Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 9, 23 August 1999

The Great Escape C S A R D A S:
The Great Escape
The public's view of Attila Ambrus's prison breakout

Gusztav Kosztolanyi

The police, clad in bulletproof vests and armed with submachine guns, blockade the main roads leading out of the capital, comb the bus and railway stations; helicopters circle overhead, searching for their prey; the M1 and M7 motor ways are closed to traffic; car boots are opened and searched; the fast train to Bucharest is boarded by 50 officers, with the order to open fire if the fugitive sought is armed.

Such scenes are familiar on cinema screens. Here we have all the trappings of a certain genre of entertainment: the cunning criminal who has escaped the clutches of the forces of law and order, running rings around them, one man defying the establishment successfully in spite of the odds being against him, making a mockery of the technical and numerical superiority of his pursuers. Only a notorious villain could provoke such an expenditure of effort and public funds, could cause quite such a stir. Here we are dealing with Hungary's most notorious bank robber, Attila Ambrus, whose career, culminating in his capture on 15 January and subsequent escape from police custody on 10 July has fascinated the country. His story and the interest it has kindled affords an insight into some of the changes that have occurred in Hungary since the collapse of Communism.

Starting young

Attila Ambrus was born on 6 October 1967 in Transylvania, an only child. His father, 62 year old Karoly Ambrus, who resides in Csikszereda, spoke in a recent interview about his son's background (see Nok Lapja 31 from 4 August). Attila was one and a half years old when his mother deserted the family to become a Jehovah's Witness. Until her death in 1977, he was brought up by his grandmother before moving in with his aunt. As a teenager, he was already involved in petty theft, stealing a band's sound equipment from the canteen of a knitwear factory. Although he was aided and abetted by accomplices, he chose not to denounce them and his father was left to bail him out. He was sent to a remand centre from which he was released in 1988. For three months, he worked at the same firm as his father before disappearing into thin air.

The local police issued an arrest warrant against him for failing to report to them (it was current practice then for former inmates of corrective institutions to put in an appearance once a month), but to no avail. A few months later, his father received a postcard from Budapest informing him that his son had settled in quite happily there. After the revolution in Romania, his father visited Attila in Hungary. He had become an ice hockey player, earning a modest living from a variety of jobs, saving up for a flat. That was the last time father and son met.

In 1993, Attila embarked on a different career path: armed robbery, with a predilection for co-operative savings banks, post offices, travel agents and the hapless OTP Savings Bank. The 27 robberies he has confessed to include:

  • six in 1993, proceeds totalling HUF 10,134,000 (USD 42,000)
  • three in 1994, with a haul of HUF 6,362,450 (USD 26,500)
  • two in 1995, worth HUF 5,600,000 (USD 23,000)
  • four in 1996, bringing in HUF 37,639,000 (USD 156,000)
  • five in 1997, when his success reached its peak, with a staggering HUF 59,690,000 (USD 248,000) stolen - on one single day, 10 March, he even carried out two successful robberies
  • two in 1998, worth HUF 10,000,000 (USD 41,500)
  • two in 1999, netting HUF 18,240,000 (USD 76,000), the bulk of which was stolen on the day of his arrest.

The police have only been able to prove his involvement in eight of these.

A gentleman robber?

The nickname by which he has come to be known, "whisky robber", refers to his habit of dropping in for a dram in nearby pubs to steel his nerves before proceeding to action. The myth that has been created around him (and which he has been only too keen both to propagate and manipulate) is closely allied to latter-day stereotypes of the dashing, debonair rogue, suppressing the brutality and potential lethal outcome of his selfish and reckless deeds. He considers himself more refined than your average hood, more elegant, more gallant, presenting bouquets of flowers to the women cashiers at the end of each robbery. He never barked orders, but was always polite and well-spoken, thanking the staff for their co-operation. Although he carried a weapon, he never used it and only once resorted to violence (otherwise too crude an instrument for him). He was intelligent, outwitting the police and even masquerading as the head of the Budapest Metropolitan Police Force's sub department dealing with robberies. He possesses an ability to charm some of his victims, causing one of then to lament that it was a pity that her workplace had been one of the first objects of his attention, as the notion of presenting bouquets had not yet occurred to him. As she pointed out, one of his bouquets would fetch a very respectable price indeed on the market!

This soft-hearted nature extended to animals: he adored his pet dog above all else, even to the extent that concern for its well-being was his downfall: he returned home for the animal before attempting to flee across the border to Romania, losing precious time (his accomplice, Gabor Orban, was apprehended and betrayed him, so that the police at the Artand frontier post had been alerted to his arrival).

The official view

By contrast, the official picture that emerges casts a slightly less charitable light on his activities: he had spent his youth preparing for wielding arms, training as a policeman and a security guard, earning himself a reputation as a good shot. His operations were meticulously planned, with several stake outs to familiarise himself with the terrain preceding each attack. Everything was worked out down to the tiniest detail with split second accuracy (he knew that he would only have three minutes at his disposal as this was the average time that elapsed between the alarms going off and the arrival of the police on the scene).

