Real Heist Stories: The $100 Million Diamond Heist

Most Shining Robbery or Gloomiest Heist of All?

If we go ahead and mention the $100 million diamond heist out of nowhere, you are probably not that familiar with it. However, when we say Antwerp, does it ring a bell? We bet it does. 

Robberies aren’t rare (unfortunately), and unlike what you might think, big ones happen more often than we would like to, and sometimes, even lives are involved in the process, not just money or other goods. 

Thus, whenever you open your newspaper every morning and start reading about new robbers and crimes, you don’t have to be that surprised, but you might get curious about how people decide to do it and how some have succeeded in the process. 

The $100 million diamond heist, or just the Antwerp diamond heist, is one of the most known robberies in history. Although it is pretty “recent” compared to others like The Banco Central Burglary, it isn’t less impressive. 

We decided to cover it today for two reasons: It has lots of details we personally want to handle, and we are sure you will love the storytelling of this infamous event. 

Stay for the ride, and you will be able to learn about this big theft. 

When It Occurred: Inside the Heist of the Century

Where should we start? This is going to take quite a while, considering that the heist took place in a very specific way, but mostly because there are many details previous to the days of the event. 

Hence, you will see us cover more than just the specific date and go back to when police officers could get it. 

For starters, The Antwerp World Diamond Centre in Antwerp, Belgium, was the objective of this heist since it is the international diamond trading centre.

With this in mind, the heist took place on February 16-16, 2003, which was a weekend by the time. 

Antwerp is home to eighty percent of the uncut diamonds in the world. Many of these are stored in an underground vault located two floors below the Diamond Centre in the city’s Gem District. 

It houses 160 safe deposit boxes that diamond brokers can use to leave their gems and negotiate deals with jewelers. It is not difficult to imagine the level of security required for such a large volume and its value.

The most advanced security systems at the time were used to protect the vault. 

They included a lock that could hold 100 million combinations, infrared heat detectors, and a Doppler radar with a magnetic field. The Diamond Centre also had its own private security force. We need to remember that it was located in the Antwerp three-block diamond district, which was heavily guarded and monitored. 

When people get to know all this, the question of how the thieves made it possible rises even more. 

Well, Leonardo Notarbartolo, our mastermind behind this crime, is quite the man that came up with the best idea.

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Explaining the robbery for you to have an entire picture, Leonardo Notarbartolo rented a sparsely furnished office for about $700 per month in the Antwerp World Diamond Centre. 

This technique was pioneered by Vojislav Stanimirovic, a New York City-based criminal authority, and this was done in New York’s Diamond Center many years before this robbery. 

It included accessing the safe deposit box, which is located beneath the building, and the method provided access to the building 24 hours a day through a tenant ID card.

To gain credibility, he disguised himself as an Italian diamond merchant, and it was possible to design this plan thanks to how long it took him: 18 months.

However, it is known that Leonardo had to spend a total of four years assembling his team and start with the preparations for the heist. 

The preparation took a lot of time due to how heavy the security was. By the time the crime was being investigated, investigators were left baffled by the group’s clever methods of getting around security systems and all the resources the center had used to protect the diamonds. 

In the end, a five-person team was the one who carried out the theft, including Leonardo Notarbartolo in it. 

Although five men were considered for the crime, it is uncertain whether there were more people involved or not. However, what we know is about the four main ones that are referred to with aliases: 

  • Speedy: He was a friend of Notarbartolo responsible for scattering rubbish in the woods (which we will learn later on). 
  • The Monster: A tall, muscular man. He was an expert lockpicker and electrician, mechanic, driver and was extremely strong. 
  • The Genius: A specialist in alarm systems and electronics expert who is often linked to a series of robberies.
  • The King of Keys: An older man who was known for being one of the most skilled key-forgers in the country.

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Planning the Heist – What Leonardo & His Team Did

We just separated this from the previous section since we are confident you will get lost with so much information together. 

That being said, we will be entering quite the long journey to understand how the heist took place. 

First, the team carried out surveillance on the Diamond Centre using camera pens to covertly take photos of the centre as well as the vault. Since Notarbartolo was disguised, security became accustomed to his frequent visits under the pretense of being a diamond merchant.

Later, the group concealed a small camera above the vault door in order to avoid the lighting being seen when it was on by the security guards.  

The purpose of the camera is to record the combination used by guards to open the vault door and then transmit its data to a sensor. This sensor was hidden in an ordinary-looking red fire setter in the centre, and it contained electronics that could receive data from the camera.

According to Notarbartolo, in order for the plan to be a success, the group practiced with a full-scale replica vault and made sure to get the security combination right. 

Notarbartolo had visited the vault the day before the robbery and posed as a routine visitor. For the robbery to be successful, he had to go through the trouble of applying women’s hair spray to the thermal-motion sensors during this last visit.

The oil from the product was transparent, but it would temporarily insulate and protect the sensor from thermal fluctuations since it would only turn off if the sensor detected heat or motion. 

The temporary protection would not last for long and was used by the group as a temporary measure to disable the sensor. Although this was caught on camera, the guard did not pay attention since he was used to his visits and decided to ignore him during this one. 

Going to the day of the robbery, Leonardo remained inside a nearby getaway car while it was taking place and listened to a police scanner before preparing to leave when the group was finished.

