-After the bank I’m going fishing with the boys – Told him Mario Cesar Fendrich to his wife on the morning of Friday, September 23, 1994.
It is impossible to know today -because he is already dead- if the man, 63, prolix and routine years, treasurer of the Banco Nación de Santa Fe branch, had ever read Wakefield, the unique story of Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose protagonist also said goodbye to his wife one day and was not heard from again for two decades. At that time, nobody had looked for him either.
In the story, for the next twenty years, Wakefield led a dark and routine existence until one day he decided to return as if nothing had happened.
Fendrich, on the other hand, disappeared for just 109 days, during which he was the most wanted man in Argentina, with an international arrest warrant, for being the author of the largest individual and bloodless robbery in history. So much so that it is still in the Guinness Book of Records today.
Because that Friday, after working as usual at the bank, the opaque treasurer did not go fishing but left aboard his Fiat Duna Weekend for an unknown destination. With him also vanished a sidereal sum of the treasure.
A neat man when it comes to keeping the numbers – his routine for decades – before leaving him he left a little note to his boss inside the treasure, Juan José Sagardía:
“Galician, I took three million pesos from the treasure and 187 thousand dollars from the box,” he said.
The count carried out days later, when the treasure could only be opened, showed that as always the Fendrich numbers were exact.
A flawless robbery
On Friday, September 23, Treasurer Sagardía was not at the bank because he had been sent to participate in a training course. On Monday 26, when he arrived at the old building on the corner of San Martín and Tucumán in the capital of Santa Fe, he found two surprises: his partner and friend Fendrich – he always scores – did not appear at the usual time and something was wrong with the treasure, because he couldn’t open it.
Sagardía thought that Fendrich had made a mistake in programming the opening of the vault door. Rare in him, always so careful, but what could happen. As the sub-treasurer still did not arrive, he decided to call his home. The response from Fendrich’s wife worried him even more:
-I’m about to file a complaint because he still hasn’t returned from fishing – Said the woman.
It was a frustrating and hectic Monday at the Santa Fe branch of Banco Nación and with the passing of the hours also at the headquarters of Buenos Aires: no one could open the door to the vault and there was no news from Fendrich.
It was only on Tuesday that the mystery was revealed. When they were finally able to access the treasure, they discovered that someone – who could not be other than the sub-treasurer – I had disconnected the alarms and programmed the trigonometric clock of the vault door to be reopened just four days later.
They also discovered that silver was lacking, a lot of money.
Fendrich’s note said how much had been taken and the tonnage confirmed it: 3,200,000 pesos were missing (dollars for the 1 to 1 quote), almost all in 100 bills, to which were added another 187,000 in green bills.
Perhaps because he considered that that was enough or, perhaps, because they made him too bulky, the sub-treasurer had left two sacks containing another two million pesos.
A few years ago, in a note on Infobae, the colleague Rodolfo Palacios calculated that with the salary of 1,200 pesos that Fendrich would have to have worked 222 years to earn that money with which he had vanished.
109 days of speculation
For 109 days nothing was heard of Mario César Fendrich, who soon became a famous person shrouded in a halo of mystery. His photo was on the pages of newspapers and on television screens, while speculation about his whereabouts grew like mushrooms.
It was said that he had escaped to Europe with a false passport, that he was hidden somewhere in Paraguay, that he had been seen on a Brazilian beach accompanied by a woman much younger than himself, that he had undergone plastic surgery and that he walked quietly around without anyone being able to recognize him.
There were those who believed that he could not have acted alone, that he had accomplices, that perhaps those accomplices had made his money, that perhaps he was dead, that perhaps …
The police were looking for him throughout the country and the Justice had issued an international arrest warrant, but Fendrich had left no traces.
And everything was still like this when on January 9, 1995, Mario César Fendrich appeared by his own means before the Justice of Santa Fe.
He was no longer the gray bank clerk – neat and meticulous – who seemed to have vanished from the earth 109 days earlier. He was tanned, had a beard, looked a little fatter, and was naturally dressed in a sport shirt and Franciscan sandals. It was clear that he had not had a bad time.
