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$100-Million Belgian Gem Heist May Be Record

March 05, 2003|From Associated Press

ANTWERP, Belgium — Authorities investigating a major jewel heist last month here in the diamond-trading capital of the world now estimate that the thieves got away with $100 million in gems.

That would make the heist the largest safe-deposit box robbery ever -- twice the size of a 1976 hit in Beirut, when guerrillas blasted their way into the vaults of the British Bank of the Middle East and into the Guinness Book of Records.

It would also top the 1994 theft in which machine-gun-toting thieves took $45 million in gems from the Carlton Hotel in Cannes on the French Riviera.

In the Antwerp theft, authorities have three Italians and a Dutchwoman behind bars but no clue where most of the loot is.

The suspected mastermind, Leonardo Notarbartolo, 51, and his wife, Adriana Crudo, 48, appeared before a magistrate Monday and denied any involvement. They were ordered held for two more weeks.

Investigators believe that the thieves started sizing up the formidable security challenges at the Antwerp Diamond Center more than two years ago, when they rented office space in the complex.

The thieves broke into the center the weekend of Feb. 15-16 and pried open 123 of 160 vaults. They had one problem: There was too much loot to carry. The thieves stood ankle-deep in diamonds, gold, jewelry, stocks, bonds, cash and lockboxes scattered on the vault room floor.

Antwerp's director of judicial services, Eric Sack, called the thieves' plan "a piece of genius."

In fact, after all the careful planning, the thieves were undone, authorities claim, because of a sloppy cleanup.

They threw bags with compromising material into a ditch alongside a highway, and, by chance, police recovered them almost immediately. The bags reportedly included letters referring to the diamond center, as well as break-in equipment and copied pass keys.

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