Thu, May 24, 2007 - Page 5 News List

PRC bank heist was for lotto tickets

AFP , BEIJING

Two ordinary bank workers have committed one of the most bizarre bank heists in recent Chinese history, spending most of the 51 million yuan (US$6.6 million) in stolen funds on lottery tickets.

Last month's bumbling but sensational heist -- and the country-wide manhunt that followed -- made headlines across China and once again trained a spotlight on management at the nation's graft-plagued banks.

Ren Xiaofeng, 34, and Ma Xiangjing, 37, were the vault managers at a branch of the Agricultural Bank of China in Handan city, Hebei Province, when they started "borrowing" money from the vault to play the state lottery.

The two thought that by buying millions of yuan in tickets they would eventually win back enough to replace the missing funds and allow them to leave their low paying jobs for a life of luxury, press reports said.

"I really regret that I have been so stupid in doing such a dumb thing," Ren was quoted in the local press as saying after his arrest on April 19.

"Ma Xiangdong and I both like to play the lottery, we thought that we could use the money and buy lottery tickets and win the big prize. We were going to pay the bank back, we never intended to rob the bank," he said.

The two first took 50,000 yuan from the vault on April 1 and spent it all on lottery tickets.

But after failing to win, they returned to the vault over the following days to take out more and more money.

They spent a total of 47 million yuan on lottery tickets in Handan, an industrial city in northern China about 300km southwest of Beijing.

"The most we ever spent on lottery tickets at one time was 14.1 million yuan, we were thinking that we could win double what we had stolen," said Ren, the father of two-year-old twins.

"But we didn't win. It was at that time that we knew we were finished and that we had better escape," he said. "So we decided we should steal some more money and flee Handan forever."

On April 13 and April 14 they stole another 8 million yuan. They told their wives they were going away on business, bought another 6 million yuan in lottery tickets, then parted ways.

As vault managers the two Handan natives, who had been promoted to their posts months earlier, had the only two keys to the vault.

The pair also knew the vault combination, a violation of bank policy. During their after-hours heists, they cut the electricity supply to the bank to disable video surveillance cameras.

On April 16, the bank reported the robbery, prompting a nationwide call for their arrests that was carried by all media outlets. Wanted posters went up everywhere, including in housing complexes in Beijing.

Media reports and lively Internet chatrooms speculated that the fugitives had elaborate escape plans and had already fled the country. Sightings were reported in many places. They were portrayed as latter-day Robin Hoods who duped the system.

But such speculation and romance was short lived. Ma was arrested in Beijing on April 18 with about 600,000 yuan in cash.

A day later, police arrested Ren in Lianyungang, a coastal city in Jiangsu where he had rented an apartment. Ren had 3.4 million yuan with him when arrested, reports said.

Ren and Ma are facing charges of corruption and the illegal use of public funds. They face execution if convicted.

The luckless pair have become the latest in a long line of employees to come undone for succumbing to temptation while working in China's notoriously corrupt banks.

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