Three and a half hours northeast of Budapest by train, in a quaint village in a rural, hilly part of Hungary near the famous Tokaj wine region, sits a rarely visited tourist attraction. Were it easier to enter the hulking yellow limestone building on Satoraljaujhely’s Main Street, perhaps more people would have heard of the place. But the former underwear factory, situated between a barber shop and a pizza parlor, now serves as the country’s maximum security prison. And among its inmates is the man who may be the world’s most popular living folk hero.
As if something out of either a Coen brothers comedy or a Shakespearean tragedy, the “gentleman bandit” Attila Ambrus grabbed a piece of post-Iron Curtain history and ran with it so outrageously through 1990s Budapest that he has inspired a cabaret theater show, a hit song, a Hollywood film deal and a worldwide following that continues to grow. On Oct. 6, 2005 — a full six years since his capture following the largest manhunt in modern Eastern European history — supporters in 12 cities around the world toasted the so-called Whiskey Robber’s 38th birthday.
“Too bad I won’t be able to clink glasses with anyone,” Ambrus told Salon in a visitor’s room in the prison 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, is the very definition of such a figure, a man whose legend came to symbolize his countrymen’s frustration with their corrupt leaders. From 1993 to 1999, he robbed 29 formerly state-owned banks, post offices and private travel agencies in a crime spree that played out like a serialized satire of the times. Like the rest of the former Soviet bloc, Hungary was struggling with byproducts of democracy it hadn’t before seen: unemployment, homelessness and a spiraling crime rate.
Wearing a flea-market selection of bad costumes and hairpieces, Ambrus handed flowers to female bank tellers during his heists, mailed bottles of wine to the police chief and once disguised himself as the head of the robbery division to pull off a job. Since his identity was then unknown, the media dubbed him the “Whiskey Robber” because witnesses always spotted him downing shots of Johnnie Walker in a pub across from the bank before shaking the place down. “He didn’t rob banks,” editorialized the Hungarian daily Magyar Hirlap after Ambrus’ arrest. “He merely performed a peculiar redistribution of the wealth that differed from the elites only in its method.”
In Hungary today, popular support for Ambrus has dipped from its 80 percent peak in 1999, when his streak came to a wild end. But he is enough of an antiestablishment figure that his name is still invoked at protest rallies. His man-of-the-people image, good looks and “bandit honesty” have given him a universal third-party-candidate appeal. He is often referred to as the “modern-day Robin Hood,” even though he did not share his loot with the poor. And he is distinct from other internationally known modern folk heroes such as John Dillinger and Ned Kelly, in that he never hurt anyone in the commission of his crimes.
Not that that has won everyone’s heart. “I can’t believe that several million people exist who can be a fan of a criminal,” says Lajos Varju, the robbery-division chief of the Budapest police department who unsuccessfully tracked Ambrus for six years. “But the social situation created this.”
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Today, Ambrus resides in a small cement cell in the Satoraljaujhely (pronounced roughly as sha-toh-rai-oh-hay) maximum security prison, along with several hundred of Hungary’s most violent criminals. Ambrus, despite having never seriously injured anyone, is treated as a major security threat, mostly because of the cartoonlike escape he made in July 1999, rappelling from a bedsheet from a fourth-floor window of the Budapest city jail.
That event made his story international news, with coverage of the frenzied hunt for him making papers from London to Sydney to New York (and in Salon.) After three more outlandish robberies — he once had to outswim police in the Danube River — Ambrus was finally captured, convicted and sentenced.
I first interviewed Ambrus four years ago in the Budapest Municipal Courthouse during a break in his sentencing hearing. 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.”
Today he’s mellowed, but the fighting spirit that took root in his rocky childhood doesn’t need much provocation to show its face. When the prison guard, who was smoking a cigarette outside the small glass-partitioned booth in which we are speaking, tells us we have only half an hour left, Ambrus immediately begins arguing that more time should be added because of the 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 gray pants, it is easy to see why Ambrus has had a Stockholm-syndrome effect on those around him, particularly women. (One female teller, who was a victim before Ambrus thought to bring roses with him to the banks, was quoted in the Hungarian media 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 Johnny Depp is reportedly interested in portraying him in a Warner Bros. production), Ambrus has a strong jaw, an easy, knowing grin and an athletic build befitting the day job he held during the years he was robbing: goaltending for one of Hungary’s biggest professional hockey teams.
Ambrus’ exploits on the ice, however, were not as successful as off. “I was a disaster as a goaltender,” he admits. Which is something of an understatement. In a single game in 1995, he gave up 23 goals, needless to say in a losing effort. During one five-game stretch, he gave up 88. But he was kept on because the team had no money to pay better players and also because he was so devoted — never missing a 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 outdoor UTE stadium where he played, reading “Tallyho Whiskey Robber!” His jersey, or replicas of it, are regular items at Budapest auctions, reportedly garnering a few hundred dollars apiece.
