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Hulu documentary on the 'world’s most ingenious thief' hopes to steal viewers this week

It’s hard not to feel grudging respect for Gerald Daniel Blanchard’s long resume of crime — no matter what side of the law you’re on

Mark Kennedy
Wednesday 12 July 2023 18:02 BST

It's hard not to feel grudging respect for Gerald Daniel Blanchard's long resume of crime — no matter what side of the law you're on.

He once stole half a million dollars from a bank before it officially opened by using a concealed pinhole camera inside the branch. He escaped from a police interrogation room by hiding in the ceiling tiles. Then there was the time he swapped a priceless jewel from an alarm-equipped museum display case with a gift shop replica, Indiana Jones-style.

“It’s like a chess game. You need to know 10 moves ahead of what the police are doing,” Blanchard said in a recent Zoom interview. “I was more into it for the thrill and the excitement.”

Wired magazine called Blanchard the “world’s most ingenious thief,” and The Globe and Mail newspaper described him as "Canada’s most sophisticated bank robber and fraud artist." Audiences can get into his head when Hulu airs the documentary feature “The Jewel Thief” on Thursday.

Director Landon Van Soest traces Blanchard's evolution into a criminal mastermind, going from shoplifting at an Iowa RadioShack as a teen to stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars while disguised in a burqa in Cairo. He often taunted police to try and catch him.

“For me, it’s really a film about obsession and ambition and addiction that kept driving him to something bigger,” said Van Soest. “He always had to outdo himself. He always had to outsmart someone.”

A portrait emerges of a creative, calculating and patient man with a strong engineering bent despite a learning disability and borderline dyslexia. But Blanchard is not always a reliable narrator, with some of his embellishments knocked down in the documentary.

“There were a lot of different versions of many of these stories,” said Van Soest. “We just kind of chose to lean into that. We were going to present many different versions of some of these stories and let the viewers walk away and make up their own minds.”

The movie uses interviews with Blanchard and footage from his own extensive archives, as well as speaking with his mother, accomplices and the police who chased him. It's enlivened by a soundtrack that includes songs like Jane’s Addiction’s “Been Caught Stealing.”

Blanchard was a thin, nerdy-looking kid who grew up poor in Omaha, Nebraska, with a single mom who worked two jobs, and he developed a grudge against banks.

“I like stealing from the banks and corporations,” he tells the AP. "The reason why I don’t like stealing from people is because they work hard for the money. I remember my mom crying on the phone when I was younger saying, ‘We don’t have the money to turn the lights on. Our food is going to go bad.’”

Early petty shoplifting emboldened him to disconnect a RadioShack's alarm system and take the entire inventory one Easter Sunday. He sold it all to friends and teachers. His home was soon visited by a SWAT team.

Blanchard later figured out how to scam stores by crafting fake receipts for shoplifted goods and returning them for a refund, a skill he used when he found himself penniless at the Canada border after serving 4 1/2 years behind bars.

A customs agent gave him $10 to take the bus. He instead bought a $9 disposable camera and stole another, photocopied the sales receipt at a Staples for 10 cents, and returned both. With the money, he did the same thing with more expensive items — a rechargeable battery and a computer program. By the end of the day, he had a couple hundred dollars.

“The Jewel Thief” would likely not have been made — or at least the tone would be vastly different — if Blanchard's crimes had caused bloodshed or death. His honor code, or his criminal calculations, didn't include anyone getting hurt.

“I would always scale my crimes,” he explained. “If you use a gun, what’s the consequences? If you don’t use a gun, what’s the consequence? Could somebody be hurt? And so I put a scale and I basically thought in my mind, what’s the least amount of prison time I could get if I got caught?”

The crime that would put Blanchard in prison for a long time started when he walked into a Canadian bank under construction wearing a hardhat and safety vest bought at a Home Depot. He installed a $50 Toys R Us baby monitor into a wall and messed with the motion detector so he could shut it off. Blanchard watched remotely as money was put into ATM machines, and struck that night.

As you might guess, Blanchard is not much of a fan of TV crime shows. “It frustrates me. And I can’t watch it because it’s so fake. I always analyze it saying, ‘They should have did it this way or that way’ or ‘You can’t do it this way.’ I’m always analyzing and thinking things many steps ahead.”

Blanchard's list of crimes — including, as a prisoner, breaking into the commissary of the Anamosa State Penitentiary in Iowa — includes the 1998 theft of one of Sisi’s stars, a jewel once belonging to a 19th century Austrian empress. He had replaced it with a fake, a ruse which went unnoticed for several days.

The piece was only recovered when Blanchard — looking for a deal from prosecutors — took police to his grandmother’s Winnipeg house, where the jewel had been carefully stashed. In fact, Blanchard still had much of the cash he stole. He wasn't a big spender.

“I had lots of money and I never just blew it away or threw it away like most people do. I would always save it. If I could steal something, that’s what I would do,” he says.

It's hard to watch “The Jewel Thief” without wondering if he could have used his skills for good, such as advising on bank security.

Van Soest calls him “clearly a very intelligent, very capable person that could have offered something much more positive to society.” But Blanchard says that once he had a criminal record, law enforcement jobs became impossible.

He tells The AP he's happy with where his life is now. “I learned deep inside myself is the void that I have, which is money doesn’t bring happiness,” he said.

“I’ve lived a poor life being young. I lived a wealthy life. I've lived the middle class life. So I’ve had the whole spectrum in my lifetime and I’m comfortable with living a normal middle class life.”


Mark Kennedy is at

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