It occurred on the night of February 16th, 2003 in a vault two floors below the Antwerp Diamond Center in Belgium. Over $100 million stolen in precious jewels. The accused, an assortment of alarmingly talented specialists skilled in the art of thievery.
An eclectic team of five, capable of penetrating a safe protected by 10 layers of security; their nicknames gave insight into their destructive talents. There was Leonardo Notarbartolo, the ringleader, but also the smooth talker, a charmer of sorts fluent in a variety of languages, but also the primary culprit of the Antwerp scandal. There was the Genius. A master with alarm systems, he could debug anything with the proper equipment. And there was the Monster, a whale of a man, and a jack-of-all-trades. And finally the King of Keys, a quiet elderly man who happened to be an excellent locksmith.
In many ways it seemed as though Leonardo was destined for a life of crime. Committing his first robbery at the age of 6, the occurrence would mark the beginning of his criminal career. When his mother sent the young Leonardo out for milk one morning, he returned with 5,000 lira. The equivalent of $8, he had stolen it from the milkman whom he had caught asleep. It was 1958.
Performing numerous robberies in his childhood, through his teens and into adulthood, it was Leonardo’s understanding of people and their behaviors that gave him the expertise needed to pull off his ambitious heists. Posing as a gem importer based out of Turin, Italy, Leonardo conducted casual business while mingling amongst other dealers that made up Antwerp’s diamond dealing population. Welcomed into their circle, Leonardo was considered by many to be a well to do businessman whose French was less than extraordinary. Invited into banks, offices, and boardrooms the unassuming Leonardo slowly infiltrated Antwerp’s prosperous atmosphere.
As an “importer,” Leonardo’s scheme was to buy a few stones from a particular dealer to start, only to steal the targets entire stock weeks or months later. Over the course of two years, Leonardo had established himself in Antwerp; the city providing more than enough opportunity to accommodate his malevolent practice.
It was a typical day in Antwerp when Leonardo’s career would change forever. Sitting inside a coffee shop he was approached by one of his trusted dealers. “I want to talk to you about something a little unusual,” the dealer said casually. Taking a walk outside, the two began to chat although soon after Leonardo noticed a sudden change in the dealer’s demeanor. “I’d like to hire you for a robbery,” the dealer said.
Leonardo’s mission was simple. For 100,000 euros he was to find out if the Antwerp Diamond Center could be robbed. Having rented a safety-deposit box already, Leonardo had access to much of the vaults interior. Choosing to stroll into the facility a few weeks later with a ballpoint pen equipped with a miniscule digital camera in his breast pocket, Leonardo entered the diamond center on reconnaissance. Approaching the large metal door at the base of the center, Leonardo showed his tenant ID card and passed through with ease, capturing images of the entrance and the surrounding environment.
Once inside Leonardo walked towards his personal deposit box. Imitating a routine check of his belongings, he also surveyed the vaults interior. Motion, heat and light detectors outfitted the entire room making it virtually impossibly to penetrate the vault unnoticed. With 17,576 possible combinations to each deposit box, it also appeared as if breaking into a safe was impossible as well. Returning back to the dealer, Leonardo related his findings. He didn’t believe the heist could be done.
It took the dealer five months to get back to Leonardo after he delivered the news. Calling him from a location outside Antwerp, the dealer wanted to meet up again, although this time he had another idea in mind. When Leonardo arrived the dealer was waiting for him standing in front of an abandoned warehouse. When Leonardo stepped inside he was shocked to see a life size replica of the vault he had surveyed five months prior. “I want to introduce you to some people,” said the dealer. Standing inside the vault were three Italians. An assortment of con-men, the gentlemen were skilled in their respective crafts, each a valuable piece of the impending heist. It wasn’t long before Leonardo found himself back inside the Antwerp Diamond Center. Alongside his fellow con-men, the team had formulated a plan to penetrate the diamond vault. All that was needed was the proper preparation and execution.
After nearly a year of planning, Leonardo found himself outside the all too familiar diamond center. It was only a day before the team would execute their plan, and Leonardo was back putting the finishing touches on their scheme. Entering the vault with a can of women’s hair spray, he covered the heat and motion sensors with a thin coat, effectively disabling the monitors albeit temporarily.
