Heists 2000

by by David Adler & Barry Elkinton

It’s always been a three-act plot.

First, the preparation. There’s the shoot-n-grab, but that’s too obvious; maybe the switch-n-swap, or better, swing-n-hop. Find your groundman, your twister, your fireworks. Second, the operation. Tony and Sam up top; Jackie and Mary West swinging in through the bottom. Put your ear close and never sweat. Finally, the aberration. Something’s off here. Where’s the key, the bullet, the diamond. Who’s he, I’ve never seen him once in my life. The very first heist we filmed was a century ago. In Alias Jimmy Valentine, Jimmy robs a bank; Ben Price, the new detective, cracks the case. It seems so old—trench coats and top hats and shmoking shigars, like Humphrey Bogart would say. But when, inspired by this anniversary, we looked into it, we found that the 21st century is all about the heist. People are still very much stealing things, and stealing them well. And we are also more creative this time around; maybe just weirder. Either way—whether it’s in New Jersey or Belgium or Miami or Taizhou, China; whether it’s bee hives or coal or copper wire—the heist is alive.

Diamond Delinquints 

There’s an empty seat in the middle of Row 34. By the window, a young man fidgets with the controls on the armrest, trying to activate the entertainment system. But the plane isn’t taking off for another fifteen minutes or so, and the only thing on the screen is an airbrushed red background and white text—Helvetic Airways. The man in a suit on the aisle looks over and shakes his head. A folder is open on the tray table, and he is all business. He hates going to Zurich; the Swiss are such boring, disciplined people. It’ll only be a few days, though, and then he’ll head back to Brussels.

Then they both sigh. Their fate is upon them, and they know it because it always seems to happen this way—the perfume gets there first, and the large, elderly lady soon follows. The middle seat is hers. It was foolish to think it would remain empty.

It’s a pedestrian drama that is unfolding in Row 34. If only he could see down below. Eight men arrive at the tarmac in two black police vehicles, flash their machine guns, seize the diamonds, get back in the car, and drive away. $50 million in diamonds escapes with them, mostly uncut, meaning untraceable. The whole operation takes five minutes, and not a single shot is fired. The passengers in Row 34 have no idea.

Leonardo Notarbartolo is also at the Brussels airport February 18, but he is in handcuffs while the burglars are getting away. He is being extradited to Belgium for breaking the conditions of his parole. Ten years ago—exactly, to the week—Notarbartolo led a five-member team in the Heist of the Century™. Thirty miles to the north, his ring of Italian thieves cracked ten layers of security—cameras, heat detectors, a seismic sensor, a magnetic field—to break open the vault at the Antwerp Diamond Center. They doubled the Brussels airport heist, $100 million in diamonds, but police found a half-eaten sandwich on the side of the road, and a receipt with his name, and Notarbartolo was sentenced to ten years.

No one knows who stole the Brussels diamonds. It could be the Pink Panthers, a crime ring from the Balkans. They have stolen jewels in Dubai, Spain, Britain, and Japan, and the Brussels heist is just their style—flashy and bold, precise and well-timed. Or it could be Notarbartolo’s School of Turin. Everyone knows him: he is handsome and charming and always plays the Danny Ocean; his cousin Benedetto Capizzi was recently tapped to become the next capo dei capi, king of the Sicilian mob. But Notarbartolo insists that his cousin wasn’t involved, and anyway, he was in handcuffs at the Brussels airport—there is no sandwich.

Then again, timing is everything in a heist. It’s easy to imagine a slow grin creeping over Notarbartolo’s face. A decade later, out of prison, another masterpiece. This is the legacy of the old guard heistmen, playing the long game, plotting each step and planning their escape.

And then—ahead—at the dinner table, Notarbartolo and his family in the foothills of the Italian alps, where they actually live. There is no secret lair, no hidden cave. Just a small two-bedroom, with a kitchen and a bathroom and a little yard for the kids to play in. The children chuckle as they chase each other; Notarbartolo checks his watch and laughs along. -DA

Pills, Pills, Pills

On the night of March 13, 2010, thieves cut a hole in a building’s roof, rappelled inside, disarmed a security system, and made off with goods worth nearly $80 million.

But the goods weren’t diamonds, and the building wasn’t a bank vault. The heist went down at a drab warehouse off Interstate 91 in Enfield, Connecticut—and when the thieves had pulled away, it was with dozens of pallets of pharmaceuticals loaded into the back of a tractor-trailer.

The Enfield warehouse was operated by Eli Lilly, a pharmaceutical firm headquartered in Indianapolis, and the drugs stolen included Prozac, Cymbalta, and the cancer drug Gemzar, among others. The thieves took so much that they had to use a forklift to load up their getaway truck. In all, the theft lasted five hours. The thieves, who rented a Cadillac Escalade the night before the crime, were banking on success. It was the largest pharmaceutical heist in American history.

