Vassilis Palaiokostas was born in 1966 in central Greece. The village of Moschofyto suffers fierce mountain cold in winter and life there was hard for Vassilis, his father and older brother Nikos. Later they moved to Trikala. The quietly intense boy went to work in the cheese factory for a couple of years but in 1979 began his criminal career stealing video equipment in company with Nikos. Later they teamed up with Costas Samaras, known as ‘The Artist’, a man who helped the brothers graduate from opportunistic thieving to sophisticated robberies of jewelers and banks.
From the beginning of this stage of his career, Vassilis displayed a certain style. Holding up a jeweler’s shop the gang bought themselves valuable time by blocking the local police into their own station. Around this time Vassilis developed a reputation as a friend of the poor by liberally rewarding his supporters with his loot.
As Greece lurched into the 1990s Vasillis took another step towards his image as the Greek Robin Hood. Imprisoned for trying to break his brother out of goal in Larissa by driving a tank through the walls, he soon escaped from another prison with the help of knotted bedsheets. His escapades were already taking on the character a Hollywood movie. His next heist would only develop it further.
In 1992 Vassilis, Nikos and The Artist robbed the bank in Kalambaka. They took a lot of cash from the safe and as they sped away from the pursuing police, Vassilis threw handfuls of banknotes out of the window of their stolen car. People rushed to scoop up the money, hampering the police pursuit and allowing Vassilis and his accomplices to escape again.
Now the legend of the Greek Robin Hood really began to bloom. The crime was notable as the biggest ever Greek bank robbery, netting 125 million drachmas. During their getaway the thieves stole another car but later returned the vehicle to its rightful owner with 15 000 drachmas for its use. According to a detective on the case, Vasilis even gave the car a polish.
Vassilis and his gang reappeared in 1995. Now practicing the traditional crime of the bandit, they kidnapped wealthy industrialist Alexander Haitoglou as he left his villa in Thessaloniki. The hostage was well treated and a large ransom of 260 million drachma requested. After reportedly enjoying the company of the bandits, Haitoglou was released unharmed. The police could not quite match that amount when they posted a reward of 250 million drachm. While the authorities fruitlessly scoured the country for the elusive outlaws, Vasilis was handing out large sums from the ransom to local people, including 100 000 drachmas as a dowry for orphan girls unable to raise it themselves.
Disappearing into the mountains yet again, Vassilis was involved in a car accident in December 1999. Stoned and slightly injured, Vassilis effectively gave himself away to his rescuers. He was sent to goal for 25 years on the kidnapping charge. Firstly, in Corfu then in the maximum security Korydallos prison he made several unsuccessful escape attempts. But in June 2006 he found a novel way to regain his liberty.
With a gun held at his head by Nikos, a frightened helicopter pilot landed on the Korydallos prison exercise yard. As the guards raised the alarm, Vassilis and an Albanian cell mate scooted across the yard and into the helicopter which took off again. Once more Vassilis was free. The price of freedom included an entry onto the most wanted list.[i]
In June 2008 another wealthy industrialist spent some time as a guest of the affable Vassilis. When the reputedly 12 million Euro ransom was paid, the bandit sent his captive home in a stolen BMW. But Vassilis had little time to enjoy and redistribute the proceeds. He was tracked down and arrested in August 2008, saying to the police who arrested him ‘I played and lost, you are victorious.’ The following January he was in Athens for a pretrial hearing. Outside the court a crowd of famers and anarchists shouted for the bandit’s freedom and cried insults at the police.
By now, the activities of Vassilis and his companions were being seen in political terms. The economic and political woes of Greece produced a climate in which handing out stolen money to the poor, eluding and fooling the police as well as staging spectacular jailbreaks were seen by many as justifiable acts against the system. Vasillis was a hero, an outlaw hero.
But not to the authorities, He was imprisoned in Korydallos, along with Rizai, to await a February trail with a guaranteed outcome. The day before the trail, as the prisoners exercised in the yard, a helicopter roared overhead. On board was, it is said, Rizai’s blonde girlfriend Mitropia menacing the pilot with a hand grenade and a machine gun. She dropped a rope ladder and Vassilis and Rizai swarmed up it into the aircraft and their second flight to freedom. Fire from the guards damaged the helicopter but a successful emergency landing saw Vassilis, Rizai and Mitropia get clean away. [ii]
Floundering in the depths of the global financial crisis, the conservative Greek government of the time was heavily criticized by the opposition. The conservative daily Eleftheros Typos blared ‘Carbon-copy fiasco’ and ‘Embarrassment’ at the news. A public prosecutor called for an investigation while the jail director and the inspector of jails both lost their jobs.[iii]
Although vanished from the authorities, including a CIA anti—terror unit said to be hunting him, Vassilis continued his Robin Hood activities providing money to the poor of the Trikala area for expensive medical treatment. He drove around the country in stolen VW Toureg’s and continued to rob banks. He escaped several close calls with the police and, another mark of the Robin Hood image, penned letters to the press justifying his actions and proclaiming that he had never used violence. Unwisely, he authenticated the letter with an inked impression of his fingerprint.
In June 2010 a letter bomb addressed to the Public Order Minister of Greece killed his assistant. Police said they found a fingerprint of the outlaw on the remains of the device and Vassilis Palaiokostas instantly transformed from criminal to terrorist. He is now the subject of a 1.4 million Euro reward and almost as many rumours. He is often sighted and occasionally dodges police fiercely determined to capture him again. Known locally as ‘The Phantom’, he is thought to be living within a sympathetic community feeling betrayed and oppressed by the penurious state of contemporary Greece. Everyone waits for him to strike again.[iv]
[iv] ‘The Uncatchable’, a BBC documentary by Jeff Maysh on the life and crimes of Vassilis Palaiokostas was broadcast in 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/special/2014/newsspec_8700/index.html