The most storied jewel heist in modern history took place in 2003, when Leonardo Notarbartolo led a team of five thieves to stealing an alleged $100 million worth of diamonds, gold and currency from a vault in Belgium’s Antwerp Diamond Center. So, how did five people manage to make off with so many diamonds?
Notarbartolo spent months undercover, furnishing an office in the Diamond Center and posing as an Italian diamond merchant. During this time, he used a specialized pen with a hidden camera to take pictures of the vault and was able to make a complete replica of the vault in an off-site warehouse. Using this vault as practice, he hired four professionals to help him with the heist. They practiced the exact heist dozens of times, becoming proficient with the movements they’d need to make in the dark.
The day before the heist, Notarbartolo sprayed hairspray over the light and thermal detectors in the vault without security noticing him doing so. The thin layer of hairspray was enough to keep the sensors from picking up heat or light during the next day’s heist.
On Saturday, February 15, 2003, Notarbartolo and his accomplices drove to the Diamond Center and broke in by slipping through a back garden that backed up to the building. Using a vinyl sheet, they fooled an infrared scanner that could have detected them outside before slipping down into the basement that housed the vault. Moving in complete darkness, they covered the camera outside the vault and then unlocked the first lock using the combination they’d picked up using a camera hidden by Notarbartolo.
In a stroke of luck, a unique key needed for the next lock was just hanging in a nearby supply closet. They then used a thin sheet of aluminum to spoof a magnetic sensor that should have gone off when the door was opened and the magnetic field broken. Beyond the vault door, they were able to carefully pick the lock on a grate that blocked the next chamber. Within the vault, they once again covered the camera, this time with a black garbage bag. They covered the motion sensor and light sensor just to be safe, and then rewired the room so that none of the security features or guards could send an alarm.
The group then filled their bags with diamonds, jewels, gold and currency before slipping out completely undetected. Using plastic gloves, they’d left no DNA evidence behind at the scene. Notarbartolo was waiting for them outside in a car, and they sped off with the biggest heist haul of all time.
At one point, the group pulled over to burn their gloves and other evidence that might have connected them to the crime. One of the men threw out a half-eaten sandwich carelessly. Police later used DNA evidence on this sandwich to connect Notarbartolo to the crime, and he was arrested for his role in the heist.
He was sentenced to a decade behind bars. However, he never gave up his crew, and most of the diamonds and jewels from the heist were never recovered. To this day, the other four members of the crew are likely living large on the spoils from their masterfully-executed heist. A heist, in fact, that we would know much less about had one of them not thrown out a half-eaten sandwich on the highway.