The Belgian job

The diamond heist was worthy of a film plot. It featured a gang of ice-cool thieves and a $100m haul that was never found. David Randall reports
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The Independent Online

The inside story of how a team of criminals beat a security system thought to be impregnable, committing the world's largest diamond robbery, has been told for the first time.

The vault at the Antwerp Diamond Centre was protected by no fewer than 10 levels of security: radar, a seismic sensor, heat detectors, cameras, a magnetic field, and a safe with 100 million possible combinations. But the thieves used a full-scale model of the vault to devise a way of penetrating the defences, and, one weekend in 2003, staged one of the most sophisticated robberies ever attempted.

The plan worked. They were able to plunder more than 100 strong boxes at their leisure, and escaped with gems, cash, gold and jewellery worth an estimated $100m.

The account of what would – barring one elementary error during their getaway – have been a perfect, and fabulously lucrative, crime comes in the forthcoming issue of the US magazine Wired. In a series of interviews before and after his release from prison, the heist's main man, Leonardo Notarbartolo, tells how the raid was carried out. The Italian had begun his light-fingered work in Antwerp's diamond quarter back in 2000, and was steadily successful. Then, one day, a dealer approached him and said: "I'd like to hire you for a big robbery." He wasn't joking. The target was the vault at the Diamond Centre, one of the most heavily secured places on earth.

Notarbartolo had a box in the vault, and so, with the aid of a marker pen in his top pocket that took scores of photographs, he was able to case the joint. He told the man that the job was impossible. Five months later, the dealer took him to a disused warehouse, and threw back some sheeting to reveal a perfect replica of the vault, and the team of experts he had recruited. The conspirators sounded like characters created by a scriptwriter: the Genius, an alarms specialist; the King of Keys, a locksmith; and the Monster, a big, strong jack of all trades.

And so began their preparations, including planting a camera inside one of the vault's fire extinguishers to record the door's combination. After all, they could not use force – there were seismic sensors, and the door had been built to resist 12 hours of continuous drilling. As a final precaution on the day before the robbery, Notarbartolo paid a visit to his strong box and disabled the heat and motion sensor with hairspray.

In the early hours of Saturday 15 March, they struck. They picked the lock of a building next to the Diamond Centre, went through to the garden, used a ladder to climb on to the second-floor terrace, and disabled a heat sensor by placing a polyester shield over it. Once inside the centre, they went down a stairway and into the vault's antechamber, where they put plastic bags over security cameras before flipping on the lights. The magnetic field monitor they circumnavigated with aluminium. They found the vault key, dialled the combination the camera had given them, and entered.

More locks were picked and sensors knocked out. Then, at the vault entrance, came the most delicate operation of all – re-routing the device that sensed if any electric circuits were interrupted. A motion sensor was disabled with Styrofoam. With that done, they could drill open the strong boxes and start to fill their duffel bags with diamonds, millions in cash, gold bars and jewellery. They ransacked 109 of the boxes before, at 5.30am, it was time to go.

And they might have got away with it, had Notarbartolo and a sidekick not dumped a bag of wastepaper by the side of a Belgian road as they fled. It contained enough by way of receipts and so on to put Notarbartolo and three colleagues away. Only the King of Keys avoided being caught. But one more thing was never found: the loot. All $100m of it. Maybe – especially if, as Notarbartolo maintains, this was essentially an insurance job by the dealer and his friends – it really was the perfect crime.