Heists of the century: The world’s most insane modern burglaries, and how the perps pulled them off… or didn’t

Heists of the century: The world’s most insane modern burglaries, and how the perps pulled them off… or didn’t

Big-time burglaries aren't just things of the silver screen

VicesFebruary 06, 2020 By Will Brendza

There’s nothing quite like seeing a successful modern heist in the news.

Maybe it’s because we’ve been culturally conditioned by films and TV to think of big-time robberies as romantic and exciting. Maybe it’s because people like to see the rich and powerful taken for suckers, and hung out to dry. Maybe it’s because, on a certain level, we all wish we could get away with something like Ocean’s 11.

Hell, maybe it’s a little bit of all three.

Whatever the reason(s) for society’s fascination, when a big heist goes down, it usually draws a lot of attention. And no matter what, whether the thieves are smart and capable enough to get away with it or even if they’re caught, there is always a great story behind the attempt.

Thing is: when the criminals do escape with their goods, disappearing into the sunset never to be seen or heard from again, they usually take their story with them. That might just be the most alluring thing about a good heist if it’s truly successful, no one will ever know the full story behind it.

Anyway, over the last two decades there have been some pretty radical heists around the world: banks, museums, diamond transportation aircraft, you name it. Some have been successful, others, less so. Regardless, though, they all took a lot of balls, and at least some measure of planning to follow through on.

And the ones who got away, the thieves who were never caught for their heist crimes, are still out there, sipping mai tais on tropical beaches and enjoying the fruits of their labor. Perhaps even planning their next big job…

Here are a few of the biggest and baddest ass modern heists since 2000.

The Millennium Dome.

Millennium Dome Raid

In November of 2000 at the Millennium Dome in Greenwich Southeast London, a local gang had made a plan. They knew that there was a huge diamond exhibition at the Millennium Dome, worth an estimated $350 million and they wanted a piece of it. They had planned on making a “ram-raid” wherein they would create a distraction, ram their way into the Dome and through the glass protective barriers that housed the gems, gathering as many stones as they could and escaping down the Thames in a speedboat.

It was a bold plan, like something out of a Guy Richie film. Not just because it would require a lot of finesse and good luck, but also because the police knew about the robbery well-before the thieves ever showed up. And in fact. They’d had so much time to look into the tip, that they already had three of the robbery suspects identified before the heist even began.

It was a doomed mission from the start.

Nevertheless, on November 7th, armed with smoke bombs, nail-guns and sledgehammers, wearing body armor and gas masks, four of the thieves blasted through the perimeter of the Dome Building in an excavator. Which they actually used to crash through the fence and then the side wall of the Dome Building, to access what was called the “Money Zone.”

Once inside, one of the gang members started throwing smoke bombs to reduce visibility, while another used a nail gun to weaken the bullet-proof glass protecting the diamonds and a third used a sledgehammer to smash at the weakened glass.

Unbeknownst to them, that morning a group of over 400 officers had been briefed on the robbery plans. 60 of them were armed and stationed around the Thames and twenty more were out on the river itself to prevent any escape attempts. Inside the dome building, undercover agents were disguised as security personnel and the entire burglary operation was being watched from the security monitoring room.

When the criminals came blasting through the wall and into the building they were almost instantly arrested and sent to prison. In total 12 people were locked up for the attempted heist. Which, if successful, would have been one of the largest in history.

Except these chumps botched it pretty hard. Unlike the folks behind this next one…

The Antwerp Diamond Centre.

The Antwerp Diamond Heist

In 2003 a group of men executed a heist at the Antwerp Diamond Centre a building rigged with extensive security mechanisms; including a super-secure vault lock with over 100 million possible combinations, a seismic detector, infrared heat detectors, doppler radar and a magnetic field. It was thought to be virtually impregnable.

Certainly, the odds were stacked against these perpetrators. But unlike the incident at the Millennium Dome Building, this heist was actually very successful. So successful in fact, that it earned the title of the “heist of the century” and remains one of the largest robberies in history. And the man behind it, a lifelong master-thief from Italy, was an outright criminal genius.

Over a year prior to the heist, Leonardo Notarbartolo had rented a small and sparsely furnished office at the Antwerp World Diamond Center. The facility is home to all the major diamond mining companies, which supply diamonds to over 1,800 individual diamond dealers around the globe.

