From Wired, March 12, 2009:
Leonardo Notarbartolo strolls into the prison visiting room trailing a guard as if the guy were his personal assistant. The other convicts in this eastern Belgian prison turn to look. Notarbartolo nods and smiles faintly, the laugh lines crinkling around his blue eyes. Though he's an inmate and wears the requisite white prisoner jacket, Notarbartolo radiates a sunny Italian charm. A silver Rolex peeks out from under his cuff, and a vertical strip of white soul patch drops down from his lower lip like an exclamation mark.
In February 2003, Notarbartolo was arrested for heading a ring of Italian thieves. They were accused of breaking into a vault two floors beneath the Antwerp Diamond Center and making off with at least $100 million worth of loose diamonds, gold, jewelry, and other spoils. The vault was thought to be impenetrable. It was protected by 10 layers of security, including infrared heat detectors, Doppler radar, a magnetic field, a seismic sensor, and a lock with 100 million possible combinations. The robbery was called the heist of the century, and even now the police can't explain exactly how it was done.
The loot was never found, but based on circumstantial evidence, Notarbartolo was sentenced to 10 years. He has always denied having anything to do with the crime and has refused to discuss his case with journalists, preferring to remain silent for the past six years.
Notarbartolo sits down across from me at one of the visiting room's two dozen small rectangular tables. He has an intimidating reputation. The Italian anti-Mafia police contend he is tied to the Sicilian mob, that his cousin was tapped to be the next capo dei capi—the head of the entire organization. Notarbartolo intends to set the record straight. He puts his hands on the table. He has had six years to think about what he is about to say.
"I may be a thief and a liar," he says in beguiling Italian-accented French. "But I am going to tell you a true story."
It was February 16, 2003 — a clear, frozen Sunday evening in Belgium. Notarbartolo took the E19 motorway out of Antwerp. In the passenger seat, a man known as Speedy fidgeted nervously, damp with sweat. Notarbartolo punched it, and his rented Peugeot 307 sped south toward Brussels. They hadn't slept in two days.
Speedy scanned the traffic behind them in the side-view mirror and maintained a tense silence. Notarbartolo had worked with him for 30 years—they were childhood buddies—but he knew that his friend had a habit of coming apart at the end of a job. The others on the team hadn't wanted Speedy in on this one—they said he was a liability. Notarbartolo could see their point, but out of loyalty, he defended his friend. Speedy could handle it, he said.
And he had. They had executed the plan perfectly: no alarms, no police, no problems. The heist wouldn't be discovered until guards checked the vault on Monday morning. The rest of the team was already driving back to Italy with the gems. They'd rendezvous outside Milan to divvy it all up. There was no reason to worry. Notarbartolo and Speedy just had to burn the incriminating evidence sitting in a garbage bag in the backseat.
Notarbartolo pulled off the highway and turned onto a dirt road that led into a dense thicket. The spot wasn't visible from the highway, though the headlights of passing cars fractured through the trees. Notarbartolo told Speedy to stay put and got out to scout the area.
He passed a rusty, dilapidated gate that looked like it hadn't been touched since the Second World War. It was hard to see in the dark, but the spot seemed abandoned. He decided to burn the stuff near a shed beside a small pond and headed back to the car.
When he got there, he couldn't believe what he was seeing. Speedy had lost it. The contents of the garbage bag was strewn amongst the trees. Speedy was stomping through the mud, hurling paper into the underbrush. Spools of videotape clung to the branches like streamers on a Christmas tree. Israeli and Indian currency skittered past a half-eaten salami sandwich. The mud around the car was flecked with dozens of tiny, glittering diamonds. It would take hours to gather everything up and burn it.
"I think someone's coming," Speedy said, looking panicked.
Notarbartolo glared at him. The forest was quiet except for the occasional sound of a car or truck on the highway. It was even possible to hear the faint gurgling of a small stream. Speedy was breathing fast and shallow—the man was clearly in the midst of a full-blown panic attack.
"Get back in the car," Notarbartolo ordered. They were leaving. Nobody would ever find the stuff here.
The job was done.
Patrick Peys and Agim De Bruycker arrived at the Diamond Center the next morning. They had just received a frantic call: The vault had been compromised. The subterranean chamber was supposed to be one of the most secure safes in the world. Now the foot-thick steel door was ajar, and more than 100 of the 189 safe-deposit boxes had been busted open. Peys and De Bruycker were stunned. The floor was strewn with wads of cash and velvet-lined boxes. Peys stepped on a diamond-encrusted bracelet. It appeared that the thieves had so much loot, they simply couldn't carry it all away.
