On the trail of the Pink Panther gang
THE fractions of seconds flicker past on the CCTV footage from the Exelco store in Tokyo's upmarket Ginza shopping district. An elegantly suited, tie-less Western man enters through the front door and turns left towards a display cabinet. A second man walks in under an umbrella, his mouth and nose covered by a white anti-contamination mask. He reaches into a small rucksack and takes out a gun.
The seconds run by on the clock. The first man calmly opens a cabinet and picks out two items - a diamond-studded tiara and a jewelled necklace. The second man squirts a short burst of tear gas at the employees. Then they turn around and walk out. The clock shows 36.02 seconds.
This is the time it took the Pink Panther gang, the world's premier ''white glove'' crooks, to commit one of the cleanest jewellery heists in Japanese history - netting almost £2 million ($A3.4 million) in gold and precious stones. By the time the employees could react, the two men had disappeared. They were already weaving through Ginza's heavy traffic on their getaway vehicles - later identified by police as bicycles.
Meanwhile, in Dubai, two Audis - one black, one white - have driven across the marble floors of the Wafi mall and smashed into the windows of a jewellery shop. Shoppers watch as men in black balaclavas run into the shop while the alarm rings. Inside, jewellery cabinets are smashed open. One car honks its horn twice. Security cameras pick out three men hurrying back to the cars. They take off, headlights on as they speed through the mall. Another £1.9 million worth of jewellery has disappeared. The Pink Panther gang has struck again.
In the era of globalisation, crime knows few frontiers. Jewellery thieves go wherever jewels are to be found, and the Pink Panther gang (so dubbed by the Daily Mail after a London raid in 2003, which mirrored a raid in a Peter Sellers film) knows where the very best are on display. They strike in Dubai, Japan, Switzerland, London, Paris or Monte Carlo. Interpol estimates that they have carried out more than 150 raids, netting £200 million worth of jewellery.
''They are engaged in high-value jewellery robberies, burglaries and aggravated theft around the globe,'' explains Christos Parthenis, a Greek police captain who heads the special Interpol unit that co-ordinates Project Pink Panther - the worldwide battle against the thieves. ''To our knowledge, no one has died because of their actions, but they can be violent and they carry firearms to threaten and intimidate. They are itinerant groups of professionals who mainly originate from the former Yugoslavia.''
Out of a core of crooks from the mountains and valleys of Montenegro's Cetinje region, the gang has reportedly morphed into a wider alliance of groups with members mostly from Balkan countries. Unfortunately for Interpol and police forces in the two dozen countries where they operate, the Pink Panther gang possesses a certain style and glamour. The casual insouciance with which they walk into the world's greatest gem stores - used only to greeting the very, very wealthy - and walk away with whatever they want is at once breathtakingly audacious and coolly simple. In one raid in St Tropez, they wore flowery summer shirts and escaped in a speedboat.
''They are very well organised and they know exactly what they are after,'' says a detective in Switzerland, where the Panthers have struck at least a dozen times in three years. ''The proof is that they simply ignore some valuable stuff on display and take what is beside it.''
Their jobs rarely last more than three minutes and their Raffles-style techniques have earned them something of a global, romantic legend, heightened by their having emerged from one of the poorer corners of Europe to steal only from the impossibly wealthy. Indeed, when a recent report in The New Yorker suggested the Panthers' inventive ways of escaping the poverty of their home regions in the Balkans inevitably provoked sympathy, Interpol felt it necessary to write a complaint.
''The victim is not the man wielding the gun, however colourful his alleged derring-do,'' wrote Interpol's Pietro Calcaterra. ''The victim in an armed robbery is the person lying on a shop floor with a gun pointed at his head. It's the shop assistant shot in the face in Vienna in November 2005, during a robbery attributed to the Pink Panthers.''
The latter robbery was at the Hohensteiner jeweller's shop in Eisenstadt.
Awareness of the Pink Panthers as an international phenomenon was born in London. It was there, in May 2003, that Nebojsa Denic and a second man, believed to be called Predrag Vujosevic, walked into Graff's on New Bond Street. Their modus operandi was remarkably similar to that used by other gang members in Tokyo four years later. Their tools included smart suits, wigs, an umbrella, a pistol and a hammer. In three minutes they grabbed 47 pieces of diamond-studded jewellery worth £23 million. Shop assistants recalled Denic pulling out a large Magnum pistol. ''It was like a Dirty Harry gun,'' one said later. ''It was so long his arm went up in the air as he pulled this pistol out.''
Unfortunately for Denic, security man Simon Stearman still gave chase. Denic fired a shot, but Stearman bundled him to the ground and sat on him. ''After I had taken him to the floor I was in a rage,'' the Falkland Islands war veteran told a court later. ''The worst thing I could think of to do was to pull his wig off. I did and I told him he looked stupid - with a lot of expletives.''
The second man had fled on a motor-scooter with much of the loot, but Britain's biggest-ever jewellery heist was half-solved almost before it had begun. The search for his accomplices led Scotland Yard detectives to Paris, where French and British police jointly identified up to 20 robberies that seemed to involve a similar gang of eastern Europeans. Among them was an earlier robbery in Tokyo - deemed the biggest in Japanese history - in which the £17 million necklace encrusted with 116 diamonds and known as the Comtesse de Vendome was taken. Police now believe the gang has some 150 members and has been working since the late 1990s.
