Why you should care
Because diamonds are a bad guy’s best friend.
Hands Up: Our take on some of the world’s most intriguing bank robberies. Read more.
If police had known they would open a vault in February 2003 to discover the biggest-ever diamond heist, they probably would’ve expected to find it stripped bare. But on the Monday after a ring of thieves made off with the historic haul from the Antwerp Diamond Centre, authorities found the floor littered with gold, gems and cash — a messy signature that would prove their undoing.
With limited room in their bags, the criminals had been forced to make choices, sorting through the loot to select only the most valuable stones. As they hurried, they left a veritable fortune behind — even if they did manage to bag between $100 million and $432 million worth of goods.
Respectability is a great way for crooks to gain access to their targets, and when he moved to Antwerp around 2000, his actions point to a pretty clear motive.
Based in Turin, Italian Leonardo Notarbartolo was a career thief who committed his first robbery at the age of 8. The story goes that young Leo was running an errand to buy milk and wound up ripping off the milkman’s stash of lira. Notarbartolo, widely recognized as the ringleader of a band of thieves known as the School of Turin, served time in a Belgian prison for the Antwerp heist. Yet he maintains that the true story about what happened that night in 2003 is very different.
In a splashy piece for Wired in 2009, Notarbartolo claimed that he was not the orchestrator. Sure, he stole the gems, but the whole thing, he said, was an elaborate insurance fraud organized by a Jewish diamond dealer. The fantastical tale even included a replica vault that helped the group of robbers learn the terrain well enough to feel their way past the diamond center’s byzantine security measures in the pitch-dark.
But that’s a career criminal’s “truth.” “Everyone we talked to in Belgium and Italy agreed that Notarbartolo’s version of events … was a self-serving, anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that made little to no sense,” says Scott Selby, who co-wrote Flawless, a book about the robbery.
The official story is that Notarbartolo opened a jewelry storefront in Turin, in what authorities agree was a cagey way to gain access to a notoriously insider industry and rob his fellow jewelry hucksters blind. Respectability is a great way for crooks to gain access to their targets, so when he moved to Antwerp around 2000, Notarbartolo rented office space in the Antwerp Diamond Centre — which notably did not conduct background checks on tenants — and proceeded to case the joint.
Using a combination of high-tech methods — like mimicking a code of electronic signals to fool the garage-door sensors — and low-tech ones, like spritzing hair spray on heat detectors to temporarily disable them, the thieves made their way to the vault’s combination lock. With 100 million potential combinations, the lock remains the heist’s biggest mystery. Notarbartolo claims he was able to record the combination through the use of a video camera, but the position of the lock in relation to anyone unlocking it would likely have blocked it from view. A more obvious theory is that whoever last locked the vault simply forgot to spin the wheel when they left.
“While they were no slouches, I also do think they got lucky,” says Joseph Cummins, author of Heists. Notarbartolo’s account portrays his gang as a band of expert thieves — which sounds better if you’re angling for a movie deal. But, as Cummins says, “luck probably got them into the vault itself.”
The one thing that is certain is that Notarbartolo got caught. Once the thieves absconded, the police received a big break when a curmudgeonly retiree named August Van Camp called about rubbish that had been dumped on his property. Van Camp often called to complain about trespassers, but this time he vented about a jumble of envelopes from the Antwerp Diamond Centre, a videotape and a half-eaten salami sandwich dumped on his land. Police rushed to the scene and picked up the evidence that led them straight to Notarbartolo.
The litter gave prosecutors all the proof and DNA they needed to send Notarbartolo to prison for 10 years, with three of his conspirators sentenced to five years each. But that didn’t help police locate the stolen jewels. “By now, the vast majority of the stolen diamonds have been sold many times over and could be on the ring fingers of some of your readers,” Selby says.
It might all have been worth it for everlasting fame. After all, J.J. Abrams optioned the movie rights to the Wired article’s story about the heist. But for now, Notarbartolo’s luck seems to have run dry: The movie project has been pushed aside for the priceless haul of other films.