Peys and De Bruycker lead the Diamond Squad, the world's only specialized diamond police. Their beat: the labyrinthine Antwerp Diamond District. Eighty percent of the world's rough diamonds pass through this three-square-block area, which is under 24-hour police surveillance and monitored by 63 video cameras. About $3 billion worth of gem sales were reported here in 2003, but that's not counting a hidden world of handshake deals and off-ledger transactions. Business relationships follow the ancient family and religious traditions of the district's dominant Jewish and Indian dealers, known as diamantaires. In 2000, the Belgian government realized it would require a special type of cop to keep an eye on things and formed the squad. Peys and De Bruycker were the first hires.
De Bruycker called headquarters, asking for a nationwide alert: The Antwerp Diamond Center had been brazenly robbed. Then he dialed Securilink, the vault's alarm company.
"What is the status of the alarm?" he asked.
"Fully functional," the operator said, checking the signals coming in from the Diamond Center. "The vault is secure."
"Then how is it that the door is wide open and I'm standing inside the vault?" De Bruycker demanded, glancing at the devastation all around him.
He hung up and looked at Peys. They were up against a rare breed of criminal.
About 18 months earlier, in the summer of 2001, Leonardo Notarbartolo sipped an espresso at a café on Hoveniersstraat, the diamond district's main street. It was a cramped, narrow place with a half-dozen small tables, but from the corner by the window Notarbartolo could look out on the epicenter of the world's diamond trade. During business hours, Hasidic men wearing broad-brimmed hats hurried past with satchels locked to their wrists. Armored cars idled tensely while burly couriers with handguns wheeled away small black suitcases. There were Africans in bright blue suits, Indian merchants wearing loupes around their necks, and bald Armenians with reading glasses pushed up on their mottled heads.
Billions of dollars in diamonds pass by the café's window. During the day, they travel from office to office in briefcases, coat pockets, and off-the-shelf rollies. At night, all those gems are locked up in safes and underground vaults. It's one of the densest concentrations of wealth in the world.
It's also a thief's paradise. In 2000, Notarbartolo rented a small office in the Diamond Center, one of the area's largest buildings. He presented himself as a gem importer based in Turin, Italy, and scheduled meetings with numerous dealers. He bought small stones, paid cash, dressed well, and cheerfully mangled the French language. The dealers probably never knew that they had just welcomed one of the world's best jewel thieves into their circle.
By his own account, Notarbartolo had pulled off dozens of major robberies by 2000. It wasn't just about the money anymore. He stole because he was born to be a thief. He still remembers every detail of his first robbery. It was 1958—he was 6. His mother had sent him out for milk, and he came back with 5,000 lira—about $8. The milkman had been asleep, and young Leo rifled through his drawers. His mother beat him, but it didn't matter. He had found his calling.
In elementary school, he filched money from his teachers. As a teenager, he stole cars and learned to pick locks. In his twenties, he devoted himself to the study of people, tracking jewelry salesmen around Italy for weeks just to understand their habits. In his thirties, he began to assemble teams of thieves, each with their own specialty. He knew lock-picking experts, alarm aces, safecrackers, guys who could tunnel under anything, and a man who could scale the sleek exteriors of office buildings. Each job brought a different mix of thieves into play. Most, including Notarbartolo, lived in or near Turin, and the group came to be known as the School of Turin.
Notarbartolo's specialty was charm. Acting the part of the jolly jeweler, he was invited into offices, workshops, and even vault rooms to inspect merchandise. He would buy a few stones and then, a week or a month later, steal the target's entire stock in the middle of the night.
Antwerp provided a wealth of opportunity and a good place to fence hot property. A diamond necklace stolen in Italy could be dismantled and its individual gems sold for cash in Antwerp. He came to town about twice a month, stayed a few days at a small apartment near the Diamond District, then drove home to his wife and kids in the foothills of the Alps.
When he had stolen goods to sell, he dealt with only a few trusted buyers. Now, as he finished his espresso, one of them—a Jewish dealer—came in and sat down to chat.
"Actually, I want to talk to you about something a little unusual," the dealer said casually. "Maybe we could walk a little?"
They headed out, and once they were clear of the district, the dealer picked up the conversation. His tone had changed however. The casualness was gone.
"I'd like to hire you for a robbery," he said. "A big robbery."
The agreement was straightforward. For an initial payment of 100,000 euros, Notarbartolo would answer a simple question: Could the vault in the Antwerp Diamond Center be robbed?
