Great heists depend on exquisite timing, which is precisely the way an armed gang carried out the stunning diamond robbery at the Brussels airport on Monday. Just as some $50 million worth of precious stones were being transferred from an armored car to the hold of a commercial flight bound for Switzerland, what looked like a couple of black police cars with flashing blue lights drove onto the tarmac and eight men got out brandishing assault rifles. They seized 120 parcels of diamonds, got back in their cars, and were gone in less than five minutes, apparently operating out of sight of the passengers—and of the airport police.
Sounds like a scene in a movie. But there’s more. With a little imagination, there’s a whole screenplay. And like any good script, this story already has a lot of twists and turns—some of them probably blind alleys—including a few that even lead back to … Hollywood.
Questions about the timing of the Brussels Airport job did not end with the action on the runway. Belgian crime reporters immediately thought back to 10 years ago—exactly 10 years ago to the week—when an Italian gang managed to break into what the world had thought was an impregnable vault in the diamond district of Antwerp and make off with more than $100 million worth of stones.
Those middle-aged burglars were some of the best old pros in the business: planners, locksmiths, electricians, and muscle known as the School of Turin. Their leader, Leonardo Notarbartolo, was a ruggedly handsome grandfather who’d been a thief all his life and was proud of it. As robberies go, the 2003 heist in Antwerp was a work of genius, with just one stupid mistake. The gang was done in when a farmer found some suspect garbage and called the police. Among the incriminating bits of evidence: receipts for some of the gear used in the heist and a half-eaten sandwich with the ringleader’s DNA on it.
Notarbartolo was convicted of the 2003 Antwerp job in 2005, but neither he nor any of his partners ever revealed where the loot was hidden. And, proud as he was of his larcenous vocation, for much of the time he was behind bars he was trying to figure out how he could get a movie made about his life. According to Scott Andrew Selby and Greg Campbell in Flawless, their exhaustive investigation of the Antwerp job, Notarbartolo was hoping the whole deal would be lucrative, or that it least it would help him explain where he got his money if he started to look rich.
In 2009, Joshua Davis interviewed Notarbartolo in a Belgian prison and wrote a profile for Wired magazine. “I may be a thief and a liar,” the thief and liar told him, “but I am going to tell you a true story.” Davis, on his website, notes that he is executive producer of “the diamond project,” a movie adapted from his article in Wired.
In an email, we asked Davis if he had paid Notarbartolo for the Wired story, and he was categorical: “I never paid Notarbartolo anything, nor did Wired,” he said. We followed up with a question about Paramount paying for “life rights” to make a film, but Davis hasn’t gotten back to us on that yet.
All this would be so much minor gossip in the movie and publishing biz if not, once again, for the strange question of timing. Notarbartolo got out of prison on parole in 2009. According to the Belgian press, he recently went to the United States to talk to people about a movie. There have been some rumors around Rodeo Drive that “the diamond project” was in trouble, which, if true, would typically mean a lot of money promised wouldn’t get paid out, since it’s usually tied to stages of script acceptance and production.
In any case, Notarbartolo flew back to Europe on January 29. He promptly found himself under arrest at the Paris airport, where he was about to connect to Turin. He was then extradited to Belgium on Monday, as it happens—the day of the heist at the Brussels airport—a coincidence that Flawless coauthor Selby calls “amazing.”
It appears that Notarbartolo had had an arrest warrant issued for him in November 2011 on the grounds he’d broken the conditions of his parole. And one of the infractions, according to Belgian prosecutors quoted in the local press, is that while failing to pay back “one penny” to the victims of his crime, Notarbartolo made money off the story he gave to Wired. His Belgian lawyer, Walter Damen, was not available for comment. (Damen’s assistant told us he was visiting Notarbartolo in jail.) But press reports of the bail hearing say Damen claimed in his client’s defense that there was no proof he had any of the loot in his possession, and he wasn’t really profiting from his crime through the Wired story because it was really fiction.
Now, it may be that none of this really has anything to do with the heist on the tarmac at Brussels airport. “It’s a pretty different M.O.,” says Selby, an authority on the diamond business as well as diamond thefts. The 2003 job run by Notarbartolo was very quiet—almost invisible—and not discovered until the end of the Valentine’s Day weekend that year. The Brussels job was, as the military likes to say, “kinetic”—all action, with guns waving and orders shouted and people fearing for their lives, although in the end nobody got hurt. Selby says he doubts there was any direct link with Notarbartolo, but he was disturbed by so many odd coincidences of timing. “It’s weird,” he said. “I don’t know what to say about that.”
There are only so many master jewel thieves in this world, and only a handful able to carry out such rigorous preparation and execution. So suspicion inevitably would have turned to Notarbartolo had he been free when the heist took place. Fortunately for him, his arrest gives him the perfect alibi. Almost as if he’d planned it that way.