The great Belgian diamond theft turns from thriller to comedy

Jun 18 2013, 01:26 IST
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SummaryWhen squads of fake police officers arrived in a whirl of blue lights, they struck with clockwork precision, plundering closely

Doreen Carvajal

When squads of fake police officers arrived in a whirl of blue lights, they struck with clockwork precision, plundering closely guarded packets of diamonds from the cargo hold of a parked plane and fleeing without troubling the passengers.

Since the theft on the windblown tarmac of the Brussels airport in February, though, the episode has veered from thriller to comedy, featuring a roundup of unusual suspects who, naturally, came together in Casablanca, Morocco.

The robbery was marked by meticulous planning, inside information and swift execution—eight armed men in 11 minutes—that left investigators marvelling. As the investigation has deepened in Morocco, Belgian officials conceded last week that the value of the cargo stolen might be far higher than the $50 million first estimated. Some industry analysts said it could be worth as much as $350 million, which would rank the robbery among the biggest diamond thefts in Belgium, a hub of the international gem trade.

But the frantic effort to sell the diamonds afterward was so ham-handed that some who watch the industry have begun to doubt if the robbers were after diamonds at all. Since they were arrested after trying to sell the diamonds, most suspects have denied involvement, while others offered a defence rarely employed by the suave celluloid jewel thieves or their conspirators: stupidity.

The flawed second stage of the robbery is emerging in various legal proceedings since more than 30 people were detained in raids last month by investigators in Belgium, France and Switzerland. The suspects include a French former convict with a restaurant in Casablanca called Key West and a wealthy Geneva real estate investor who insists that he was conned into hiding a paper sack of gems.

“Today he can’t understand himself why he was so stupid,” said Shahram Dini, the lawyer for Pascal Pont, 56, the real estate investor. “He is someone who has a thriving real estate business, doesn’t need more money. It wasn’t for himself. It was a favour for someone who charmed him and also scared him.”

The key relationship, which helped crack the case, is the tie between Pont and Marc Bertoldi, 43, the Casablanca restaurateur, with a sideline exporting luxury cars and a prior conviction in France for trafficking in stolen cars. Bertoldi’s name first surfaced in an unrelated Swiss inquiry, prompting a wiretap that connected him to the robbery in Belgium.

Bertoldi and Pont met in 2011

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