Feb. 16, 2022

The Antwerp Diamond Heist

The Antwerp Diamond Heist

February 16, 2003. Five thieves break into the vault of the Antwerp Diamond Centre and pull off one of the biggest heists in history.


This episode of History Daily has been archived, but you can still listen to it as a subscriber to Noiser+, Wondery+, or as a Prime Member with the Amazon Music app.


Transcript

Cold Open


It’s February 17th, 2003.

On an overcast Monday morning in Antwerp, Belgium, a security guard approaches the front door of a large, concrete building.

He punches in the entry code, unlocking a set of bullet-proof glass doors, and then steps inside the lobby of the Antwerp World Diamond Center. This fortress-like building is the epicenter of the Antwerp Diamond District, a one-square-mile section of the city where over eighty percent of the world’s rough diamonds are cut, polished, and sold.

The security guard whistles as he crosses the lobby, his shoes squeaking on the parquet floor. Every day, millions of dollars worth of diamonds are traded right here in the Diamond Center. And before being sold and shipped, many of the diamonds are stored inside safe deposit boxes locked in a vault directly beneath this building. That’s where the security guard is going – to make sure the vault is secure before the day’s trading begins. But the guard’s not worried.

The Diamond Center’s vault is among the strongest in the world. It’s defended by ten impregnable layers of security, including heat and motion sensors, doppler radar, closed circuit TV cameras, and a lock with over a hundred million possible combinations. Bypassing just one of those layers of security is inconceivable; overcoming all of them is impossible.

The security guard descends two floors in an elevator and emerges in the basement. He twirls his keys around his index finger as he strolls up to the door of the vault. But then he stops.

The vault door is ajar.

Tentatively, the security guard approaches and peers inside. His stomach lurches. The doors of the safe deposit boxes have all been flung open, and their contents ransacked. Loose diamonds and gold bars are strewn across the floor.

The security guard spins on his heels and sprints to the nearest telephone.

Reports will soon emerge that an estimated 100 million dollars worth of diamonds and gold were stolen from the Antwerp Diamond Center, in what the press will dub “the heist of the century.” But as the diamond industry reels in shock, the authorities will already be following a bizarre trail of breadcrumbs that will lead them right to the group of thieves who almost carried out the perfect crime on February 16th, 2003.

Introduction


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is February 16th: The Antwerp Diamond Heist.

Act One: The Artist


It’s the summer of 2001, three years before the heist of the century.

A dark-haired, middle-aged man walks up to the front entrance of the Antwerp World Diamond Center. He nods at the security guard, who recognizes him and buzzes him through.

Leonardo Notarbartolo is a diamond importer from Italy who, for the past year, has been renting an office inside the Center. Every morning he comes into work, passes through security, and then disappears inside his office. Occasionally, he can be seen elsewhere in the building – wandering corridors, or depositing diamonds in the vault.

He’s an ordinary-looking person – caucasian, slightly overweight, wearing plain button-downs with a pen clipped to his breast pocket. Nobody pays him much attention. To them, he's just another face passing in the hallway.  

But if anybody were to pay Leonardo close attention, they might notice that the pen clipped to his shirt pocket is not a pen at all; it’s a miniature camera. And when he takes trips to the vault, Leonardo is not really depositing diamonds; he’s documenting the precise layouts of the corridors, the locations of the surveillance cameras, and the combination codes for locked doors.

Leonardo is not a diamond importer. He is a master thief, and his current target is his most difficult challenge yet: impenetrable vault of the Antwerp Diamond Center.

When Leonardo first rented his office in the Center, he wasn’t intending to break into the vault. Rather, he used it as a base to commit other, smaller robberies around the Diamond  Center. But a few months ago, Leonardo was approached by a dealer with whom he had conducted illicit business in the past. The dealer offered to pay Leonardo $130,000 to answer a simple question: can the Diamond Center’s vault be robbed?

At first, Leonardo thought the dealer was crazy. After all, he already knows the vault is impenetrable. But then, he shrugged and said “sure”. He figured it would be the easiest $130,000 he’d ever make.

And so, with a miniaturized camera hidden in a pen, Leonardo began taking pictures. Over the course of several months, while posing as an office worker, Leonardo documented everything: the building’s layout; the extensive surveillance systems; and, most crucially, the vault itself. 

Then Leonardo reports his findings to the dealer. He tells him that the Antwerp Diamond Center’s vault is built to repel the most cunning of thieves. Its solid steel, three-ton door can withstand twelve hours of continuous drilling. To even reach the innermost door, a burglar would have to bypass multiple security cameras, infrared heat and motion sensors, light sensors, and a lock with over a hundred million possible combinations and an impossible-to-replicate foot-long key. Finally, metal plates on the side of the door form a magnetic field that, when broken, triggers an alarm. And then even inside the vault, the steel and copper safe deposit boxes require their own keys and combinations.