Ambrus had freely admitted to the police that he would not have hesitated in shooting if he had encountered any serious resistance to his demands amongst his victims, nor did he balk at actually firing his weapon on a couple of occasions. For example, on 11 March 1998, in Bekasmegyer, whilst robbing the branch of the OTP on Jeno Heltai Square. In the course of making his escape, he fired on to the floor at the feet of the people who had crowded around the rear exit. It was only a matter of luck that noone was injured by the ricochet. Taking advantage of the confusion thus created, he ran outside, but as soon as he noticed that he was being followed, he brandished his gun threateningly as a warning to back off before firing a number of shots. He then forced a Skoda driver to hand over his vehicle to use as a getaway car, keeping the police at a distance by firing randomly, showing a cynical disregard for bystanders.

In November of 1993, he once again showed his true colours during the robbery of the small Budapest Tourist office. When he began threatening with his gun, one of the members of staff lost her nerve, began screaming and tried to escape. He chased her, grabbing her by the pony tail and tearing a handful of hair out by the roots. Once he had subdued her, he almost broke her colleague's hand whilst tearing down her pullover to break her resistance.

On several occasions he also attacked the security guards who had already surrendered to him, hitting them whilst they had their hands in the air, or trampling on their feet whilst they lay spread-eagled on the floor. Even the famous bouquets served a more sinister purpose than charming the ladies: they were used to conceal his gun. Afterwards, once the robbery had been completed, they had outlived their usefulness and could be given away as part of a PR exercise.

Between being remanded in custody and escaping, he was transformed into a popular hero by the media, eager to exploit the drama of his tale to satisfy the appetite for sensationalism of a hungry audience. One tabloid orchestrated a meeting between Ambrus and one of his main opponents, the genuine one-time head of the anti-robbery sub department, Lajos Varju, whilst the commercial TV station TV2 devoted a special programme to him. The two writers who interviewed him negotiated a book deal with him, agreeing to act as ghost writers to improve the style and readability of his autobiographical jottings. They are also considering producing a film script on the basis of the material.

This provides further proof (if any were needed) that he wishes to retain "artistic control" over his persona, the romanticised version of his life and "work" and was the motive behind his complaints to the interviewers about the treatment he received from his fellow prisoners who openly idolised him. Flocking around him, they clamoured for his autograph, addressing him as king. He also played to the gallery in condemning the loathed white-collar swindlers who regularly embezzle small amounts whilst hiding behind a facade of respectability. He was to have the maximum sentence imposed upon him to serve as a deterrent to anyone who might wish to emulate him whilst they get away with their petty filching day after day. He had not robbed a single pensioner, he declared to them, layering on the pathos, taking only from the state.

Although they may appear wildly exaggerated, such statements of discontent strike a chord with many of those who have lost out in the last decade: one of Ambrus's sympathisers echoed his argument concerning whose money was being stolen: "The money he took wasn't the state's but the bank's. There are scoundrels amongst the bankers. The money I had set aside for my old age, to cover the expenses of my illness and my funeral was in a bank that went to the wall not all that long ago. I'll get it back at some stage after the liquidation if I live that long! What was the amount that he robbed? A trifle compared to what disappears in banks!"

Immediately prior to the escape, Ambrus learned, to his great chagrin, that he was to be charged not only with robbery, but also with firearms offences and attempted murder, which would increase the duration of his expected sentence from 7 years to life imprisonment. He complained bitterly to his lawyer that these charges were unfair, that he should not be accused of more than he had admitted to.


Then came the escape itself, hyped up into a spectacular event, a feat of audacity and daring, again the stuff that legends are made of (and extremely embarrassing to the authorities). He managed to climb over a , four-metre wall monitored by security camera unnoticed before making his way to the third floor of the adjacent office building. Here he broke down a door and blocked the entrance to the room using a safe, before removing the bars from the window. Dangling on a telephone cable (demonstrating his ability to improvise should circumstances require), he managed to reach first floor level before jumping the remaining distance and making a run for it.

Reprisals against the negligent guards were swift: any suspicion of collusion had to be nipped in the bud (though rumours to that effect could not be prevented from doing the rounds). In the course of the disciplinary proceedings it emerged that the officer who was supposed to be keeping an eye on the camera pictures was not at his post, returning only when it was too late. Even then, he failed to raise the alarm immediately, believing that Ambrus must have concealed himself somewhere on the premises, locking Ambrus's fellow inmates safely in their cells before organising a search.

As might be expected, the official reaction to the escape was one of outrage. The Forum of Independent Lawyers issued a statement condemning any manifestation of sympathy with the robber or any attempt to put him forward as a positive example, labelling him instead the "hero of getting rich quick". To sympathise with him in such a way, they declared, is to make a mockery of the millions of law abiding citizens who make an honest living. Decrying the lamentable lack of moral fibre, , they denounced those who support him and the false solidarity expressed for a man who openly admits that he is a criminal.

A similar tough stance was adopted by the Minister of Home Affairs, Sandor Pinter, who replied to journalists' questions about the media's portrayal of Ambrus that: "All I would ask of the media and the press is that they ask the people who were the victims of these robberies about this. Ask the people he threatened with his gun, the people who were present when he fired bullets into the walls shooting right past their ears, the people whose money he took. He stole over HUF 130 million (USD 540,000). Ask them how much of a hero they reckon him to be" (see Magyar Nemzet, 22 July 1999).

