King". A cabaret show played in Budapest with a number in which a female bank teller sings about wanting to get robbed by "you super prince, the Whisky Robber".

Then, six months after his arrest, Ambrus learnt that the government was filing attempted-murder charges against him. Though he had started using a real gun after the first few robberies, he had only ever fired it at the scene of one crime. Ambrus was adamant that those shots were directed into the sky to ward off a group of people who had given chase.

Ambrus told his captors he would break out in protest, but since no one had ever escaped the facility he wasn't taken seriously. But on 10 July, 1999, Ambrus climbed a wall in the courtyard, got into the adjacent administrative building, then lowered himself 48ft to the ground on a line made of bedsheets, shoelaces and phone cable.

Over the next three months, despite being the target of a massive manhunt that included forces from Interpol, he pulled off three more robberies. Meanwhile, "Go Whisky Robber" T-shirts and badges were being sold on street corners. Newspapers featured doctors giving advice on what type of plastic surgery he should have to elude capture. Public opinion polls showed Ambrus's popularity at 80 per cent. People were quoted saying they wouldn't help the police if they saw him. The beleagured Budapest police chief finally gave a press conference, saying only: "This is human stupidity. Full stop."

Finally, in October, police got a tip that led them to the flat where Ambrus was hiding. He was recaptured in a raid and thrown in an all-glass cage built for a serial killer. "One less small fish," read a headline in the Hungarian daily Nepszava.

Though the court threw out all of the attempted murder charges, the allegations seemed to serve the purpose the government wanted by significantly damaging his reputation as a non-violent criminal.

"I've retired my business card," Ambrus says now, shaking his head and smiling in disbelief at the craziness of his life on the run. "I'm through with the circus. I just want to have a peaceful life." Regardless of what his future holds when he is released in 2016 at the age of 49, Ambrus seems destined at least to remain an icon of a bygone era, a figure trapped inside the post-Communist snow globe he ended up in when he rode into Hungary beneath a train in 1988, just before the whole scene was shaken up, by the rapid modernisation of this part of the world. Like John Dillinger in the American Depression era, it is all but certain Ambrus could not have carried out his 29-robbery streak - nor become the sensation that he did - at any other time or place in history.

Whether that makes Ambrus feel like one of the luckiest or unluckiest people in the world is not an easy question for him to answer. On the floor of his cell is a large encyclopedia of Hungarian history, Magyarok Kronikaja. On page 816, next to the entry about the Balkan War, the chronological reference book tells the story of the Transylvanian hockey goalie who became known as the Whisky Robber, "a national fairy-tale hero". On good days at least, Ambrus can read it and convince himself it was worth it.

'The Ballad of the Whisky Robber', by Julian Rubinstein (John Murray, £12.99) is published on 7 November. To order a copy for £11.99 (inc p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

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