Extraordinary wealth has always been subject to extraordinary acts of thievery. Here is the story of the “heist of the century,” the Antwerp Diamond Heist.
In this notorious robbery, nearly $100 million worth of diamonds were stolen. It occurred in the diamond district of Belgium on the weekend of February 15-16, 2003. The robbery was led by Leonardo Notarbartolo, a small-time diamond dealer, tenant of the Diamond Centre, and a thief responsible for many minor jewel robberies. Although police believe he was the robbery’s mastermind, he claims that he was contacted by an unidentified diamond dealer, who recruited him for the crime. Notarbartolo said he was paid to take pictures of the vault’s complex security system. From those pictures, the dealer constructed a full-sized replica of the vault. Notarbartolo states that the dealer set him up with a small gang of Italian jewel thieves, each with specific skills for the robbery. Police are not convinced of the truth of this anonymous diamond dealer, however. No proof has been found to support this claim.
The Diamond Centre houses hundreds of diamond traders. The three-block diamond district has tight security with patrols around the clock. The mammoth diamond vault is located two levels below the Antwerp diamond district and was stated at the time to be “impenetrable”. It has 10 layers of security, Doppler radar, infra-red heat detectors, a seismic sensor, a magnetic field and a lock with millions of possible combinations.
Notarbartolo took hundreds of pictures of the vault, the building, and the streets around the Diamond Centre using a miniaturized digital camera capable of storing 100 high-resolution images. Photography is strictly limited in the district, but nobody noticed Notarbartolo’s pencam. These images were used to reconstruct the vault replica and to plan the robbery entrance and exit.
After midnight on Saturday, the gang implemented their plan. They disabled the heat-sensing infrared director. They then covered security cameras with plastic bags. The thieves got through the 10 layers of security, previously thought to be impenetrable. They bypassed cameras, the combo dial, the keyed lock, magnetic sensors, the locked steel gate, light sensors, heat and motion sensors, and keypad disarming sensors. Amazingly, they found a foot-long key to the vault was in a metal box next to the door. They entered the vault door, and using a slab of aluminum, they taped the door’s magnetic plates side by side to the antechamber wall, thereby keeping the alarms from activating. Then they stripped plastic off the sensor circuit wires.
Once inside the vault, the thieves used a special drill made from common parts to open 109 safety deposit boxes. They loaded up bags of diamonds, jewels, and gold bars – millions in Israeli, Swiss, American, European, and British currencies. When they could carry no more, stole the videotapes from the Diamond Centre’s office, and then made their escape through a street exit. Since they had memorized the layout of the vault in the replica, they worked in the dark, turning on their flashlights only for split seconds–enough to position the drill over the next box.
It took two hours to get all the loot out of the building. The theft was not discovered until Monday morning.
Once outside of the Diamond Centre, the robbers hauled the diamonds into a couple of cars. The plan was for the gang to meet up in Milan, Italy, to divide up the loot. All that was left to do was for Notarbartolo and another gang member, Pietro Tavano, known as Speedy, to find a place to burn the contents of a bag containing evidence. It seemed like the perfect crime.
On his way to Italy, Notarbartolo found a dirt road leading off the highway and turned in. Telling Speedy to stay in the car, Notarbartolo got out and scouted out the area. It was secluded and well-hidden area. There was a shed near a pond, and he decided to burn their evidence there. Notarbartolo went back to the car to get the bag. When he got there, however, he found Speedy in the midst of a full-blown anxiety, throwing the contents of the bag all over the ground and under bushes. The trash included the strung about videotape film from the Diamond Centre, a half-eaten sandwich, dozens of small diamonds, a receipt for a video surveillance system, Antwerp Diamond Centre envelopes, and payment stubs. In his paranoia, Speedy thought he heard someone coming, so the two thieves left without gathering up the trash.
The area where this all took place was on private land owned by a local grocer, August Van Camp. When he discovered the discarded materials in the underbrush, he called the police. The evidence was enough to link the crime to Notarbartolo.
Subsequently, police found diamonds stashed in Notarbartolo’s apartment, along with cellphone records. Notarbartolo got 10 years in Belgian prison for orchestrating the theft, while the three of the other four gang members got five years each. A few years later, while in jail, Notarbartolo said the entire thing was an insurance fraud masterminded by the diamond dealer, who contacted the Italian group for the job. He maintains that they only got $20 million of merchandise, and that he wasn’t the ringleader of the Antwerp diamond heist, and he has never led authorities to the whereabouts of the diamonds.
Authorities say there is still $100 million still missing.