There’s a lot of ice in this place, in other words. And Notarbartolo, mastermind that he is, knew there was a way to get to it.

He posed as an Italian diamond dealer while he brooded over his plans: he created access to the safety deposit diamond vault, and because he had an office, he also had 24-hour access to the building. It took him 18 months to plan. But it was mind bogglingly meticulous: to this day police and investigators are still scratching their heads, stumped as to how the thieves successfully gained entry without triggering a single alarm.

Upon gaining entry to the Diamond Centre, the thieves placed black bags over security cameras, Styrofoam over the heat sensors and tape over the light sensors. They worked in total darkness, having memorized the layout of the building beforehand. They used custom engineered devices to foil the vault door with its magnetic lock. One of them had used video footage to recreate the “nearly-impossible to reproduce” foot-long vault key from scratch. They had even built a scaled replica of the vault room, to practice their operations prior to the robbery.

And they all had cool codenames too: the King of Keys (one of the best key forgers in the world), the Monster (an expert lockpicker, electrician, mechanic and driver), the Genius (a specialist in alarm systems) and Speedy (the guy who ended up fucking everything up).

The robbery was executed to near-total perfection, and the men escaped with over $100 million in diamonds, plucked straight out of high-security lockboxes. But Speedy, who had been put in charge of destroying the paper evidence of their plans, got paranoid, had a panic attack and instead of burning the materials, he simply chucked them into a bush along the side of a road.

Police eventually found that, and were able to trace the crime back to Notarbartolo, who, as it turned out, was also the leader of a huge Italian thievery gang known as “The School of Turin.”

Anyone who could pull off a brilliant heist like this one, was extremely experienced. And, even though he was the only one caught, Notarbartolo never snitched on his partners in crime — not even the one who got them caught in the first place.

Notarbartolo was slapped with a few fines and sentenced to ten years in prison. A sentence which ended in 2017. Only a small portion of the diamonds were ever recovered and today, everyone involved with this crazy crime are out and walking free.

Coincidentally, this heist, is rumored to be related to another involving an airplane at the Brussel’s airport which took place the same year that Notarbartolo was released from prison.

The Brussels Airport runway, day of the heist.

Brussels airport diamond heist

In 2017 an airplane that was scheduled to carry over $50 million in diamonds, landed at the Brussels airport. A Brink’s armored truck pulled up to the plane to transfer the goods, and during that brief interlude when the diamonds were vulnerable, two black vehicles sped onto the runway approaching the plane.

The robbers had been hiding out in a nearby construction site, waiting for the transfer to begin. Once the Brink truck started unloading it’s valuables, there was only a brief 15-minute window of time for the heist to go down. And that’s exactly what happened.

When the two black cars pulled to a stop, masked men brandishing Kalashnikovs leapt out and apprehended the diamonds as they were changing hands. Without putting their weapons down, they loaded 130 bags into the cars and then, almost as quickly as they’d shown up, they hopped back into the vehicles and disappeared.

The entire thing was over in 20 minutes.

And it’s never been solved. Only one person served time for the crime, another Italian who was charged with co-conspiracy for masterminding the plan. Everyone else involved with this insane kenetic heist got away. The diamonds, all $50 million of them, were never recovered.

Many speculated that, once again, Leonardo Notarbartolo had been involved with this crime. But charges were never brought against him, and realistically, this was a pretty different MO than Notarbartolo’s genius work of under-the-radar robbery in Antwerp. The Brussels runway heist, by contrast was all action and guns and it was very fast paced.

The Dresden Museum, Grünes Gewölbe.

Dresden museum heist

The most recent of these historic heists, happened last year (2019) in Dresden. The museum of Grünes Gewölbe is one of the oldest museums on the planet, and it houses Europe’s largest collection of treasures.

Naturally, this place made a grand target for aspiring heisters. And, sure enough, in November of 2011 the place got ransacked.

The museum’s power supply was sabotaged by a random fire (which is now under investigation). That fire killed the power, plunging much of the museum into total darkness. Two thieves slipped in through a window and managed to get their hands on at least three pieces of priceless 18th-century European jewelry.

Police were notified by alarms, but arrived at the scene too late to apprehend the burglars.

While the museum curators admit that the actual face-value of the stolen jewelry is not much (by heist standards) their cultural and historical value is difficult to overstate. No arrests have been made and the jewelry remains at large as well.