On an icy Sunday night, men who identified themselves as police officers brought terrible news to Kevin McMullan's rural home: A relative had been killed in a car crash. It was a lie...

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BELFAST, Northern Ireland — On an icy Sunday night, men who identified themselves as police officers brought terrible news to Kevin McMullan’s rural home: A relative had been killed in a car crash. It was a lie, launching one of the world’s biggest bank robberies.

Inside, the phony officers put a gun to McMullan’s head and tied him up, blindfolded his wife, Karen, and then took her away at gunpoint in her car into the forest.

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They told McMullan, a Northern Bank senior executive, that he must help access the bank’s major cash vault the next night. If he or another abducted bank official, Chris Ward, refused to help or raised any alarm, their families would be killed.

Police said yesterday that the gang escaped with more than 22 million pounds ($42 million), more than originally estimated. And the 45-strong detective task force admitted it would be difficult to track down a gang that left no apparent forensic evidence.

McMullan’s wife — free of her blindfold but suffering hypothermia in near-freezing temperatures — alerted police of the heist from a farmhouse at 11 p.m. Monday. Around the same time, Ward’s mother, father, brother and brother’s girlfriend were released.

“This was a carefully planned operation by professional criminals who obviously had done their homework,” Detective Superintendent Andy Sproule said.

The gang was masked and gloved and wore workmen’s overalls, which Northern Ireland paramilitary groups regularly wear on operations and then burn afterward. Police said they suspect the robbers also trimmed their hair short to reduce the chance of dropped strands. McMullan’s car was burned, destroying DNA and other forensic traces.

Northern Bank’s confidential underground vault had received exceptional volumes of cash Monday, in the buildup to Christmas.

The gang allowed both executives to go to work around noon Monday, then ordered one — police won’t say which — to do a trial run about 90 minutes after the bank closed. He carried a gym bag containing more than $2 million to a man, then went back inside.

Convinced that police hadn’t been alerted, the gang drove a white van equipped with a lifting device to the bank’s high-security vehicle entrance. Inside, McMullan and Ward triggered codes that opened two steel doors.

Sproule said the thieves remained at the end of a conveyor belt as the officials cleared out the vault — enough bundles to stand in a stack 30 stories high.

The fully loaded van departed, then returned for a second load.

Despite the smooth operation, money-laundering experts predicted the thieves will have a hard time using the currency. Most of the notes were specially produced by Northern Ireland banks and aren’t readily accepted in other parts of the United Kingdom or other countries.

Jeffrey Robinson, author of the book “The Money Launderer,” said the gang took too much cash and bills that were too conspicuous.

“They obviously did not count on there being so much money, and Northern Irish notes,” Robinson said. “The money is fundamentally useless. I suspect they know that by now.”