In short, Leonardo tells him, the answer is no – robbing the Antwerp Diamond Center is not possible. The dealer thanks him for his time. And Leonardo believes that's the end of it.

But then, five months later, the same dealer asks Leonardo to meet him at an abandoned warehouse outside Antwerp. There, the dealer shows him something extraordinary: an exact replica of the Diamond Center’s vault, copied precisely from the photographs Leonardo provided. And standing alongside the replica are four men. Not wanting to reveal their identities, the dealer only gives their aliases.

The first man is a renowned alarm specialist known as "The Genius". Next, there's "The Monster", a tall muscular man and gifted electrician. "The King of Keys" is a wizened old locksmith and one of the world's best key forgers. Lastly, there is a man Leonardo recognizes from his childhood in Italy, a veteran thief named "Speedy".  The dealer then introduces Leonardo to the others as “The Artist”.

Having constructed an exact replica of the vault, the dealer wants Leonardo and these four other men to practice breaking into it. And once they’ve mastered that task, the dealer wants Leonardo to orchestrate the world’s most daring heist. In exchange, Leonardo will receive a portion of whatever they manage to steal from the Diamond Center.

It’s an insane plan that any normal person would walk away from. But Leonardo is a professional thief, and he knows this is the job of a lifetime. If the plan succeeds, he will likely end up with millions. So with a twinkle in his eye, Leonardo says, “yes”.

Act Two: The Heist


It’s a Friday afternoon at the Antwerp Diamond Center on February 14th, 2003.

Most of the Center’s workers have left for the weekend. But not Leonardo Notarbartolo. He takes the elevator down to the vault, where a security guard buzzes him through.

Once inside, Leonardo acts fast.

He produces a can of hairspray from his jacket and, in one discreet motion, sprays the heat and motion sensor with a fine aerosol mist. This simple but effective technique will temporarily disable the sensor for at least 48 hours – more than enough time for Leonardo and his crew to do their work.

Leonardo slips the can back into his jacket pocket, then exits the vault and walks right past the guard who has no idea what’s just happened. 

Two days later, in the early hours of the morning on Sunday, February 16th, Leonardo parks his rental car on a quiet side street in the Diamond District. Leonardo is the mastermind of this heist, but he’s not as nimble as he once was. So he stays behind in the getaway car, while the other four thieves – the Genius, the Monster, Speedy, and the King of Keys – clamber out of the car carrying empty duffel bags.

With wordless precision, the thieves execute their plan.

The King of Keys picks the lock of an adjacent office building. From there, they enter a garden that adjoins the Diamond Center. Using a ladder stashed in the bushes, they clamber up to a second-floor balcony and enter in through a window. Next, they follow a maze of corridors to a darkened stairwell, which leads them down to the vault.

Along the way, they place plastic bags over surveillance cameras. Then, the Genius removes an aluminum slab from his bag and fastens it to the two magnetic plates fixed to the vault door. This allows him to unscrew the magnets without breaking the magnetic field and triggering the alarm.

Prior to the break-in, the King of Keys forged a master key to the vault. But he doubts he’ll need it. The guards have been getting lazy as of late. So before using his forged key, King checks a utility closet just outside the vault, and sure enough, the original key is there hanging from a hook.

With a self-satisfied smile, the King unlocks the door, while the Genius enters the combination code gleaned from Leonardo’s reconnaissance. The Genius turns the handle – and the vault door swings wide open.

But next, the thieves will need to step inside the vault, where heat and motion sensors are located.

But two days earlier, Leonardo disabled the sensors with a can of hairspray. Still, the sticky aerosol layer won’t hide the body heat of four men. So only the Monster slowly and methodically steps into the pitch-dark room. He carefully lifts a ceiling panel and, using a pair of tweezers, re-routes the wiring system that controls the sensors.

It’s now safe for the others to enter the vault.

The King of Keys swiftly picks the lock on every safe deposit box while the other three fill their duffle bags with uncut diamonds, bundles of cash, and gold bullion.

Meanwhile outside, Leonardo anxiously taps the steering wheel, watching the street fill with the pre-dawn light. Finally, at about 6 AM, Leonardo looks in the rear-view mirror and sees his accomplices racing towards him – their eyes flashing with exhilaration. As Leonardo puts the car in gear, he’s confident they've just pulled off the perfect crime.

***

Twelve hours later, Leonardo and his longtime associate Speedy are driving along the highway out of Antwerp, toward Brussels. The thieves have split up and are heading to Milan, where they plan to re-group and divide the loot.