“I can’t believe how many times they’ve sold ‘my’ jersey now,” he says, shaking his head and comedically raising his combable eyebrows. For all of his exploits and derring-do, he is humble and down-to-earth, sheepishly admitting his inability to be faithful to any of his girlfriends and the justice of his being incarcerated. “I’m a criminal in every bone of my body,” he says.
But he clearly thinks of himself as distinct from the rest of the prison population. “I don’t mean it as a claim,” he says, “but the people here aren’t exactly graduates of the National Science Academy.” Nor of course is Ambrus. But for an autodidact refugee, he has come a long way. He recently finished his general equivalency high school degree (with straight A’s) and is trying to figure out if he can continue on to college via correspondence courses.
Although his mood is decidedly better and he is no longer threatening suicide, as did when I first began visiting him, he is still bitter about the government’s attempt to try him for attempted murder. “The one thing I swore I would never do was hurt anyone,” he says. But what really gets him on a roll is the news. He watches CNN on a 14-inch color set mounted in the corner of his cell and reads six or seven newspapers a day from the library. While I’m turning a page in my notes, he mentions Jayson Blair and Judith Miller, saying, “What’s the story with the New York Times? You can’t trust that paper, can you?”
This feeds into a rant that seems to go on as long his robbery spree. “It’s the same throughout history,” he says. “Whoever has the money has the power. They are the establishment and they fix the system, make the rules … Hungary is not so different now than it was under communism. As soon as someone new gets into power, they eat up everything. Sometimes there’s no other way to fight.” He mentions that gangs from Sicily and Marseilles and outlaws from Che Guevara to the IRA all supported their political causes by robbing banks.
In retrospect, however, he says that his streak continued at least in part because he “got caught up in the consumerism … In America for instance, I wouldn’t last 15 minutes without being arrested,” he says, meaning the temptation to steal something would be too great. “But I can’t say that I regret it. I tried a lot of other paths that didn’t work out. I guess this was my destiny.”
The Whiskey Robber’s streak began on Jan. 22, 1993, Bill Clinton’s first day as president of the United States. The world geopolitical order, it would turn out, was in a brief hiccup, the post-communist era. It was a disillusioning time for the people and for some of the political leaders. The economy in Hungary was so bad that the prime minister decided to bring in extra money by renting out rooms in Parliament.
Corruption and cronyism, thought to have been rampant under communism, were plaguing the process of privatizing the country’s resources, real estate and businesses, leaving nothing for those without connections to power. 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 World War II.
In 1993, Ambrus had only recently secured a position on the UTE hockey roster. He still had no Hungarian citizenship despite having applied for political asylum after escaping from Ceausescu’s Romania in 1988 underneath a freight train. After a month in Hungary, he phoned the UTE hockey club, which had won seven straight national championships.
Claiming to be a goaltender, he talked his way into getting a tryout 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 simply 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, the team’s captain.
Ambrus was made the club’s janitor. Among his duties was to drive the Zamboni around the rink before games and between periods. He slept on a cot in a closet at the stadium. “He had literally nothing,” says 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, a dog walker and a building superintendent. In 1991, he found that he could make money smuggling animal pelts from a poacher in Transylvania to a mountain-lodge owner in Austria’s Tryoleans. The scheme worked for two years until the border guards began demanding too much bribe money to let him through.
By January 1993, Ambrus was deep in debt from a bribe paid to a ministry official he hoped would get him his citizenship papers. “I tried to toe the line,” he says. “But I finally realized I didn’t have a chance.”
There was a post office down the street from his apartment that many people used like a savings bank. It clearly had no security guard or security camera and operated with a staff of just two or three.
Ambrus skipped hockey practice and stayed home (he’d moved from the stadium first to a former horse paddock and then to a small apartment) for three days, drinking whiskey and pondering the commission of a robbery. It wasn’t as though he’d never done such a thing. He had spent two unspeakable years in a Romanian juvenile detention facility for stealing music instruments from a local pub in Czikszereda, the eastern Transylvania mountain town near his birthplace, Fitod (population 1,500). That conviction had earned him a classification as a “class enemy,” further darkening whatever bleak future awaited him there.
Seeing no other good options, he decided to do the job but resolved not to hurt anyone. He went to a flea market and bought a wig and a toy gun. The following afternoon, he burst into the small post office, yelling, “Freeze!” Within minutes, he collected the loot from the tellers, locked the employees inside, and then ran a circuitous route home, where he promptly puked.
His haul wasn’t much by Thomas Crown standards, but the 548,000 forints ($5,900) was more than he’d ever seen in his life. In fact, the problem was that it was too easy. Within a year’s time he’d pulled 10 jobs, and the Budapest police — and media — realized they had a serial robber on their hands.