The revenge of the swindled

That public sympathy can be generated for an underworld figure is not a new phenomenon, even in Hungary. Sandor Rozsa, a highwayman, enjoyed much the same esteem as Dick Turpin, with elements of Robin Hood thrown in for good measure. Anti-authority sentiments find a safe vent and the appetite for adventure and escapism is satisfied by identifying with the larger than life hero who scorns all risk in his single-minded pursuit of his aims.

Ambrus's celebrity status can be understood as traditional in this respect. There has, however, been a change in values since the end of the Communist era. Profit and personal enrichment at any cost have become the openly pursued objectives of many sectors of society: the phenomenon of white-collar crime mentioned earlier, taking whatever you can get whilst maintaining a respectable front has assumed almost epidemic proportions. (Frigyes Solymosi expresses this facade rather neatly in an article in Magyar Nemzet, 31 July 1999, when he describes these miscreants as "pleasant-looking, well groomed middle-class" people who "plant cacti in their free time, are fond of birds and bring flowers to their secretaries".) Tax evasion, abusing the privileges of office, bribery have all become part and parcel of everyday life. I would, however, be the last to suggest that they are accepted or practised by everyone in Hungary, more often than not they elicit a shrug of resignation. The eleventh commandment - don't get caught - is increasingly the one to obey.

Viewed against this backdrop, Ambrus paradoxically seems to be more honest. He at least cannot be accused of hypocrisy. The crime of which he is guilty has also been perpetrated by certain members of the elite, corruption has been seen to penetrate the upper echelons in a series of scandals that have sent shock waves through the establishment. An unacceptably high number of disgraced individuals have been let off scot-free for misappropriating dizzying sums of money from the state (as Frigyes Solymosi points out in the same article, the way the market economy is managed and run in Hungary is in many respects merely an updated form of what went on under Communism, the difference being the blatant openness and lack of ideological justification, no matter how flimsy, put forward to account for this daylight robbery). Ambrus represents the simple man's revenge: he is only copying his so-called betters with less subtle means. Envy is alive and well in contemporary Hungary!

It is the response to Ambrus, the pandering to his narcissism in order to cash in on his notoriety that is symptomatic of the new mental landscape in Hungary. It is not shameful to toast him with a glass of his favourite tipple, he is entitled to bask in the "glory" accorded to him. His immorality is condoned, forgiven, shrugged off as a necessary evil. Commercial exploitation of his name has led to T-shirts and caps being manufactured, wishing him luck. An energy drink is also due to appear on the market with his face and nickname as an advertising ploy.

As we have already seen, the media were quick to jump onto the bandwagon, behaving in a deeply ambiguous way, jettisoning good taste and responsible reporting to boost circulation or ratings, abandoning any pretence of professional restraint. Such treatment of the subject matter would never have been possible under a state-controlled press. It is ironic that the Ambrus affair should provide a clear demonstration that privatisation resulted in the independence of the media.

Cracking down and toughening up

Alongside this, however, less tolerance is being shown by the government of petty crime, and Ambrus's escape was grist to the mill of those who wish to see anti-crime laws made more stringent and prison rules more punitive. On average, 15 to 25 prisoners escape each year in Hungary. 90% of these slip their captors at work-places outside the prisons themselves, for example at feedstuff mixing plants. These prisoners belong to a privileged group that come under the evsz regime - a more lenient set of rules pertaining to the conditions under which they serve their sentences. Inmates fortunate enough to qualify for the evsz are allowed to move freely within the prison itself, may receive visitors within the prison, may carry out work externally, are permitted to leave the prison for a maximum period of 24 hours at weekends as well as to visit seriously ill next of kin and attend funerals of family members. Last year, a total of 19,873 prisoners were allowed out on short leave under this system. 153 of them did not return.

The proposals for reform of the evsz would mean that not every prisoner would be entitled to benefit from its advantages, the principle excluded categories comprising repeat offenders and members of criminal organisations. Neither the prisoner nor the prisoner's lawyer will have the right to request application of the evsz regime, leaving it up to the governor's discretion as to whether to turn to the county courts (judges assess the merits of each case and have the power of decision). A greater proportion of time will have to be served before implementing the evsz is even taken into consideration (half of the time stipulated in the sentence) and confinement under remand would not be included in the calculation.

Overcrowding is already commonplace in Hungarian prisons, and the population is expected to swell even further as a result of the more severe penalties made possible under new legislation on, for example, drugs-related crime. Potentially, this problem could end up tarnishing Hungary's image abroad.

In the meantime, the manhunt for Attila Ambrus continues.

Gusztav Kosztolanyi, 22 August 1999

The following sources were used in writing this article:

HVG, 17 July 1999

Nok Lapja, 4 August 1999

Magyar Nemzet, 7, 11, 12, 13, 22, 24, 28, 30 and 31 July and 2, 4, 5, 13 and 17 August 1999




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