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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Double Diamond Heists, Paris, Brussels, Pink Panthers, Brise de Mer, Usual Suspects Modus Vivendi

The Bizarre Coincidences Surrounding the $50M Diamond Heist in Belgium

 Great heists depend on exquisite timing, which is precisely the way an armed gang carried out the stunning diamond robbery at the Brussels airport on Monday. Just as some $50 million worth of precious stones were being transferred from an armored car to the hold of a commercial flight bound for Switzerland, what looked like a couple of black police cars with flashing blue lights drove onto the tarmac and eight men got out brandishing assault rifles. They seized 120 parcels of diamonds, got back in their cars, and were gone in less than five minutes, apparently operating out of sight of the passengers—and of the airport police.

Sounds like a scene in a movie. But there’s more. With a little imagination, there’s a whole screenplay. And like any good script, this story already has a lot of twists and turns—some of them probably blind alleys—including a few that even lead back to … Hollywood.
Questions about the timing of the Brussels Airport job did not end with the action on the runway. Belgian crime reporters immediately thought back to 10 years ago—exactly 10 years ago to the week—when an Italian gang managed to break into what the world had thought was an impregnable vault in the diamond district of Antwerp and make off with more than $100 million worth of stones.
Those middle-aged burglars were some of the best old pros in the business: planners, locksmiths, electricians, and muscle known as the School of Turin. Their leader, Leonardo Notarbartolo, was a ruggedly handsome grandfather who’d been a thief all his life and was proud of it. As robberies go, the 2003 heist in Antwerp was a work of genius, with just one stupid mistake. The gang was done in when a farmer found some suspect garbage and called the police. Among the incriminating bits of evidence: receipts for some of the gear used in the heist and a half-eaten sandwich with the ringleader’s DNA on it.
There are only so many master jewel thieves in this world, and only a handful able to carry out such rigorous preparation and execution.
Notarbartolo was convicted of the 2003 Antwerp job in 2005, but neither he nor any of his partners ever revealed where the loot was hidden. And, proud as he was of his larcenous vocation, for much of the time he was behind bars he was trying to figure out how he could get a movie made about his life. According to Scott Andrew Selby and Greg Campbell in Flawless, their exhaustive investigation of the Antwerp job, Notarbartolo was hoping the whole deal would be lucrative, or that it least it would help him explain where he got his money if he started to look rich.
In 2009, Joshua Davis interviewed Notarbartolo in a Belgian prison and wrote a profile for Wired magazine. “I may be a thief and a liar,” the thief and liar told him, “but I am going to tell you a true story.” Davis, on his website, notes that he is executive producer of “the diamond project,” a movie adapted from his article in Wired.
In an email, we asked Davis if he had paid Notarbartolo for the Wired story, and he was categorical: “I never paid Notarbartolo anything, nor did Wired,” he said. We followed up with a question about Paramount paying for “life rights” to make a film, but Davis hasn’t gotten back to us on that yet.
All this would be so much minor gossip in the movie and publishing biz if not, once again, for the strange question of timing. Notarbartolo got out of prison on parole in 2009. According to the Belgian press, he recently went to the United States to talk to people about a movie. There have been some rumors around Rodeo Drive that “the diamond project” was in trouble, which, if true, would typically mean a lot of money promised wouldn’t get paid out, since it’s usually tied to stages of script acceptance and production.
In any case, Notarbartolo flew back to Europe on January 29. He promptly found himself under arrest at the Paris airport, where he was about to connect to Turin. He was then extradited to Belgium on Monday, as it happens—the day of the heist at the Brussels airport—a coincidence that Flawless coauthor Selby calls “amazing.”
It appears that Notarbartolo had had an arrest warrant issued for him in November 2011 on the grounds he’d broken the conditions of his parole. And one of the infractions, according to Belgian prosecutors quoted in the local press, is that while failing to pay back “one penny” to the victims of his crime, Notarbartolo made money off the story he gave to Wired. His Belgian lawyer, Walter Damen, was not available for comment. (Damen’s assistant told us he was visiting Notarbartolo in jail.) But press reports of the bail hearing say Damen claimed in his client’s defense that there was no proof he had any of the loot in his possession, and he wasn’t really profiting from his crime through the Wired story because it was really fiction.
Now, it may be that none of this really has anything to do with the heist on the tarmac at Brussels airport. “It’s a pretty different M.O.,” says Selby, an authority on the diamond business as well as diamond thefts. The 2003 job run by Notarbartolo was very quiet—almost invisible—and not discovered until the end of the Valentine’s Day weekend that year. The Brussels job was, as the military likes to say, “kinetic”—all action, with guns waving and orders shouted and people fearing for their lives, although in the end nobody got hurt. Selby says he doubts there was any direct link with Notarbartolo, but he was disturbed by so many odd coincidences of timing. “It’s weird,” he said. “I don’t know what to say about that.”
There are only so many master jewel thieves in this world, and only a handful able to carry out such rigorous preparation and execution. So suspicion inevitably would have turned to Notarbartolo had he been free when the heist took place. Fortunately for him, his arrest gives him the perfect alibi. Almost as if he’d planned it that way.