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“We used to say he was born under the star of luck,” says Varju, the robbery-division head who dejectedly quit the police force in 1998 with the Whiskey Robber still at large. Puffing on a Salem, Varju concedes that only recently has he 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 Whiskey Robber’s streak to continue. Once the police confused another building for the victimized 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 for lack of a better training program taught himself to be a detective by watching “Columbo” reruns. He led his 13-man team from a ramshackle command post on the fifth floor of robbery headquarters, with no working computer. His deputy had crashed so many police cars that he had earned a nickname that translates as “Mound of Asshead.” His forensics expert, who occasionally reported for duty in top hat and tails, was known as Dance Instructor because he taught ballet on the side.
The department had so few cars that his men often had to hitch rides with the media to crime scenes. Once in 1996, after Scotland Yard pronounced a discount bin surveillance camera tape of the Whiskey Robber in action worthless, 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 really focused, really 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 fixture at the city’s roulette tables and at the Cat’s Club, a high-class brothel frequented by politicos and mobsters in Szentendre, 45 minutes north of Budapest. (The owner, who was later killed in a mafia car bombing, used to yell, “Chicky Panther!” when Ambrus showed up, referring to his hockey nickname that was derived from his catlike speed and his roots in Czikszereda.)
Ambrus had also never been on a plane before, but after becoming a bank robber he visited exotic locales around the world, including Egypt, Tunisia, 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. “After all, he was wearing our underwear,” Egri says. Ambrus claimed he was working as a bodyguard for important people or that the pelt-smuggling business was going well. No one pried further. Almost all of them had their own questionable side endeavor, and Ambrus was generous with the money, paying for food and drinks and solely financing the renovation of the team’s fetid locker room.
As the years wore on and his criminal profile grew, the strain of living a double life began wearing Ambrus down. He was worried about being recognized. And thanks to his well-publicized success, the banks around town were hiring armed guards and installing alarm systems and time-lock safes.
But Ambrus couldn’t stop. “It became like an old-fashioned game,” he says. “Once I got into the role, I got a kind of urge. And I managed to give the authorities a ride so many times, it became something of a sport. After a while, my main point was to succeed.”
He spent nights scouring the city, drawing up an encyclopedia of Budapest’s financial institutions, diagramming each one and giving each a score between 1 and 5 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 one of the most famous names in Hungarian hockey history. 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 Jan. 15, 1999. The police were on their heels as soon as they burst out of the bank, and they caught up with Orban on the Buda side of the Danube. Ambrus made it back to his apartment, where he grabbed his passport, his dog and his car and zoomed off toward the Romanian border. Only minutes before he approached the checkpoint, a fax came through at the guard station 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 because he turned out to be handsome and bright, every media outlet let him do exactly that. The Hungarian rapper Gangsta Zoli wrote a chart-topping song called “The Whiskey Robber Is the King.” A cabaret show played in one of Budapest’s theaters, including a number in which a female bank teller sings about wanting to get robbed by “You superprince, the Whiskey Robber.”
Then, six months after his arrest, Ambrus learned 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 never fired it except at the scene of one crime. Ambrus was adamant that those shots were clearly fired into the sky to ward off a group of people who had given chase. (The court ultimately agreed and dismissed the charges.)
Ambrus told his captors he would escape in protest but since no one had ever escaped the facility, he wasn’t taken seriously. But on July 10, 1999, Ambrus climbed a wall in the courtyard, got into the adjacent administrative building, then lowered himself nearly 50 feet 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 Whiskey Robber” T-shirts and pins were being sold on street corners. Newspapers featured doctors giving advice on what type of plastic surgery he should have to elude capture. People were quoted saying they wouldn’t help the police even if they saw him. The bedraggled Budapest police chief finally emerged with a statement, saying only, “This is human stupidity. Full stop.”
Finally in October the police got a tip that led them to the apartment where Ambrus was hiding, right in the middle of the city. He was recaptured in a raid and thrown in an all-glass cage built for a serial killer. In all, the total take from the robberies was 195 million forints, or $840,000, a large chunk of which went to his partner Orban, who had a 50 percent cut on his jobs. “One less small fish,” read a headline in Nepszava.
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“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 age 49, Ambrus seems destined at least to remain a relic of a bygone era, a figure trapped inside the postcommunist snow globe he penetrated when he rode into Hungary beneath a train in 1988, just before the whole scene was shaken up. Like Dillinger during the American Depression, it is all but certain that Ambrus could not have carried out his 29-robbery streak — or become the sensation that he did — at any other time or place.
Whether that makes Ambrus feel like one of the luckiest or unluckiest people in the world is not a question he knows yet how 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 Whiskey Robber, “a national fairy tale hero.” On good days at least, Ambrus says he can read it and convince himself it was worth it.
“Anyone can go there and grab the money,” he says. “But that’s not the point. I wanted it to have an afterlife.”