The Magician Who Managed To Rob Jimmy Carter's Secret Service Detail

Like many of the greatest sleight-of-hand impresarios, Apollo Robbins has built a huge fan following, thanks to his eye-popping shows in Las Vegas, Nevada. But the Texas-born Robbins differs from his colleagues in one vital way: he's more accurately described as a pickpocket. And according to many experts, Robbins may be the world's best.

In 2012, The New Yorker reported a momentous meeting at a Vegas magic convention between Robbins and famed illusionist Penn Jillette. (As the magazine noted, Penn has previously ranked pickpockets "a few notches below hypnotists on the show-biz totem pole.") Nevertheless, Robbins was able to dazzle Jillette with his abilities with — you guessed it — a trick, by removing an ink cartridge from Jillette's pen without him noticing.

But much of Robbins' fame and notoriety comes from a single incident. In 2001, Robbins made international news as a result of having pickpocketed (and, assumedly, embarrassed) the security detail of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. According to a 2013 interview Robbins gave with the TED Talk blog, the fateful incident occurred when Carter, who happened to be in Las Vegas at the time, passed through one of Robbins' performances at Caesar's Palace, and it all took off from there. The encounter would ultimately make him famous.

A misspent youth

Apollo Robbins' claim of being a real-life pickpocket isn't just part of his stage persona. Before hitting on what would become a world-famous act, Robbins did indeed live a life of crime, as he explained in a TED Q&A in 2013.

Raised in Missouri along with two older brothers, Robbins first became interested in theft after discovering his siblings had a proclivity for petty theft. "My 14-year-old brother was living in the attic, and one day I went up there and saw all these IDs and wallets and everything laying out," recalled Robbins. "He was like, 'Shhh! Be quiet!' Like it was some kind of secret. I didn't understand what that meant until years later when I asked, 'What were you guys doing?' They never used the word pickpocketing, surprisingly." Later, Robbins' brothers would teach him the tricks of the trade. A compulsive runaway, Robbins would then use these skills to keep himself fed as he left home for weeks at a time.

However, Robbins soon turned away from crime and toward magic as an art form after a magic shop owner showed him a magic trick and recommended he read a book about coin magic. The teenage Robbins studied extensively. By the time he was 22, Robbins was ready to relocate to Vegas and pursue magic full time. He soon earned himself a regular show at Caesar's Palace, per The New Yorker.

Compromising Jimmy Carter's security

In 2001, as a former U.S. President, Jimmy Carter was granted full security detail (as he still is today). According to what Apollo Robbins told the Toronto Star in 2013, casino management at Caesar's Palace forbade the pickpocket from interacting with the former president directly. Specifically, they feared Robbins might take something from the former president, inciting a situation that could reflect badly on the venue. 

Despite this, according to The New Yorker, Robbins befriended a number of Carter's security team while the former president was at dinner. It seems Robbins did exactly what casino management had tried to prevent; he stole various sensitive items from members of the detail, including their badges, keys to Carter's motorcade, and a detailed itinerary of Carter's intended movements. "You don't have the authorization to see that!" Robbins was told by agents upon revealing the deception.

Speaking with the TED Talk blog in 2013, Apollo Robbins recalled that the encounter gave his career a huge boost. It even found him a new audience among security communities. "That made the news. Suddenly I started speaking at law enforcement conferences and meeting with the Secret Service," Robbins said.