A panther's best friend?
A panther's best friend?
Till Krause

VIENNA - It's 11:45 a.m. on March 5, 2004 when two men enter the Maki diamond and jewelry store in Tokyo, set to commit the biggest theft in Japanese history.

One of the men has brown leather gloves and a bag with the Cartier logo, the other is in all dark clothes. They are shown the Comtesse de Vendome necklace, a jewelry masterpiece adorned with 116 diamonds and worth 24 million euros.

At 11:46 a.m. the surveillance cameras show the following scene: One of the men gets a piece of paper out of his bag, as if he wants to write something down for the salesperson. As the employee bends over, the man sprays him in the face with pepper spray. His accomplice breaks the glass with a hammer, grabs the necklace and some other diamonds, and the two thieves run out of the store and flee on motorcycles. The whole thing lasts less than 40 seconds.

The Comtesse de Vendome necklace has not been seen since.

It was the most lucrative theft for a criminal gang so renowned that the police have given it a nickname: the Pink Panthers, named after the eponymous 1964 Blake Edwards comedy film about a famous jewel thief and the bumbling French police inspector on his trail.

The thieves have obviously taken inspiration from the film: In a police raid in London, inspectors found a 600,000-euro diamond ring hidden in a lotion container, just like in the movie. Lately the gang, which according to Interpol has made off with more than 330 million euros worth of loot, has become a kind of myth: The most successful criminals in the world, who rob jewelry stores with a mixture of creativity and audacity and always seem to be a few minutes ahead of the police.

Though Interpol continues to struggle with penetrating the network, the Pink Panthers don't have a perfect record of police evasion. Over the years, authorities have managed to arrest various members and runners that the gang recruited to do their dirty work. In fact, on June 18, one member was arrested in Charenton-le-Pont, just southeast of Paris, after being convicted of armed robbery and kidnapping in Germany, according to the Belgian news agency Belga.

The thefts

Most of the crimes follow a similar pattern: Well-dressed thieves enter a jewelry shop in groups of two to five, pretending to be clients. Often they have been scouting the shop for weeks to figure out where the most valuable piece of jewelry is kept. Then they strike. Two men threaten the employee; others grab as much jewelry out of the cases as they can hold.

The getaway has been studied in advance, and they have also worked out the distance from the closest police station. They put briefcases in the door to prevent the doors from locking when the alarm goes off. They outwit the surveillance cameras with their attire: Wigs, sunglasses and make-up are as much their tools as the hammer they use to break the glass. There are other ways their tactics seem to be taken straight from a Hollywood script.

In Rome, an attractive woman wooed the son of a jeweler in order to find out where the most expensive diamonds were located. After a theft, the Panthers often flee on foot, going the opposite direction of traffic on a one-way street, which makes pursuit difficult. In Dubai, they crashed a stolen Audi A8 into a jewelry store’s display window and cleaned the store out in less than two minutes; in Saint-Tropez they dressed as tourists and fled on a motorboat.

The stolen goods are then often smuggled into other countries – hidden in a sandwich, for instance – given false certificates and, in many cases, circulated on the regular market.

The investigators

Somebody is making a fortune from these hold-ups. But who? According to Ewald Ebner, one of the head “Panther-hunters” at Interpol in Vienna, the risk and payoff don’t make sense. “Most of the criminals we catch are unemployed guys who rob stores for a little spending money,” he said. He proudly tells of successful arrests, even if they are only for the lowest-rung gang members. The jails are full of the so-called runners, who are given a couple hundred euros for breaking the glass and running away quickly. They are promised promotions in the gang’s hierarchy, but most end up in jail. There are more than 50 of them in jail in Germany and Austria, almost all of them from the former Yugoslavia. Hardly any of them talk, the loot has still not been found and there is no trace of the people behind the operation.

But the investigators can’t be accused of inaction. Some 100 investigators worked on the theft in Tokyo, and two years later, two Serbian men were in jail. Just like the others, they refused to give any clues about the loot’s location or the gang’s upper echelon.

Joachim Kledtke, an organized crime expert in Dusseldorf, has interrogated a couple of Panthers. “They seem smart, often speak many languages and are somewhat shy.” The lawyer of one of the Panthers likes to tell the story of how some Panthers were fleeing a crime and knocked over an old lady: They excused themselves and helped her up. When the man behind the Dubai heist was finally arrested in France in 2008, he gave himself up with the words, “good work.”