With much of the cities attention on the highly publicized Diamond Games tennis tournament across town, the Antwerp Diamond Center was nearly deserted. It was almost midnight when Leonardo, the Genius, the Monster, and the King of Keys descended upon the center. Carrying large duffel bags the team crept into a private garden towards the back of the center. Using a ladder they had hidden there prior, the Genius ascended the ladder to the second floor of the building. Confronted by a heat-sensing infrared surveillance device, the Genius moved slowly from behind a large homemade polyester shield. Placing the shield directly in front of the sensor, he deactivated the system as the low temperature of the polyester shield hid the body heat of those that passed behind it. Soon the rest of the team had scaled the balcony. Disabling another alarm they climbed through a window and entered the diamond vault. The large vault door stood in front of them. Covering the surveillance cameras with black plastic bags, the Genius diverted the magnetic sensors away from the door using a slab of aluminum to reposition the magnetic fields. Already executing their plan to perfection, it was the King of Keys who would soon strike gold.
Entering the utility room next to the vault, the King of Keys was astonished to see the vault key hanging in clear view on the wall inside the room. Grabbing the key, the King placed it within the keyhole while entering the vault code he had memorized from studying surveillance footage. The door swung open.
Meanwhile, Leonardo sat outside the diamond center. Communicating through cellphone, he kept an eye out over the deserted town of Antwerp while his colleagues worked away inside. Propping the vault door open with two spray cans the Monster eased the way for the thieves. Stepping into the pitch black vault interior the Monster moved slowly, imitating the steps he had practiced dozens of times in the vault replica. Reaching above his head, the Monster disabled the wires of the vault’s security system. Stripping the wires of their plastic exterior, the Monster then clipped a new piece of wire. Attaching it to the exposed copper of the inbound and outbound cables, the Monster successfully rerouted the electrical charges, aptly disabling the vault’s security. It was time for the heist.
Equipped with leather gloves, the team descended upon the private boxes, drilling into each deposit box with precision. Maneuvering through the dark, the thieves only turned their flashlights on for brief seconds to view the contents within. Soon each thieve was stuffing their duffel bags with unimaginable jewels; gold bars and currency from a multitude of countries lined their bags, although their most prized possessions lay in small leather satchels, the purses full of diamonds. It was 5:30am.
It took an hour to haul the flooded duffel bags up and out of the diamond center. Jumping into Leonardo’s get away vehicle nearby, the men sped off into the predawn light.
Getting to Leonardo’s apartment a few hours later the team was eager to uncover their loot. Unzipping one of the satchels the Monster peered inside anticipating the gleaming diamonds that lay within. But it was empty. He opened another satchel, empty. He opened another, empty. Panic and anxiety swept over the thieves. Was there a miscalculation? Had they been scammed? Leonardo thought back to his interactions with the dealer. Had he become a pawn in a grander scheme of thievery?
“Did the dealer tip off others about the scam,” Leonardo wondered. Perhaps the dealer told others to take their belongings out of the safe, only to report them stolen and collect insurance on them later on. It was definitely a possibility. Intending on a purse of close to $100 million, the thieves had in fact returned with something closer to $20 million. Still ample riches, but much less than what they had hoped for.
View of the Antwerp Vault following the robbery
It was 6:00am on Sunday when Leonardo and his partner Speedy, a well-trained yet erratic thieve sped through the roads outside Antwerp. With a garbage bag full of incriminating evidence the pair had intended to burn the bag in France, although at the present moment, Speedy was beginning to have one of his panic attacks. “I can’t do the drive,” Speedy said to Leonardo. The thief was falling apart.
“Pull off up here,” Speedy exclaimed, now fully overtaken by the fear of getting caught. Convincing Leonardo to pull off the road, the duo turned onto a dirt path on the E19 motorway disposing their evidence in a forested area over the side railing.
