RESIDENTS of the Belgian town of Zedelgem are being asked to give back €1 million thrown out of a vehicle by fleeing robbers. Dozens of people rushed out of homes or cars last Saturday to grab a share of the money –about €1m (£842,000) in all.
The small fortune had flown from a safe that cracked open when the robbers panicked and threw it out of a window. “It was a rainstorm of money,” said mayor Patrick Arnou yesterday.
Now, a veil of suspicion has fallen over the town: neighbours watch neighbours as police go door to door, questioning residents about what they did – and what they saw others do.
“People talk about nothing else any more in this town,” said Mr Arnou. “In the street itself, there is an atmosphere of bitterness.”
Some Zedelgem inhabitants who missed the windfall said they understood the actions of others, but insisted the amount involved should have made them think twice. “If it were a €20 note, I’d pick it up, too,” said pensioner Hector Clarysse, 77. But he added: “If you pick up so much money, you know it’s not normal.”
It all started when the robbers broke into a home in a nearby town and made off with the safe. The getaway car was soon identified; by chance a motorcycle police officer spotted it and gave chase. When the police and robbers hit Zedelgem’s Ruddervoordsestraat, the thieves tried to shake off the officer by throwing the safe in his way. As it careened down the asphalt, the box shot open and a cloud of notes swirled through the air and drifted down.
Dozens of people flooded the street, grabbing handfuls of cash. Drivers got out of their cars, snatched money and sped away. One lady even came out of her house with a broom and swept the money inside. Police quickly returned and plucked cash from the hands of people who were too slow in stashing it away.
Mr Arnou said the authorities have secured nearly half of the €1m that were in the safe. But the rest of the cash has disappeared into the hands of those who happened to be on that street in Zedelgem. As for the robbers, they have still not been caught – as police attention was diverted by trying to retrieve the money.
A disheartened Mr Arnou says his citizens should have known better. After all, he points out, the €1m belongs to the innocent victims of the robbery.
“What we have seen is beyond decency,” said the mayor. Some people have reached the same conclusion and handed back what they found. On Wednesday, a couple drove from Antwerp, 60 miles away, to hand over €16,200 they had picked up driving through the town.
Mr Arnou designated the postbox outside the council offices as a spot for people to hand over the money – no questions asked.
One contrite individual wrapped a big wad of money in an envelope and deposited it there. Once word got out, thieves tried to unhinge the heavy stone letterbox over the weekend and make off with its contents. It didn’t work and, the postbox stood there half-cracked for days.
On Thursday, Mr Arnou watched as workmen repaired the postbox and encased it deeper in concrete.
“For now, police are still trying benign ways,” he said. “Once everyone has had the chance to talk and it turns out they still have money, then the legal cases will come.”