The $50 Million Brussels Diamond Heist, Another “Perfect Crime” Foiled

A blog about murder, theft, and other wickedness.
May 8 2013 1:03 PM

Another “Perfect Crime” Foiled: 33 Arrested in Connection to $50 Million Brussels Diamond Heist

Small diamonds on layered coal.
Small diamonds on layered coal.

Photo by Jeffrey Hamilton/Digital Vision/Thinkstock

Crime is Slate’s crime blog. Like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter @slatecrime.

In February, I wrote about a brazen diamond heist at Brussels Airport in Belgium, a scheme in which thieves dressed as police officers cut a truck-sized hole in the airport's perimeter fence, drove onto the tarmac, and made off with about $50 million in jewels from the cargo hold of a Zurich-bound airplane. As my colleagues at the Slatest reported this morning, police have arrested at least 33 people in France, Switzerland, and Belgium in connection with the caper. “In Switzerland, we have found diamonds that we can already say are coming from the heist, and in Belgium large amounts of money have been found. And the investigation is still ongoing,” a representative of the Brussels prosecutor’s office told The Telegraph. Most of the arrestees appear to have been involved in planning the crime and disposing of its spoils; only one of the people collared thus far is thought to have actually participated in the robbery.

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The words “the perfect crime” were bandied about quite a bit in connection with the Brussels robbery. The fact that it unraveled less than three months later goes to show that there is rarely such a thing, especially when it comes to heists. We all know the expression two’s company, but three’s a crowd. Well, in terms of crime, two’s company, three’s a crowd, and 33 is a disaster waiting to happen.

As anyone who’s seen one of the several dozen Ocean’s 11 movies knows, any heist worth its name is going to have a lot of people involved. You don’t just wake up one morning and decide to drive your truck onto the tarmac and boost some jewels. The heist has to be planned and funded, and arrangements have to be made for the disposal of the stolen goods. The Brussels diamond heist was so precise and well-executed—the thieves knew exactly where to go, and they only needed three minutes to get away with the jewels—that there were obviously a lot of unseen partners helping the eight costumed guys on the tarmac.

A gang of that size leaves a lot of clues. It’s unavoidable. People get drunk and run their mouths off at pubs. People flash their money around. There can’t have been that many people who knew where the stolen diamonds were going to be at the time they were taken; I’m guessing the police probably identified everyone who might have had that information, looked for any suspicious behavior among those suspects, and worked things out from there. The Telegraph article also notes that at least 10 of the 24 people arrested in Belgium are known to be connected with “the Brussels criminal underworld,” which makes a lot of sense. Robbing an airplane isn’t a novice crime. The cops likely identified all the people in their files with the wherewithal to pull something like this off, and then waited for them to do something stupid. Which they inevitably do.

At the end of February, Bruce Reynolds died in South London. Reynolds led the gang that robbed a cash-laden mail train in 1963, a heist that came to be known as the Great Train Robbery. The Great Train Robbery was itself called “the perfect crime.” But as I wrote in early March, the aftermath was anything but perfect. The robbers were undone when they forgot to wipe down the fingerprints from the farmhouse where they holed up following the caper. Almost everyone involved with the heist—nearly two dozen people—spent time in jail, and very few of them stayed free long enough to spend their share of the loot. It was a perfect mess, one that was inevitable from the moment they started planning the caper.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.

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