Perhaps it was fate that did them in. A series of by chance occurrences that led to an unexpected ending. Although Speedy and Leonardo had disposed of the evidence by dumping it in the forest, little did they know that their uninhabited forest was in fact the backyard of 59-year old Belgian citizen August Van Camp.
Purchasing land adjacent to the E19 freeway two years prior, Van Camp was used to encountering displaced trash strewn across his beloved backyard grounds. Evidently annoyed, he would call the police in regards to the “crime.” The police had gotten used to Van Camp’s periodical calls, so when he contacted them on Monday the following morning, police thought they knew what to expect. Listing off a number of items found lying across the ground, the police’s ears perked when Van Camp mentioned envelopes with the words DIAMOND CENTER, ANTWERP on them. Having encountered the ransacked vault the day prior, police in Antwerp were eager to piece together the remarkable heist.
Soon after a half dozen police descended upon Van Camp’s forest. Looking for any evidence they could find, the garbage bag full of incriminating materials nearly sealed the fate of the skillful con men. Looking over the evidence back at the Antwerp Diamond Squad headquarters, it wasn’t long before items linking Leonardo to the heist were discovered. A rental receipt for surveillance camera equipment made out in the name of Leonardo Notarbartolo connected the con-artist to the heist. While a business card of an electronics expert from Italy was also found. The name on the card read Elio D’Onorio.
The garbage found by Van Camp on his property
A half eaten salami sandwich was also found lying with the garbage. Upon searching Leonardo’s apartment days later, in a cupboard police found a receipt from a local deli, ANTIPASTO ITALIANO SALAMI the seal said. Driving to the grocery store, a police officer asked the manager to rewind their surveillance tape. Rewinding back to Thursday, February 13, the officer stopped when he saw a tall well-built Italian man purchasing a salami sandwich. His name, Ferdinando Finotto also known as the Monster.
The thieves reassembled two days following the heist. They were supposed to meet the dealer at a local bar to divide the loot, but he never showed. Waiting at the bar, Leonardo could not deny the feeling of uneasiness that was beginning to set in. Not only had the dealer not shown, but the garbage bag full of evidence was still out there to be discovered.
Initially, Leonardo had planned to return to Belgium the next day. His rental car had to be returned to Antwerp and he wanted to clean his apartment before police could get a hold of it. While on his way back to Belgium, unbeknownst to him, police had already surrounded Leonardo’s apartment. His 24-year old son was inside. Refusing to open the door, the son dialed his father repeatedly but to no avail. His phone was on silent.
Driving back to the scene of the crime, Leonardo drove into Antwerp unaware of the frenzy circulating around him. Going to meet a friend close by, it wasn’t long before the police were upon him, tipped off by a security guard who knew of Leonardo’s identity. Driving back to his apartment, the police discovered a number of bags full of more detailed evidence. Calling cards linked to the names of three Italians revealed Leonardo’s well-trained team: Ferdinando Finotto, the Monster; Elio D’Onorio, the Genius; and Pietro Tavano, Leonardo’s frantic partner known as Speedy.
The police discovered 17 diamonds in Leonardo’s possession. The diamonds were from the stolen vaults. Leonardo was sentenced to 10 years. The rest of the group were given lesser sentences although they all faced years behind bars, except for one member who was never apprehended. Authorities believe he was the King of Keys.
Although the Antwerp thieves are behind bars now, one question still remains; what happened to the loot? Leonardo claims that the group came away with only $20 million, although police estimate that it was indeed $100 million that went missing. In part this may be due to the hazy nature of diamond dealings where a large percentage of business is conducted under the table. Because $25 million was claimed to be lost officially, police estimate that the other $75 million has gone unaccounted for. Maybe Leonardo was in fact a pawn in the dealer’s larger scheme, or perhaps he’s only admitting to stealing $20 million, to recoup the rest of the loot once out of jail. Regardless, he refuses to speak about the stolen jewels, preferring to reside behind the prison walls until his sentence is over.
Antwerp Counts Cost of Gem Heist http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/2781791.stm
The Untold Story of the World’s Biggest Diamond Heist http://www.wired.com/print/politics/law/magazine/17-04/ff_diamonds
Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History http://www.flawlessbook.com/