The entire team, to avoid fingerprints, used plastic gloves.

But how did they avoid the security cameras of the place, considering the center was surrounded? 

The King of Keys picked the lock to an old office building adjacent to the Diamond Centre to not be surrounded by security cameras, and it shared a private, unencumbered garden with the Diamond Centre.

Access to the garden’s center was allowed via a ladder to a small balcony. An infrared sensor monitored the terrace; the Genius created a large polyester shield from scratch to conceal his thermal signature and placed it in front of the sensor. As a result, the alarm was then deactivated on the balcony’s windows.

The black plastic bags were placed over the security cameras in the antechamber to allow the group to turn the lights on.

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The next problem was the magnetic lock installed on the vault door. It consisted of two plates that, when armed, would activate a magnetic field. When the door opened, the magnetic field would break and trigger an alarm. 

However, the Genius solved this, who attached heavy-duty double-sided tape on one side to an aluminum plate. The Genius then attached the tape to the bolts and unscrewed them. They were now loose, but they were still in their original position and creating a magnetic field and were positioned in a pivoted position and taped to an antechamber wall.

The King of Keys used video footage to create a duplicate of the nearly impossible-to-do duplicate vault key that measures six feet long. 

He discovered that guards were often in the utility room before opening the door and decided to investigate. He found the vault key in the unlocked room. The vault key was the reason he decided to steal it. This would have ensured that vault manufacturers didn’t know it could be duplicated. 

To avoid the vault’s light sensors being tripped, the group shut off the antechamber lights and opened the vault door.

The King of Keys had picked the lock for the internal gate. After practicing the steps, the Monster moved into the middle of the room, and he reached up to the ceiling to push back a panel. 

This allowed him to locate the inbound and outbound wires of the security system. An electric pulse energized the wires. If any of the sensors were broken or tripped, the circuit would be triggered. 

The Monster removed the wire’s protective coating and attached a piece to the copper wiring. This rerouted the circuit and made sure that the sensors didn’t trip.

The heat sensors were blinded by Styrofoam containers and light sensors with tape. After having learned the vault’s layout, the men worked in darkness, and sometimes, they would flicker their lights briefly to position the drill over the lockboxes.

To break the locks on the security boxes, the King of Keys used a hand crank drill. The contents were then put into duffel bags.

They finished at 5:30 am and returned to the office building. This took nearly an hour because of the need to be cautious. The men then took the bags to Notarbartolo’s car, who drove to the apartment while they returned by walking.

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Were They Ever Caught? Aftermath & Results

Well, to have a happy ending in this part, we can tell you they were indeed caught for the crime.

Speedy and Notarbartolo were in charge of disposing of the evidence of the plans and were planning to burn all of it in France (the robbery took place in Belgium, remember). 

However, they were caught due to a mistake made by Speedy, who panicked at the thought of transporting such incriminating information and demanded that it be disposed of in a nearby wood. 

Although the members agreed with it, Speedy panicked once more and decided to dispose of the evidence badly, throwing it in the bushes and mud rather than burning it. While Notarbartolo was next to him, he was busy igniting his own evidence. 

When he realized what Speedy had done, Notarbartolo decided that it would be too difficult to collect all the evidence and that they should leave since he believed nobody would find their rubbish. 

Unfortunately for them, a local hunter was the landowner, and he called the police the next day when he discovered the rubbish. He believed it to have been caused by teenagers with whom he had had previous disputes. 

The police immediately investigated the matter when he said that some of the rubbish was made up of Antwerp Diamond Centre envelopes and thanks to the findings.

This was part of the only evidence available since Notarbartolo, and the rest of his crew robbed the security footage in order to hide their identities. 

More than 160 safe deposits boxes were opened. Each of these safe deposit boxes was made from steel and copper, and each had both a combination lock and a key lock.

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Notarbartolo was convicted of orchestrating the heist, and he is even considering the leader of a ring of Italian jewel thieves who conducted the crime with him. 

When he was caught, he was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in prison in Antwerp in 2005. However, he was released on parole in 2009. 

After he was found guilty of violating his parole conditions as he didn’t compensate the heist victims, he was taken to prison in 2013 and had to serve the rest of his sentence, which was until 2017. 

Among the other members of the crime, the Genius, Monster, and Speedy were caught. However, the King of Keys was never found, just like the diamonds.

No, the diamonds and jewelry they stole were never recovered, and according to Leonardo during an interview with Wired magazine, the team was hired by diamond traders and claimed the robbery was part of insurance fraud and that the team only received $20 million from what they stole, which weren’t recovered either.

Although this is called the $100 million diamond heist, in reality, the crew stole more than this sum, and it is believed that a total of $130 million is a more exact amount missing. 

Sadly, for them, this could have been the perfect crime if it wasn’t for Speedy’s anxiousness and a big mistake.

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4 Facts About the Antwerp Diamond Heist 

  • Gold, silver, and other types of jewelry were also robbed during the event, not only diamonds. 
  • There was a film to be short based on the robbery but the planning period expired, and there haven’t been more reports to make it happen.
  • Speedy, Monster, and Genius are the aliases for (presumptively) Pietro Tavano, Ferdinando Finotto, and Simon, respectively. The real identity of the King of Keys is still unknown. 
  • There’s a book made based on the heist by Andrew Selby and Greg Campbell named “Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History.”

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