It took until four years after the Graff robbery, however, as the gang returned to Ginza and struck in Dubai, for Interpol to set up a special project to track the Pink Panthers as they moved across the globe. ''We are talking not about one gang, but about many gangs with links between them,'' says Parthenis.
''The make-up of the groups changes as new people come in, but there are some core criminals. There are key figures who are involved in several robberies, but we cannot really talk of a pyramid or leader.''
IN A spectacular 2003 escape, gang member Dragan Mikic was sprung from a prison at Villefranche-sur-Saone in France. His liberators fired rounds from a Kalashnikov at the prison tower and came equipped with wire cutters and sets of ladders.
The Pink Panthers know what they are looking for. It is as if they already have buyers for their loot. Investigators speculate that often they are working as contractors for black-market jewellery dealers, who commission them to carry out raids.
So where do the jewels end up? ''That is the million-dollar question,'' says Parthenis. So far, catching the thieves has proved easier than recovering the goods. The delicately worked pieces of jewellery they steal are almost certainly broken up. A tiara or necklace rapidly becomes a collection of precious stones and melted-down platinum or gold. ''When the jewellery has diamonds and so on, it is very easy to extract them and put them separately in the legal market,'' he explains.
But police believe they are finally getting close to those who ''fence'' the loot on the black market - where a £65,000 watch may go for a third of the price - although Parthenis does not want to be too specific. ''Let's say we can speculate that this goes to illegal markets in Europe, and some of the loot seems to be pre-targeted. It could be in eastern Europe, or in some countries in southern Europe. Every country has this kind of illegal market.''
Police from other countries told The New Yorker's David Samuels that the gang moved with surprising impunity around Italy and parts of the former Yugoslavia. Japanese police believe jewels from the Exelco raid were sold by an Italian jewellery broker who took the same flight from Tokyo to Paris as one of the thieves.
The stones are sometimes handed over at a roadside rendezvous soon after a heist, explained one gang member, with some buyers reportedly turning up in vans with their own specialised diamond-grading machines in order to value the goods. Stones can be recut and then reintroduced into the market via Holland and Israel.
The net is slowly tightening, however, on the Pink Panthers. Earlier this month, Montenegran Rifat Hadziahmetovic, believed to be one of the two Tokyo thieves, was extradited from Spain (where he had been wanted in connection with the theft of £490,000 worth of luxury watches in Tenerife) to Japan. A large squad of Japanese detectives arrived to accompany him home. Aware of the gang's reputation for springing its own members from custody, they ferried him from the airport to Tokyo's Tsukiji police station in a bulletproof vehicle, accompanied by two helicopters. Hadziahmetovic had originally been arrested in Cyprus on a Spanish warrant. In May his suspected accomplice, 39-year-old Montenegran Radovan Jelusic, was arrested in Rome.
Police do not want to say how the men were found, but Interpol's growing DNA and fingerprint database of Pink Panther members has been crucial to recent arrests. Police are also closing in on the Panthers' home territory, which is centred on the historic city of Cetinje, in Montenegro - though the gang has, over the years, incorporated members from elsewhere.
Earlier this year, some 100 detectives from 20 countries gathered in the Swiss city of Bern for three days to talk about the Pink Panthers. A similar meeting had been held in Monaco in 2009, where Tokyo police officers had dazzled their counterparts with their ''model'' report on the Exelco raid. Although the detectives came from three continents and operate in different legal systems, the common culture of police work apparently overcomes other differences. Having a common enemy helps.
The Pink Panthers seem to have realised that police are getting closer. When Samuels arranged a clandestine meeting with a gang member in a restaurant in the mountains of Montenegro, his interviewee held his beer glass with a napkin and constantly wiped the lip clean. When the interview was over, he walked off with the napkin in his pocket.
The gang member spoke English, Serbo-Croat, Russian, Italian, French, German and Czech. He explained that the gang's byword was discretion, wherever they were. ''When we go out, we dress nice, in suits,'' he told Samuels. ''Here we are quiet.''
The Panthers had evolved into four main groups that emerged from the original Cetinje gang, with orders for robberies being placed with different teams. A technician provided alarm-busting equipment, the Panther said, while tipsters kept an eye on potential targets and a computer specialist scoured the web for more. Smugglers' speedboats ferried them across the Adriatic. Serbian security services had, at one stage, provided protection.
Sanctions imposed during the Balkan war had apparently helped drive them to crime. ''We grew up together,'' the gang member told Samuels. ''We all come from normal families. Our parents are normal people. They are not in this kind of life.''
So does that make it all right to steal diamonds from wealthy shop-owners?
''I don't agree that there is a romantic air about them,'' says Captain Parthenis. ''This is crime. It creates profits and some people do it professionally. We will continue doing our job until most of those people have been arrested.''
That, however, may take rather longer than upbeat police officers claim. After all, Swiss police estimate the Panthers have struck on their patch up to 15 times in the past two years alone. In the meantime, the gang has earned a place not just in the folklore of the Balkans, but in the history of crime. Heaven knows what Inspector Clouseau would have made of them.