From the Archives: Smooth Criminals

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Today's second archival tidbit comes from our current issue, on stands now. Shame on you if you don't already have a copy.

The Original Ocean's 11: The 2003 Antwerp Diamond Heist

If you think George Clooney's "Ocean's 11" character was smooth, check out the velvet finish on criminal mastermind Antonino Finotto. In February 2003, Finotto and his gang of thieves, known as the School of Turin, pulled off one of the stealthiest heists in history. Daring to break into the famous Antwerp Diamond Center—a building that holds 80 percent of the world's diamonds—the group made out with $120 million in jewels.

How They Did It: Not ones to rush into something this big, the Turin boys began laying the groundwork for the project three years prior. Posing as a company owner, gang member Leonardo Notarbartolo rented an office in the Diamond Center in 2000 and proceeded to obtain copies of master keys and learn how the alarm system worked. Then, the group waited for the perfect distraction—the Diamond Games tennis tournament on February 16, 2003. As Venus Williams wowed throngs of spectators (many of them Diamond Center employees and security guards), Finotto's crew used their duplicate keys to sneak into 123 of the building's underground vaults. Simply riding the elevator down to the basement, they deactivated a motion sensor and taped over light detectors. Then, instead of just covering the lens of the CCTV (closed circuit television) security cameras, they avoided suspicion by replacing the tapes with previously recorded footage.

Of course, the biggest hurdle was getting past the vault's 12-inch thick doors. Knowing the doors were equipped with internal magnets that would set off alarms if they detached, the robbers drilled holes into them, carefully taped the magnets together, and moved them out of the way so that they wouldn't separate. After that, all they had to do was break the locks to the safety deposit boxes, rake in the diamonds, and then quietly flee the scene. To escape undetected, they memorized the surveillance patterns of the 24-hour police patrols outside the building. (Hey, they didn't have nicknames like King of Thieves and The Magician with the Keys for nothing.) Amazingly, even though the heist took place on a Saturday night, authorities didn't discover anything suspicious until Monday morning.

How They Got Caught: Here's a tip for would-be thieves: If you leave the crime scene with a bag full of diamonds and dispose of the bags on the road leading out of the city, make sure you don't leave your half-eaten sandwich in one of them. Inspectors used the DNA evidence on the food to nab Notarbartolo, who currently awaits prosecution. Investigators also found DNA evidence in one of the vaults that linked Finotto to the Belgian heist, but he was already back in Turin, Italy, safe from extradition. Meanwhile, none of the diamonds have been recovered. Some have microscopic inscriptions on them that would reveal their identity, but only if the thieves ever decide to sell them legally.

And with that, we're going dark for the next week. Hey, give us a break! We'll be back bright and early on January 1. Okay, January 2.

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December 22, 2006 - 11:54am
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