Formed in the wilds of Balkans bandit country in the aftermath of the Yugoslav civil war, an elite gang of jewel thieves have become a target for Interpol, reports Colin Freeman
The jobless 34-year-old was arrested two weeks ago near his home in the 15th century town of Cetinje, suspected of stealing watches worth EU 1 million from a jeweller in Germany in 2003. Neighbours describe him as an unremarkable character who usually lost more than he won - yet if detectives are to be believed, he was just the kind of shady, well-heeled gambler that 007 might meet at the blackjack table.
He stands accused of belonging to the Pink Panthers - an elite Balkans robbery crew suspected of stealing around £100 million in daring jewellery store raids worldwide.
Operating from London through to Tokyo, the Panthers' exploits read like a compendium of heist-movie scripts, combining the ingenuity of Oceans 11, the ruthlessness of Reservoir Dogs, and the snazzy Riviera locations of Inspector Clouseau's crime capers.
Believed to have been formed by smugglers and militiamen from the Balkan civil wars, they have used every trick in the jewel thief's handbook - and added several new ones.
In Paris in 2004, they waited until store staff were distracted by a visit from the French prime minister's wife before sneaking gems worth 11m euros from an unguarded safe. In Cannes, meanwhile, they put fresh paint on a public bench opposite the jewellery store to deter potential witnesses from sitting there. No less spectacular have been their getaways. In St Tropez, they headed to a waiting speedboat, while pursuing police cars remained stuck in traffic.
"I hate using the term 'professional', but you have to give them some grudging respect," said John Shaw, of Paris-based loss adjusters SW Associates, which is involved in asset recovery efforts for stolen jewellery. "We have seen some robberies where they have certainly shown some skill."
Now, though, after a decade in which they have notched up some of the biggest robberies on record - their 2003 raid on Graffs in London's New Bond Street was Britain's biggest successful diamond heist - the net finally seems to be closing in.
Mr Lekic's arrest was followed by another raid a week ago, when a 30-strong squad of armed police pounced on three suspected Panthers as they sat in a black Audi 4x4 outside Monaco's Monte Carlo Casino. "They were hard-looking men, but dressed in designer casual wear and sunglasses," said a source in the principality. ""The square is full of jewellery shops, and it seemed they were planning an armed raid."
The trio are now in Monaco's Maison d'Arrêt prison, where they are being held in the "Category A" unit. French officials are mindful of how a previous Panther, ex-soldier Dragan Mikic, escaped from a Lyon jail in 2005 after accomplices raked a watchtower with machinegun fire. While the guards' attention was turned, Mikic fled out of a window using a fold-up ladder.
The Sunday Telegraph understands that the Monaco swoop was launched on a tip-off from gang members arrested elsewhere and intelligence pooled by detectives Europe-wide. Just days before, a Russian suspected of "casing" Monaco targets for the Panthers was arrested on the roof of Zegg et Cerlati, another jewellers in the main Monte Carlo square.
And last month, two more suspected gang members, Zoran Kostic, 38, and Nicolai Ivanovic, 36, were arrested at a cheap hotel in Paris's Pigalle red-light district. Mr Kostic, whose "wanted" photo shows him dressed as a businessman, is described by police as a "big fish" in the organisation. He too, hails from Cetinje, as did the men convicted of the New Bond Street raid.
The Paris arrests came just two months after detectives from 16 different countries met in Monaco as part of "Project Pink Panthers", a working group set up by Interpol in 2007.
"The criminal gang is a transnational crime group believed to include at least 200 individuals responsible for more than 90 robberies in 19 countries since 1999, with the value of stolen jewellery estimated at well over 100 million Euros," said an Interpol spokesman.
While Mr Kostic and Mr Ivanovic are being quizzed over raids in Monte Carlo, Le Touquet and Geneva, police also hope they may also be to shed light on alleged Panther robberies in Dubai, the US and Japan.
Among the detectives' priorities is locating the Panther's most spectacular prize to date, the Comtesse de Vendome, a 125-carat necklace of 116 diamonds worth around £20 million. It was stolen from a Tokyo jewellers in 2004, where raiders arrived on bicycles and disguised themselves with anti-pollution masks, using tear-gas to subdue store staff.
The Panthers got their nickname after a £500,000 diamond stolen during the New Bond Street raid was later found hidden in a jar of face cream, copying a tactic used in the original 1963 Pink Panther film, starring Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau. Legend has it that the robbers liked the comparison, and have occasionally carryied out raids dressed in trademark pink shirts.
Admittedly, as with most good crime capers, this is where the fact begins to blur with fiction. Indeed, some claim that the Pink Panther gang as such exists purely in the minds of Flying Squads who have watched too many heist movies, and suspect it is nothing more than individual Balkans criminals acting entirely alone.
Yet frequently, the trail seems to lead back to Cetinje, which, for a town with a population of only 17.000, appears to have a surprisingly large alumni of armed robbers.
Some investigators believe that up to 30 of the original gang members hailed from Cetinje, having turned to armed robberies after the demise of smuggling rackets during the United Nations embargo on neighbouring Serbia. The area has long had a reputation as bandit country, with Robin Hood figures revered in local folklore.
In the 1990s there was even a local expression coined for them. A "saner" (pronounced "shaner") was a thief who only robbed abroad, returning home to spend his booty and take advantage of Montenegro's lack of extradition treaties.
"Certainly the first Panthers I knew were from Montenegro," said Mr Shaw. "I would guess they got into it because they had some experience of firearms and were ballsy. Now, though, I think it has spread across the Balkans, rather than just being a particular gang."
All the same, as more Panthers end up behind bars, there may be one consolation. Russia's gangster and nouveau riche class, whose tattoed forearms and necks once provided much of the market for Panther booty, can no longer afford the stuff. "We suspect some pieces ended up being sold in Russian nightclubs," said Mr Shaw. "But now that Russia is suffering from the economic crash, that market is drying up rather."