Diamond Thieves in The New Yorker

It will be a while before we get the full story about yesterday’s diamond heist at Brussels Airport. So far, it sounds as though eight thieves, dressed in police uniforms and carrying machine guns, drove two cars, fitted with flashing police lights, onto the tarmac and stole the diamonds directly from the cargo hold of a jet. Most reports have said that the diamonds are worth around fifty million dollars (although one source cited by the Wall Street Journal has put their value as high as three hundred and fifty million). Meanwhile, Anja Bijens, a spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office in Brussels, said what officials always say in heist movies: “This was not a random robbery. It was well-prepared—these were professionals.”
What exactly does it mean to be a “professional” diamond thief? That was the subject of David Samuels’s 2010 article, “The Pink Panthers.” The Panthers are a gang of jewelry thieves, based mainly in Eastern Europe, but with a global reach. Here’s a sample of their handiwork:
In March, 2004, Panthers targeted a jewelry store in Tokyo. Two Serbs, wearing wigs, entered the store and immobilized a clerk with pepper spray. They made off with a necklace containing a hundred-and-twenty-five carat diamond. That same year, in Paris, Panthers exploited a visit to Chopard by the wife of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, and stole fourteen million dollars’ worth of jewels from an unguarded display case. In 2005, a Panther team, dressed in flower-print shirts, raided Julian, a jewelry store in Saint-Tropez. The heist, which took place in broad daylight, lasted just minutes. The thieves ran out of the store and down to the harbor, where they escaped in a waiting speedboat.
All told, the Panthers have performed hundreds of robberies all over the world. The gang’s cinematic name is an invention of the press: the police, after raiding one thief’s apartment, found a blue-diamond ring, worth seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars, hidden inside a jar of face cream; a similar hiding place was used in one of the Peter Sellars films.
What sort of person becomes a Pink Panther? To find out, Samuels travels to Serbia and Montenegro, where many of the gang’s members grew up. In Serbia, the corruption, violence, and economic privation of the nineteen-nineties created a climate perfect for organized crime. (“Once the Serbian state had transformed itself into a criminal enterprise,” Samuels writes, “many Serbs turned themselves, willingly or reluctantly, into criminals.”) Samuels travels to the Serbian city of Nis, which has its own “faction” of Panther operatives.
The highway leading into town was empty, and lined with stores selling motorbikes and diet supplements. The city felt far removed from Belgrade, with its Austro-Hungarian façades and well-ordered criminality. Nis was wilder, and had more of an ethnic mix: Albanians, Macedonians, Gypsies. The city’s most famous landmark is the Skull Tower, which was built by the Turks, in 1809, out of quicklime, sand, and nine hundred and fifty-two skulls of Serbian fighters. On the uneven sidewalks, girls in heavy makeup tottered along in high heels, their loutish boyfriends following closely behind.… Groups of young men drank beer in the street. One of them, a Serb, had a T-shirt emblazoned with a brace of pistols and the word “Wanted,” in gaudy silver lettering. A brand-new Audi was parked nearby.
Samuels sits down with the mayor, Milos Simonovic, who says that Nis has been “a good place to have this merger between authorities and criminals.” “Many younger citizens of Nis,” Samuels explains, “having watched their parents lose their jobs, and growing up in an atmosphere of wholesale corruption, have embraced the idea of going to Western Europe and becoming thieves.” When they return home, ready to spend, the police are happy to turn a blind eye to their faraway crimes. In Montenegro, meanwhile, “hospitality to organized crime is so remarkable as to merit comparison to the legendary pirates’ paradise of Tortuga.” In the Montenegrin town of Cetinje, the mayor tells Samuels about a local song about the thieves and bandits who operate in Western Europe. It goes, “We don’t steal from Montenegro, we steal for Montenegro.”
