The €1m question: who’s got all the stolen money?

Belgian police go door-to-door as fleeing burglars dump their loot

It’s a mystery that would tax even Hercule Poirot: how to track down half a million euros in stolen cash when there are at least 22,000 suspects.

That is the challenge facing police in the small Belgian town of Zedelgem, where residents are in the grip of a classic moral conundrum. If you find a stash of money on the street, do you quietly pocket it – or do you take it to the police so they can return it to the owners?

The saga began on a Saturday evening in late April when a car raced through the quiet streets with a police motorcycle in pursuit. Desperate to lose their tail, the thieves flung their bounty – a safe stolen from a home in the next town – into the path of the motorcycle and made their getaway.

As it hit the road, the safe cracked open, spewing out €1m in €50, €100 and €200 notes. Residents rushed into the road, plucking the money from the air and gathering it up.

About €450,000 was recovered on the day, some of it snatched back from the hands of residents as police arrived to restore order. Now, authorities are after the rest. At the moment, they are appealing to people’s better nature. If that fails, there’s always jail.

Zedelgem’s mayor, Patrick Arnou, initially issued an appeal, saying anyone could hand the money in to authorities or the church with no questions asked. “I think a lot of people initially would pick up the money and try to keep it hidden, I can understand that,” he said. “But you also need to rethink: imagine if it was your savings that were stolen.”

Mr Arnou even set up a letterbox outside the city hall for people to anonymously return the cash. That plan backfired when thieves read about it and set about the box with a crowbar.

Some residents have decided to do the right thing and about €62,000 has been handed in to police. But two weeks on, €500,000 remains unaccounted for. The authorities are now playing neighbour against neighbour, encouraging anyone with video footage of the free-for-all to hand it in.

Residents say it has created a witch-hunt in Zedelgem, a town of 22,320 just outside the medieval city of Bruges. “If it were a €20 note, I’d pick it up, too,” Hector Clarysse, 77, told the Associated Press news agency. “[But] if you pick up so much money, you know it’s not normal.” “People talk about nothing else any more,” Mayor Arnou said. “In the street there is an atmosphere of bitterness.”

It is not just residents of Zedelgem under suspicion. People driving through the area at the time were said to have joined in. One person  reportedly  picked up more than €16,000 and drove 60 miles to Antwerp. But their conscience eventually got the better of them and they returned the money.