Interpol has a special working group dedicated to the Panthers, and they met recently to discuss new strategies in Vienna. Kledtke says that cracking the gang’s secrets will require close international cooperation. Many of the criminals that have been caught use fake or stolen passports.

Another investigator who was present in Vienna admitted that even the investigators were a bit fascinated by the Panthers – especially over beers after the conference, investigators keep coming back to the Hollywood influence. He also named one place the investigators have to look at a little closer: Centinje in Montenegro. Many of the runners that have been caught, like the one recently arrested in Paris, hail from the town of less than 14,000 inhabitants near the Adriatic sea. It may very well be the Pink Panther’s den.

Why Montenegro?

The town of Cetinje, where the country's president lives, looks like an advertisement: Roads snake through green hills, the Adriatic Sea shimmers and yachts in the distance are anchored under palm trees. It’s a favorite vacation spot for the wealthy, but Montenegro, with an average income of less than 500 euros per month, is one of the poorest countries in Europe. There are empty houses and stray dogs. A big factory, that once employed 6,000 people, has been closed since the UN imposed economic sanctions against Montenegro in the 1990s because of fighting after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

Duda Pajovic’s bar is near the empty factory. “No one has work here," he says. "Just look around." This is where the Panthers recruit. Pajovic says he has been approached, but he declined. The nearby supermarket is owned by a supposed former Panther, as is a nearby cafe. “At least they give people jobs,” says one of the customers. “I don’t care where the money comes from. The important thing is that it comes to us.”

Filip (not his real name) has arms like clubs, scars, a bald head and sunglasses. He suggested that we meet in a pizzeria, and only agreed to a meeting because our photographer knows someone from his hometown. Filip’s first thefts for the Panthers were years ago, but he still remembers perfectly: “In quickly, take everything, out quickly,” he explains. Much of what he told us was later confirmed by the police.

The group sold its loot to middlemen for about 25 percent of its market value. Filip's group took orders — the pieces were pre-sold, and the thefts were often arranged with the shop owners beforehand — resulting in insurance money for the shopkeepers and a black market flush with stolen goods. After the heists, the loot is often dropped in a trash can, and nearby the middleman is waiting, often dressed as a sanitation worker, to pick up the "garbage." To prevent anyone from seeing the hand-off, they often park a car nearby and set the alarm off just before the drop. If there is a bench near the drop point, they might use a “wet paint” sign.

Filip is a trained chef who couldn’t find work in his profession, but he refused to say how much he made from robbing jewelry stores. He did tell us one of his disguise techniques — he would wear a too-large stuffed suit to the robbery, which he would shed in the escape car. He would also shave in the backseat. “A fat guy with a beard gets in, a thin guy with no beard gets out,” he explained. Filip isn’t afraid of the police. “We’re ahead of them,” he says. Filip spoke to a journalist because he thinks a lot of nonsense is written about the Pink Panthers. The real Panthers, he says, have principles: No real weapons are used during the robberies, and no one says a word to police.

We tried to speak with a representative from Interpol, which has an office in Podgorica, Montenegro’s capital. We never got a response to our repeated requests. It seems to be easier to talk to criminals than to the police in this country that Foreign Affairs magazine characterizes as a “mafia state.” There’s a popular song that goes, “We don’t steal from Montenegro, we steal for Montenegro.”

Our meeting with Ivan (also not his real name) was up in the air until the last minute. He’s high in the group’s hierarchy, and doesn’t rob stores himself. Instead, he is concerned with selling the stolen goods. He is about 50, smells like aftershave and looks like he’s spent a lot of time in the sun. He lives in a rich European country and is in Montenegro for a family event. He sees himself as a businessman, and has three passports — two of which are fake.

“What do you want to know?” he asks.

“What happens to the loot?”

“There are very few customers who can afford the stolen stones," he says. "Maybe a dozen, most of them are in Belgium, Israel, the USA and Arab countries.” He mostly communicates with the clients through Skype, often using code words. For Arab countries, the code word is “blond women.”

He doesn’t know much about the guys who actually do the robbing. “It doesn’t interest me much. The most important thing is that they deliver.”

He is leaving Montenegro that same day, and nods goodbye. A couple seconds later, he disappears.

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