The stolen drugs were recovered in October 2011 from a storage unit in Doral, Florida. Fingerprints on a water bottle found at the Enfield warehouse later led authorities to Aumary and Amed Villa, two brothers living in Miami. Both Villa brothers were arrested in May 2012; they’ve since been charged in Connecticut for stealing the Lilly pharmaceuticals,

and in Florida, for possessing them illegally with the intent to sell.

Amed Villa’s attorney told the Associated Press on Friday that his client will likely avoid a trial by pleading guilty to the charges he faces in Connecticut this week. Amaury, who has already been sentenced to 11 years on his Florida charges, pleaded not guilty in New Haven on Tuesday.  The Villa brothers allegedly worked with a larger crime ring also responsible for stealing cigarettes, liquor, and electronics worth millions. Nearly a dozen other suspected members have been charged. The Villa brothers’ ring, US Attorney of

Connecticut David Fein said in a statement, has now been “dismantled.”

But other criminals seem ready to take up where the brothers left off. A shipment of 49 pallets of pharmaceuticals was taken from a Georgia truck stop on January 22. Police tracked a GPS device embedded in the shipment to a trailer abandoned roadside nearly 60 miles away. All of the stolen drugs were inside. But the thieves were long gone. -SE

Poultry Pilfering

The chief economist at the National Chicken Council was deeply concerned. Corn prices were up, and corn is two-thirds of chicken feed. “Simply put,” he warned—jowls sagging, eyes fixed low—there would be “fewer birds produced” in 2013. the chicken apocalypse was on the horizon, and Super Bowl

XLVII—the biggest day of the poultry calendar—was fast approaching.

Dewayne Patterson and Renaldo Jackson cleared the table and began their planning. Both employees at the Nordic Cold storage plant in Doraville, Georgia, they would rent a truck, pull up to the back of the distribution center, and load up ten pallets of Tyson chicken. It was a classic wing-n-snap, stringer-n-switch, breast-n-bone operation. 26-year-old Jackson would do the heavy lifting; 35-year-old Patterson, with an extra decade of trade wisdom and experience under his belt, would take care of the rest.

All together, the greatest chicken heist in history—$65,000 of bird pieces. An inside job. Management, though, was one step ahead. Following the operation, the police were notified, and Patterson and Jackson were arrested the following week, charged with felony theft.

The wings, meanwhile, are missing, which is like, very impressive, considering the fact that ten pallets of chicken probably weigh close to 1000 lbs. A secret poultry lair, perhaps. Or, just maybe, an inside-inside-job: management lured them in, warned the police, and split the wings 50-50. George Clooney and Brad Pitt take off their SWAT masks and watch the game. -DA

Sticky Situation

Most heists happen quickly– a cut fence, a quick snatch, and a cloud of burning rubber. But every now and then a heist comes along that happens in slow motion rather than with a flash or a bang, and these heists are often the delicious. That’s why heist aficionados worldwide went wild in August 2012, when the world’s biggest maple syrup cartel announced that 18 million dollars of syrup had been stolen over the course of six months, drip by drop, from “Global Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve” near Quebec City.

The thieves had a plan, and the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers was the target. Founded in 1989, the Federation is the world’s largest syrup cartel– the OPEC of maple syrup– controlling 77 percent of the global supply from their strategic reserve near Quebec City. Maple harvests can fluctuate wildly from year to year, so the strategic reserve uses its giant stockpile of syrup as a bulwark to keep prices in a profitable sweet spot. Between 2009 and 2012, with sap flowing at unprecedented rates, the cartel’s stockpile expanded dramatically, forcing the Federation to rent out another warehouse in the town to store the overflow.

But the cartel only rented out half of the new warehouse. The gang of thieves saw their opportunity. Organizing a crew of nearly 20 men and women with names like Richard Vallières and Avik Caron, the thieves rented out the other half of the warehouse for what seemed to be an unrelated business. Then, during the quiet hours of the night, they would sneak into the syrup reserve and siphon the syrup from the 54-gallon drums where it was stored, covering their tracks by refilling the barrels with water. The thieves would then transport the syrup to New Brunswick, a cartel-free zone, where they presented themselves as legitimate distributors, and were able to get full market price for their labors. By the time the cartel discovered the theft during a “routine inventory check,” over six million pounds syrup had gone missing, enough to fill 100 tractor-trailers. To put it differently, that’s enough for 183 million pancakes.

At first it seemed like they might get away with it. It’s impossible to trace the origins of maple syrup, so it couldn’t be tracked, and by the time police discovered the heist in July 2012, most of the syrup was considered long gone. But Canada’s mounted police are no saps, and they weren’t going to take this one sitting down. After interrogating 300 individuals and executing 40 search warrants, police arrested 18 suspects in December, and have recovered almost 70 percent of the stolen syrup. There may not have been any squealing tires, but it seems that even these sneaky slow thieves still left a rather sticky trail. -BE