Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Fairly Flawless by Scott Selby and Greg Campbell

Leonardo Notarbartolo set the world's greatest diamond heist into motion on a cold gray autumn day in 2000 with a smile and a polite 'merci beaucoup,' as the building manager at Antwerp's Diamond Center granted him free reign of the place he planned to rob. Renting a small office several floors above the vault that contained hundreds of millions of dollars worth of diamonds, jewels, gold and hard cash didn't even require a background check, which would have instantly revealed Notarbartolo's long-standing connections to a group of Italian robbers and thieves known as the 'School of Turin”.

In other respects the Diamond Center's 24/7 surveillance and anti-theft measures were impressive. It took Leonardo 27 months of careful observation and planning to crack the security and gain entrance to the vault. Actually, getting the garage door open and picking the lock to the door from there into the Center during off-hours was a snap. Disarming the light, heat and motion detectors was just a matter of a little duct tape, hairspray and a styrofoam box. Magnetic alarms on the face of the vault were clamped together, unbolted and moved to the side. The main key to the vault was extracted from a locked-box in a nearby storeroom by means of a crowbar. No one is sure how they got the combination to the safe but it might not have been necessary because the guards who were responsible for closing it at the end of the day rarely spun its dial to reset its tumblers.

Once inside the vault Notarbartolo's team of four faced the daunting task of opening the the deposit boxes. Actually, they invented an ingenious device that hooked a probe through their keyholes and, bending their dead bolts to a 45% angle, ripped their doors open. In four hours they opened 110 of the 180 boxes in the vault. On the way out they entered the security center and removed the VHS tapes that might of identified them in the subsequent investigation.

The perfect crime? Unfortunately, disposing of the refuse of tools used in the crime and the household effects that had accumulated in their 'hideout' a few blocks from the Diamond Center was not a simple matter. The folks in Antwerp don't appreciate strangers making use of their dumpsters and keep a close watch. The thieves dumped their mess in an out-of-the-way nature reserve whose caretaker had 'a thing' about garbage dumping and discovered the thieves discarded bags the very next morning. Inside the bags, along some old coffee grounds, was a torn-up invoice which pointed directly to Mr. Notarbartolo. Several days later, completely oblivious to what the police had discovered, Leonardo returned to the Diamond Center to wrap up his affairs and was detained.

In today's prices the estimated value of the loot from this heist may be as high as $650 million. Of the four men eventually convicted of this crime Leonardo Notarbartelo- the alleged mastermind- served the longest- six years. Only a small handful of diamonds, jewels, gold and cash was ever recovered nor likely ever will be. This kind of wealth is not easy to trace and, for the most part, the 'School of Turin”, which had to fence its take at a steep discount, is careful about the way it spends its money.

Interestingly, during the course of the investigation- sorting through all the useless papers and low value jewels discarded by the thieves as they emptied the safe-deposit boxes in the vault, police found plenty of evidence of the black-market activities of many of the diamond traders who stowed their stuff at the Center. In consideration of the great personal losses suffered by many depositors and traders- insurance eventually covered only about $21 million- it was decided not to pursue any of these cases of grievous tax evasion. It is likely if not absolutely certain, that all of the diamonds lifted by the “School of Turin” have been recycled through the Diamond Center in Antwerp, 80-90% of all the diamonds in the world are. The trade itself is the largest single business monopoly on the planet and that accounts for the fabulous prices , extraordinary profits and immunity from the law it commands.

1 comment:

  1. Union Square Press, Sterling Publishing Co., N.Y., 2010

    Greg Campbell is the author of "Blood Diamonds"