Samuels spends much of the piece trying to meet with someone who is relatively high-up in the Panther organization. Finally, in the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica, Samuels meets with a Panther who goes by the name “Novak.” (Samuels is instructed, via a cell-phone call, to wait by the side of a mountain road; wear loose-fitting, easily-searchable clothing, a voice tells him, and leave your phone and tape recorder at home.) The Panthers, Novak explains, are loosely organized: they get “orders from Belgrade,” Samuels discovers, which are the product of “a centralized system for picking targets and assigning crews to jobs.” Samuels asks Novak about how he became a Panther. “We all come from normal families,” Novak says. “Our parents are normal people. They are not in this kind of life.”
The thieves in his group had gone to Italy together and saw how people lived there: “Some of us went insane and tried to have everything at once.” The greedy ones wound up with long prison terms or worse, he said. Others spent two or three years in Italian jails. He said that the gang began stealing during the era of Western sanctions; some of its members had connections to the Serbian security services, which provided protection.
In the early days, Novak says, the group got tips from a male model, who had grown up in the Balkans and was living in Antwerp. Later, they developed their own intelligence network: “We have our bird-watchers,” he says. “We have guys whose job it is to travel around and collect tips.” The gang has included a computer whiz who sifts through registries for planes and boats, looking for likely targets. (Russian expats living in Western Europe are particularly attractive; they’re probably in trouble at home, he says, and will be reluctant to go to the police.) A technician, Samuels learns, has worked for the team, creating “devices for bypassing alarm systems”; the man’s father, Novak boasts, “is one of the most famous engineers in Serbia!” After they’re stolen, the diamonds are taken elsewhere in Europe on speedboats: “You can charter one for two Rolex,” he says. Eventually, the stolen diamonds reënter the regular diamond market as though they were new.
We don’t know, of course, who stole the diamonds at the airport, or where those diamonds are going. But we can guess about what the thieves were like—“desperate and inventive men,” Samuels calls them, who are thirsty for an anonymous prosperity. At the end of their meeting, when Novak says goodbye, he invites Samuels to visit again. “He would show me some ‘white glass,’ ” Samuels writes, “and perhaps a Cézanne.”
Subscribers can read the “The Pink Panthers” online, in The New Yorker’s archive.
Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson.

Diamond Heist, The Sequel: After Brussels Airport, Paris Department Store Hit

PARIS - A day after armed men pulled off a spectacular 50 million euro diamond heist at Brussels Airport, two men made off with 3 million euros worth of diamonds after holding up a popular department store in central Paris on Tuesday night.
The heist happened in broad daylight – an hour before closing – at the Printemps department store. The unsuspecting crowd of customers remained oblivious to the entire incident, said France 24.
The Printemps is one of Paris’ oldest and most popular stores, in the center of the city’s busy Opera shopping and business district .
The two men, who wore bulletproof jackets but no balaclavas, carried out their hold-up very discretely, without firing their handguns, said France 24.
They asked a salesperson from the De Beers counter to open two jewelry cases, emptied the contents into their bags, and exited through a service staircase in the back of the department store, reports le Parisien. French police believes this could be an inside job. The men’s faces were uncovered even though the store has an extensive video-surveillance system.
The Printemps Department store in Paris, Wikipedia 
De Beers, a Dutch company, is one of the world’s leading diamond firms. A spokesperson confirmed clients and personnel were safe and that they were cooperating with the police.

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