In the backseat of the car is a garbage bag. It’s filled with trash, but also contains incriminating evidence: photographs and various documents related to the heist. They need to find somewhere discreet to burn it all. So they pull off the highway and follow a dirt road to a remote patch of woodland. There, Leonardo gets out and explores the area to ensure the coast is clear.

So far, everything has gone flawlessly. But Leonardo is worried about Speedy, his longtime acquaintance. Speedy is known to lose his cool under pressure. And Leonardo hopes Speedy can keep it together until they arrive in Milan. But that's not what happens.

When Leonardo returns to the car, he finds Speedy having a panic attack, manically emptying the garbage bag into the undergrowth, hyperventilating as he tries to discard the evidence.

Leonardo eventually calms him down. But just as Speedy regains composure, his eyes flash with fear again and he says, “someone’s coming”. It's not just in Speedy's head, Leonardo hears it, too: voices closing in on their location. There’s no time to properly dispose of the evidence. The thieves jump in the car and drive off, leaving the trash littered on the ground, praying that no one will find it.  

In a few days’ time, the thieves re-group in Milan and divvy up the spoils. But it quickly becomes clear that something’s not right. Many of the bags they pulled from the safe deposit boxes are either empty or contain far less than they expected. Leonardo and his team left the Diamond Center with what they were told would be more than $100 million worth of valuables. But when they take an inventory, there’s only about $20 million worth.

Leonardo tries to contact the diamond dealer, the person responsible for the whole affair. But the dealer is nowhere to be found.

As Leonardo thinks back to the bizarre origins of the heist, it slowly begins to dawn on him that they’ve been set up. Perhaps, Leonardo considers, other dealers at the Diamond Center knew about the impending heist. Perhaps they removed their valuables from the vault right before the robbery and now intend to claim they’ve been stolen. Leonardo thought he pulled off the perfect crime. But now he is forced to consider the more likely truth: he and the rest of his team have been made patsy’s in an elaborate scheme to commit insurance fraud.

Act Three: The Weasel


It’s Monday, February 17th, 2003, the day after the heist.

A 59-year-old retired grocer named August Van Camp is out rabbit hunting when he spots something that makes his blood boil. Somebody has littered on his property.

But when he begins cleaning up, he finds documents marked with the words Antwerp Diamond Center. It doesn't mean much to him, trash is trash. And Van Camp angrily dials the police, muttering about the good-for-nothing kids whom he presumes left it there. Normally the police ignore Van Camp who calls them often to complain. But this time, when Van Camp tells them what he’s found, they send someone over right away.

After the heist, authorities were perplexed. There were no witnesses, and the thieves left behind no fingerprints, no evidence until they found the trash on Van Camp’s property.

One of the potential clues is a half-eaten salami sandwich bought from a store in Antwerp. Detectives review CCTV footage from the store and identify Ferdinando Finotto, an electrician and convicted thief; Leonardo knows him as “The Monster.” There’s also a business card bearing the name of Elio D’Onorio, an Italian alarm specialist connected to a string of robberies; “The Genius.” Finally, the police find a receipt for a video surveillance system that bears the name: Leonardo Notarbartolo, "The Artist".

Then a raid of Leonardo’s apartment in Italy leads police to the most critical piece of evidence of all: 17 unpolished diamonds stolen from the vault in Antwerp. Soon, four of the five thieves will be in police custody, including Leonardo’s longtime acquaintance Speedy, who will be identified as Pietro Tavano. Only The King of Keys manages to evade arrest, never to be found again.

***

In 2009, six years into his ten-year prison sentence, Leonardo Notarbartolo gives an exclusive interview to an American reporter. During the interview, Leonardo insists that he was set up by the diamond dealer who organized the heist as an elaborate insurance scam and that his team only made away with $20 million worth of valuables. 

But the authorities cannot confirm if Leonardo is telling the truth. Many believe he concocted the insurance fraud story to conceal the fact that he stashed away the rest of the $100 million worth of valuables before his arrest.

And it has since emerged that Leonardo and his fellow thieves belonged to a shadowy network of Italian criminals known as “The School of Turin”. As a result of this discovery, there are many who believe that Leonardo was never approached by a diamond dealer; but that he came up with the plan on his own and he assembled the crew to help him pull off the largest diamond heist in history.

But nothing is certain because most of what is known about the Antwerp Diamond Heist is based on the testimony of Leonardo himself, but what's indisputable is that the world's most audacious heist: the robbing of Antwerp Diamond Center – which took place on February 16th, 2003 – was spoiled by a bag of garbage. 

Outro


Next on History Daily. February 17, 1815. Future President James Monroe presents the Treaty of Ghent to the British ambassador in Washington, marking the official end of the War of 1812.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack. 

Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.