He was pretty sure the answer was no. He was a tenant in the building and rented a safe-deposit box in the vault to secure his own stash. He viewed it as the safest place to keep valuables in Antwerp. But for 100,000 euros, he was happy to photograph the place and show the dealer how daunting it really was.
So he strolled into the Diamond District with a pen poking out of his breast pocket. At a glance, it looked like a simple highlighter, but the cap contained a miniaturized digital camera capable of storing 100 high-resolution images. Photography is strictly limited in the district, but nobody noticed Notarbartolo's pencam.
He began his reconnaissance at the police surveillance booth on the Schupstraat, a street leading into the center of the district. Behind the booth's bulletproof glass, two officers monitored the area. The three main blocks of the district bristled with video cameras: Every inch of street and sky appeared to be under watch. The booth also contained the controls for the retractable steel cylinders that are deployed to prevent vehicular access to the district. As Notarbartolo walked past, he began taking pictures.
He headed toward the Diamond Center itself, a gray, 14-story, fortresslike building on the south end of the district. It had a private security force that operated a nerve center located at the entrance. Access was blocked by metal turnstiles, and visitors were questioned by guards. Notarbartolo flashed his tenant ID card and breezed through. His camera captured crisp images of everything.
He took the elevator, descending two floors underground to a small, claustrophobic room—the vault antechamber. A 3-ton steel vault door dominated the far wall. It alone had six layers of security. There was a combination wheel with numbers from 0 to 99. To enter, four numbers had to be dialed, and the digits could be seen only through a small lens on the top of the wheel. There were 100 million possible combinations.
Power tools wouldn't do the trick. The door was rated to withstand 12 hours of nonstop drilling. Of course, the first vibrations of a drill bit would set off the embedded seismic alarm anyway.
The door was monitored by a pair of abutting metal plates, one on the door itself and one on the wall just to the right. When armed, the plates formed a magnetic field. If the door were opened, the field would break, triggering an alarm. To disarm the field, a code had to be typed into a nearby keypad. Finally, the lock required an almost-impossible-to-duplicate foot-long key.
During business hours, the door was actually left open, leaving only a steel grate to prevent access. But Notarbartolo had no intention of muscling his way in when people were around and then shooting his way out. Any break-in would have to be done at night, after the guards had locked down the vault, emptied the building, and shuttered the entrances with steel roll-gates. During those quiet midnight hours, nobody patrolled the interior—the guards trusted their technological defenses.
Notarbartolo pressed a buzzer on the steel grate. A guard upstairs glanced at the videofeed, recognized Notarbartolo, and remotely unlocked the steel grate. Notarbartolo stepped inside the vault.
It was silent—he was surrounded by thick concrete walls. The place was outfitted with motion, heat, and light detectors. A security camera transmitted his movements to the guard station, and the feed was recorded on videotape. The safe-deposit boxes themselves were made of steel and copper and required a key and combination to open. Each box had 17,576 possible combinations.
Notarbartolo went through the motions of opening and closing his box and then walked out. The vault was one of the hardest targets he'd ever seen.
Notarbartolo leans toward me in the Belgian prison and asks if I have any questions so far. It is a rare break in his fast-moving monologue. There is a sense of urgency. He is allotted only one hour of visiting time per day.
"You're telling me that the heist was organized by an Antwerp diamond dealer," I say.
"Bravo," he replies, smiling.
"What about your cousin?"
His smile disappears.
Notarbartolo was born in Palermo, Sicily, and members of his extended family have long been dogged by accusations of Mafia connections. Those accusations reached a crescendo last year when anti-Mafia police arrested Notarbartolo's cousin Benedetto Capizzi, claiming he was about to become the new leader of the Sicilian Mafia. Notarbartolo says the Italian authorities traveled to Belgium soon after the heist to question him about Capizzi's possible role in the robbery. If there is an organized-crime link, Notarbartolo might be inventing a story about the Jewish diamond dealer to distract attention from what really happened.
Notarbartolo scoffs at this idea and insists that his cousin had nothing to do with the heist. The reality, Notarbartolo says, is that he thought the vault was impregnable. He didn't believe it could be robbed until the dealer went to extraordinary lengths to prove him wrong....MUCH MORE
The Door 1. Combination dial (0-99) 2. Keyed lock 3. Seismic sensor (built-in) 4. Locked steel grate 5. Magnetic sensor 6. External security camera
Illustration: Joe McKendry
The Vault 7. Keypad for disarming sensors 8. Light sensor 9. Internal security camera 10. Heat/motion sensor (approximate location)