Belgian authorities announced Wednesday that in cooperation with the Swiss and French they’d rounded up 31 suspects in the stunning $50 million diamond heist at Brussels Airport last February. But the account they gave of the gem theft had very little clarity or color.
According to Jean-Marc Meilleur, a spokesman for the Brussels prosecutor’s office talking to reporters in Brussels, “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.” He named no names and gave little indication how the case was broken.
In all, the Belgians arrested 24 people, the French nailed 1 guy on Tuesday, and the Swiss rounded up 6, or possibly 8. Several were said to have had long criminal records. The Belgian police reportedly deployed 250 cops to search 40 different houses.
The heist was carried out February 18, when eight men disguised as police drove onto the tarmac at the Zaventem airport at precisely the moment an armored car was loading a shipment of diamonds onto a plane. With military precision—and no casualties—the heavily armed robbers made off with the precious cargo and disappeared.
Scott Selby, a co-author of Flawless, an investigation into the even bigger 2003 theft from a supposedly impregnable vault in the Belgian diamond center of Antwerp, says he believes that if the airport heist has indeed been solved, it’s probably because so many people eventually became involved.
“The actual day of the heist there is no way there were 33 [or 31] people involved,” Selby tells The Daily Beast. “But I am sure there are all kinds of people who did small things: the stolen vehicles from some, the uniforms from some, someone who appraised the stuff. And things were being moved around from place to place.”
Some initial reports on the arrests imply that diamonds found in Switzerland may have been the key to breaking the case. But most diamonds, especially rough diamonds, like many of those in the airport booty, are notoriously hard to trace. The only way they would have been linked to the theft would have been if the robbers or fences were “stupid enough to have kept some sort of paperwork or packaging,” says Selby.
In most such investigations, the police start by searching for “the inside man” (or woman) who would know the details needed for a precision theft: when the diamonds would be loaded, the weak spots in airport security, and so on.
If the cops don’t find that person, says Selby, then they can still get lucky—especially if dozens of people are connected to the theft. “Occasionally somebody gets busted for something else,” says Selby. Some reports suggest the Frenchman picked up before the other arrests, who is said to have a long record with the police, was the figure who gave them a break in the case. Another possibility: “They start bragging and throwing money around,” says Selby.
Meilleur says the police found several luxury cars they believe are connected to the theft. He didn’t say how.