He never said where he had been, nor did he say what he had done with the silver.
Fame and mystery
“Robbing a bank is a crime, but it is more a crime to create one” is a phrase attributed to the poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht. Perhaps this is why bank robbers – when it comes to cleverly planned and bloodless robberies – tend to be liked by a lot of people.
Public opinion was divided. A poll of the time, published by Page 12, showed that 20% of the interviewees considered him a character “kind”. In another, from the magazine News, 32.5% rated it as “idol”, against 56% who considered him a thief.
He was a thief, but a thief with a better image than most of the political leaders of that time.
-I don’t feel like a symbol of anything – He answered when they told him.
Besides, the man knew how to keep the mystery. He did not shed any light on what he had done or where he had hidden, although it was evident from his tan that he had not hidden from the sun.
-It was an unpleasant job. Routine absorbs you, catches you and carries you. I should never have worked in a bank. Now i’m freer – He explained once.
Trial and conviction
Mario César Fendrich was tried two years after the robbery. Before the Federal Oral Court of Santa Fe he tried a defense that was not very credible: he said that he had been kidnapped and that the criminals had taken all the money.
It was one of the many versions he gave. Perhaps the most unusual was that, once the robbery was committed, he drove to Rosario and that during the trip he made stops to to go giving the money to people who had indicated to him.
Meanwhile, the speculation did not stop: it was said that he had bought fields on behalf of front men, that he had spent all the money in a Paraguayan casino, that almost everything stolen had been paid to him to hide it, that …
Justice was about to dig up the graves from the private cemetery of a Fendrich friend, Rogelio Picazo, to check if the money was buried in a false grave.
In the oral trial, 33 witnesses testified. His friends and former colleagues continued to be surprised by the undersecretary’s misstep. “It’s a big penny. When we went fishing, he didn’t want us to talk about politics and work, ”one of them declared.
The authorities of the National Bank asked for a harsh sentence, to serve as an example and no one would think of imitating him. The same demanded the treasurer Sagardía, who had lost his job “due to negligence” due to the theft.
“Mario was honest, but he became a criminal with all the letters. He did the worst thing a person can do: stained his last name forever“Said the man, who later wrote a book to give his version, The national robbery.
On November 12, 1996 – exactly 25 years ago – the court sentenced Mario César Fendrich to eight years, two months and 15 days in prison for the crime of embezzlement and disqualified him from holding public office for life.
The unfaithful sub-treasurer served four years, nine months and 20 days in prison in the Las Flores jail, in the Province of Santa Fe. Prison reports say that he had an exemplary conduct, which led to his conditional release.
When he came out, he said:
-There are more codes inside than outside.
Among the conditions that the Justice imposed on him to free him, in addition to having a fixed address, working and not drinking alcohol, there was one that sounded laughable. I ordered him to, if he knew where the money was, he had to show up to return it.
Once released, Fendrich had various occupations. First he set up a small plasterboard factory for ceilings and fiberglass for boats, then he had a bazaar and finally a lottery and pool house.
In his spare time he went fishing, but for real.
Years later he gave another version of the robbery: that he had planned it with some friends in a coffee chat and that they had later scammed him.
He also told his former lawyer, Antonio Ciarro, with whom he ended up being friends:
-Not even dead I’ll do what I did again. I suffered a lot and did a lot of harm to my family.
Mario César Fendrich died at the age of 77, while on vacation with friends in Havana, Cuba, in December 2018, after suffering a stroke.
That is why it is impossible today to ask you if you ever read Wakefield, Hawthorne’s story, where after telling the story of the man who leaves without warning, the author leaves a final reflection:
“In the apparent confusion of our mysterious world, individuals adjust so perfectly to a system, and systems to each other, and to a whole, in such a way that just by taking a step aside any man exposes himself to the dreadful risk to lose their place forever. Like Wakefield, he can become, so to speak, the Outcast of the Universe. “