Rob Hardy: The big heist

March 22, 2010 12:57:00 PM

Rob Hardy - [email protected]


The heist movie is a Hollywood standard, so when a real heist is made, it is necessary for those telling about the real heist to compare it to the movie versions. Scott Andrew Selby and Greg Campbell have repeatedly done this in "Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History "(Union Square Press). They repeatedly refer to the 2001 remake "Ocean''s Eleven" when telling the story of the 2003 burglary of an office called the Diamond Center in the heart of the Diamond District in Antwerp. The movie is funny and exciting, and over-the-top unbelievable; the real crime as recounted here is the same, but given the detail with which it is reported by means of the play-by-play descriptions of protectors versus burglars, the unbelievability shrinks away to frank admiration.  


The team that took maybe half a billion dollars in diamonds, cash and precious metals were highly skilled technicians. Sure, they were robbers, and they bilked a lot of innocent people out of their money, but still, just like in the movies, you wind up rooting for the burglars and hoping the good-guy cops won''t catch them. In the story told in "Flawless," that''s almost the way it turned out. 


Antwerp in Brussels has been a traditional center for the diamond trade, especially within the famously guarded and monitored Diamond District, three short blocks that are home to thousands of businesses connected to gems, like banks, exchanges, certifiers, cutters, hardware stores (for such items as loupes and grinding wheels) and especially diamond merchants. There is a police station a half block away. Partially because the Diamond District is so fortified, with barriers to keep traffic out and cameras monitoring all comings and goings, the diamantaires carry on their transactions like colleagues, informally carrying around millions of dollars of diamonds in their pockets. 


Maybe $200 million would be traded in a single business day. It was hard to become an official Antwerp diamantaire, but easy to pose as a dealer and take a business office within the Diamond Center, an office complex in the heart of the district with a subterranean vault for deposit boxes. And this how Leonardo Notarbartolo got his admission. Notarbartolo actually did design jewelry and had a jewelry store, but if the woman who rented him an office in the Diamond Center had checked, she would have found he had a record in his home, Turin, as a hustler and thief. Notarbartolo, however, was charming and had an air of confidence, always without making too strong an impression.  


Notarbartolo was there as the legman for the "School of Turin," a group of professional technicians whose expertise is robbery. (Although the book centers on Notarbartolo''s activities, and he was accused of being the ringmaster of the heist, it is not known if he was the actual leader.) They might have been criminals, but they were brilliant at thwarting security procedures; detectives investigating their crimes suspected that the challenge of getting past alarm systems was a thrill equal to that of getting rich. They had a strict code prohibiting violence. It was crime at a cerebral level, and to apply the School''s principles to the Diamond Center required carefully examining the building, the multiple security systems, and the vault itself.  


Much of the first half of "Flawless" shows just how Notarbartolo "cased the joint," a considerably more involved process than the movies depict. If a movie showed what he did, it would be a boring movie. For more than two years, he pretended to go to work in his office, and while he had the run of the building, he carried a shoulder bag with a concealed video camera in it. He looked at wiring, hardware, security procedures, and took the tapes back to his team in Turin, where they assessed them and considered where he needed to be filming the next go around. He was able to get the administrator of the building to supply a blueprint of it when he said he was considering moving to a larger office within. All the information was evaluated over many months as the team came up with a plan. As the authors say, heist movies never show steps like "... interminable hours staring at blueprints and watching videotapes over and over and drawing a blank."  


The main way that the robbers succeeded is that, although they used plenty of hardware and lockpicking, they exploited human error. They knew, for instance, that although the Diamond Center was regarded as having high security, it was using old-fashioned VCR security tapes instead of computer disks, and it had not upgraded to motion detectors that would be set off if they were masked. They knew that the guards were lazy and did not make their rounds regularly, and were taking shortcuts in the use of their keys and safeguards. Notarbartolo''s work made all this plain.  


By the time he and his crew entered the center at midnight around Valentine''s Day in 2003, they knew just what they were getting into and what to expect. Some of their tricks were decidedly low-tech: the motion alarm stopped sensing anything when it was sprayed with hair spray; the heat detector went cold when encased in styrofoam; the light sensor went blind when covered with a bit of electrical tape. The lock boxes within the vault, however, had to be cracked with a special tool they had designed for the purpose. It all went smoothly; one of their biggest problems was that there was such a wealth of treasure they could not carry it all out. On the morning of the next workday, when guards, administrators, and police sequentially became aware of the theft, they found watches, gems, and even a brick of gold on the floor. The burglars had made off with better goods, and had scrupulously cleaned up after themselves, leaving no clues. 


If the gang took advantage of human error to gain its access, it was human error that tripped up them afterwards, and without giving too much away, the crime was solved by revelations from a cranky retiree who felt personally responsible for a tiny patch of Belgian forest and was hugely offended if he found garbage dumped there. It should be noted that the gang did not follow the movie convention of a double-cross; they were thieves, but there was certainly honor among them, even as the investigation tightened upon them.  


Four of the men, including Notarbartolo, were arrested (there may have been others involved), and went to jail. They are all out now, and what is more significant, the loot is still missing. It would seem that for the trouble of relatively short jail terms, they kept unimaginable wealth. Notarbartolo himself may be looking for a handy way to launder his spoils; he told a completely different version of the heist tale to "Wired," and he and the author of the article may be producing a movie based on it. Another heist movie, coming soon to a theater near you. 


Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]