In 2003, a gang of thieves made the largest haul in history, and many details of how they did it remain a mystery. The original article I wrote can be found here.
The Diamond District in Antwerp, Belgium is the site of approximately 80% of all diamond transactions in the world. Covering only about three blocks and containing numerous office buildings and shops specializing in various gem services, the Diamond District benefits from almost impenetrable security; streets are blanketed with constant surveillance, and the area is cordoned off by retractable stone pillars. It’s rumored that even the Mafia turned down the chance to pull a heist there because the security was simply too good. But on Valentine’s Day weekend in 2003, thieves managed to do the seemingly impossible: They made off with half a billion dollars in loot using neither weapons nor violence, but only their brains, endless patience, and a few simple tools.
Casing the Antwerp Diamond Center
One of several office blocks in the district, the Antwerp Diamond Center was chosen for the heist because even though its security was formidable, the thieves thought there might be chinks in the armor that could be exploited. Leonardo Notarbartolo, an Italian jewelry designer and merchant as well as a criminal, traveled to Belgium and rented an office in the Antwerp Diamond Center, posing as a legitimate businessman. Had the building superintendent thought to check Notarbartolo’s background, she might have discovered the man’s long criminal record in Italy. But his references were not checked, one of several lucky breaks the thieves would enjoy.
Notarbartolo spent over two years pretending to work in his office in the center. Using a bag concealing a camera, he filmed the relevant parts of the building, including the vault and the various security measures. He took copious notes about employee schedules, brand names of locks and safes, and the building layout, even managing to get a copy of the blueprints. Periodically, he would take the information back to Italy and show it to his loose group of confederates, known as the School of Turin. Over the course of two years, the videos and information supplied by the inside man helped the gang work out ways around each of the building’s security measures.
Stealing Half a Billion Dollars
In the middle of the night on February 15, 2003, the group entered through the garage of the Antwerp Diamond Center using a remote control they’d made after utilizing a frequency detector to home in on the garage opener’s code. The garage faced the outside of the district, which was only sparsely covered by video surveillance. The basement vault, containing almost 200 safety deposit boxes used by merchants with offices in the building, was protected by a foot-thick steel door with a key lock, a combination, and a magnetic alarm. A few days before the heist, a member of the gang posing as a workman had disabled the magnetic alarm. Notarbartolo, from his two years “working” in the building, knew where to find the key, but had apparently never managed to discover the vault’s combination. Luck was with the thieves again, though; whoever had locked the vault for the weekend had neglected to “scramble” the combination after closing the door, so the key alone gave the thieves access to the untold riches within.
Inside the Vault
The gang disabled the light, motion and heat sensors using cheap but ingenious methods — clear hairspray, electrical tape, a block of styrofoam on a broom handle. The vault was also equipped with seismic detectors that would be set off by drilling or by someone trying to tunnel into the vault through the concrete. But these thieves didn’t need to drill into the safety deposit box doors because they’d had a machinist make them a specialized tool that would pry most of the boxes open quite handily.
More Loot Than They Could Carry
The safety deposit boxes were so stuffed with riches that the thieves simply left a great deal of it scattered on the floor because it was too much for them to take. They focused on loose diamonds, cash in various currencies, and gold bars; they left behind distinctive pieces of jewelry that could be easily identified, as well as less valuable gemstones. Estimates vary, but it’s thought that the value of cash, gold and gems stolen amounted to between 100 and 400 million euros (about half a billion dollars), making it the largest heist in history.
Catching the School of Turin
Before leaving the building, the thieves stole the security tapes recording the night’s adventures. They exited through the garage with their bags of loot, attracting no attention whatsoever in the deserted district. After meeting briefly to sort out their take, they filled several bags with trash, including clothes and tools from the heist, destroyed security tapes, less common paper currencies that might arouse suspicion when exchanged, and even a few cheap emeralds. The trash bags were dumped in a remote patch of forest as one of the gang members drove out of Belgium.
The thieves’ luck had finally run out. The forest was patrolled by an obsessive caretaker, who happened upon the trash bags less than 48 hours after the robbery. The presence of gems and currency in the garbage tied it to the heist, and from DNA evidence gleaned from champagne bottles and other household trash mixed in with the discards from the heist, police were able to identify four of the thieves, including Notarbartolo. All were eventually jailed, but have since been released. Other members of the gang have never been identified or apprehended, and the loot has never been recovered.
Selby, Scott Andrew, and Greg Campbell. Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History. New York: Union Square, 2010. Print.