The Mysterious Burglar on the French Riviera

Wealthy residents on the French coast are being terrorized by thieves who gas their victims before taking off with baubles and bags. Dana Kennedy investigates.

This summer, as wide-eyed tourists eat, pray, and love their way from St. Tropez to the Monaco border, a crime wave that sounds like something out of a bad remake of To Catch A Thief has hit the French Riviera.

Residents, both locals and expats, mull it over in daily conversations: whose apartment got robbed last night? Who got sprayed with sleeping gas when they were asleep? Whose villa was peppered with shots from air rifles?

For someone who lived in New York City for 15 years without incident, some of what you hear sounds fantastical—until it checks out.

“They break into the house and stick the gas under the master bedroom door and pump it in. They wait awhile outside for it to take effect and then they go back in and take your stuff.”

It has gotten so bad that the U.S. Embassy in Paris recently issued a warning to American citizens in France about “recent trends” in residential burglaries by “well-organized burglary rings.”

Take my friend Bjarni Breidfjord, a Nice-based businessman from Iceland who began noticing strange scratch marks next to the buttons in the elevator after his apartment building was burgled twice.

Police told him they’re symbols left by organized thieves—undecipherable to everyone but the crooks, indicating if a place has already been hit, or if it’s a good future target. (Breidfjord and a neighbor spent an hour carefully scratching over the marks to erase them.)

But the gassing is the scariest.

According to Andrew Wood, a local British security expert catering to wealthy clients on the Riviera, the incidence of burglars breaking into houses and spraying occupants with ether to render them unconscious while they steal cash, jewels or laptops or keys to expensive cars has been on the rise since 2006.

“People don’t want to believe it’s true but it is,” said Wood, of European Alarms & Security Systems. “They break into the house and stick the gas under the master bedroom door and pump it in. They wait awhile outside for it to take effect and then they go back in and take your stuff. The first sign is that you wake up with a very bad headache, and it’s not the kind that comes from a hangover.”

Wood said thieves buy the ether at auto-parts stores, and that most burglars who use what everyone calls “sleeping gas,” are targeting people with expensive cars so they can break in and get their car keys. He said they don’t harm the victims while they are unconscious and “just want the loot.”

“Getting gassed doesn’t happen all the time but it definitely happens,” said Olivier Cartoux, a police officer in Villefranche-sur-Mer, a wealthy seaside town just east of Nice. “Spraying people means the burglars don’t have the stress of worrying if they’re going to wake up during the job. Nobody wants confrontation.”

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Police sources and security experts invariably blame most of the break-ins on what they simply call “Eastern Europeans,” an especially touchy subject in France since President Nicolas Sarkozy’s controversial decision last week to target Gypsies, or Roma, for expulsion from the country because of their alleged criminal activities.

Elizabeth Barreta of Le Cannet, a town in the hills above Cannes, has no proof that she was gassed when robbers broke into her home in January 2009 because she never had blood tests like a neighbor did, after her home was burgled. (The neighbor tested positive for an ether-type gas.) But Barreta has no other explanation for what happened the night when at least one person broke into her home and took her jewels, expensive bags and two computers. She was home alone with her son, who was sleeping beside her.

“Normally I am such a light sleeper that I wake up when a pin drops,” said Barreta. “I heard nothing, and most of what they stole was in a dressing room less than three feet from my face and they also took some things from my bedside table. Neither my son or I heard a thing and we both woke up with headaches.”

Barreta was most amazed at how savvy the thief was. She said she had a number of fake brand-name bags—and real ones. She had a real Cartier, Prada, Yves St. Laurent and a Balenciaga. She also had copies of her jewelry mixed in with the real pieces.

“The thief only took the real bags and the real jewelry—how did they know?” said Barreta. “The strangest thing was that they didn’t take the Balenciaga bag. The police said, maybe it’s not a real Balenciaga. I had bought it at a second-hand store but it came with papers. But I brought it to a Balenciaga store and they said it was a fake. So the thief even figured out that the Balenciaga bag that I thought was real was a fake!”

Though I’ve lived in Nice for five years, I rarely talk about the dark side of this supposed Eden, which at its worst is a haven for naïve rich people, con artists, corrupt politicians—and burglars. After all, my friends and family back in the U.S. only want to hear stories that feed the fantasy of the south of France even if, for me, the grit underneath the glamour, and the dirty rotten scoundrels, are part of the allure.

This summer, almost everyone I know has been robbed, foiled a burglar or knows someone who has. Every day I hear a new story. Just a few days ago, I heard that my friend Marie and her husband were eating croissants on their Nice terrace at 8 a.m. when a burglar sneaked in a window and took off with her laptop and a camera.

One acquaintance, New Zealand-born Antonia Scott, 71, who lives in an elegant apartment building in the center of Nice, foiled one 15-year-old burglar breaking into her building last week at midnight. Scott has been extra-vigilant after she woke up at night two weeks ago and heard a noise that turned out to be burglars prying open her upstairs neighbor’s apartment with a crowbar—while the woman was home.

This came after the doctor’s offices on the ground floor were burgled two weeks ago and a stream of men came knocking on her door without identification, a common ploy of thieves casing a joint.

I myself got knocks on the door from two men asking to check out my “fuse box,” and a man and a woman who claimed to be from a local cable TV company. A few weeks later, I came home to find someone had tried to break one of the locks on our door without succeeding.

With Antonia's urging, I got the must-have of the season: steel-enforced doors. I also got a lecture from Antonia, a resilient 25-year resident of the Cote d'Azur. “Be careful but don't focus on the fear," she told me. "That way, you just attract more of it. Just be streetwise and vigilant and things will take care of themselves."

It's an attitude shared by Ceriann Purssey, a 40-something Brit who now lives in Nice, after enduring four home invasions between 2006 and 2008 while living in a villa in La Colle-sur-Loup —along with an attack by an air rifle on her house which police later told her was a common tactic by burglars to see if anyone was home.

One time, Purssey was asleep in her bedroom, her husband was down by the pool and her 15-year-old son was in the TV room with two friends. Two burglars strolled in. "My son thought for a minute, why is Dad wearing a hoodie?" recalled Purssey. "Then he realized it wasn't Dad, and he chased them out."

Another time Purssey was alone in the house in the middle of the night when she heard a noise. She walked to the kitchen and flicked on a light. She found herself staring at a strange man going through the drawers. "I pretended to yell for my husband to call the gendarmes and it worked, the guy ran off," said Purssey. "I made myself try to sleep a little that night to break the spell or otherwise I was afraid I'd never be able to sleep there again."

Purssey and her husband bought a Doberman after the last break-in, parading the dog through town and papering their electronic gates with her picture. Still, the Pursseys temporarily abandoned the Riviera for a home in southwestern France, thinking that it would be safer.

"It was safe," said Purssey, "but it was also boring."

The Pursseys moved back to Nice a little over a year ago—this time to an apartment. Purssey has been the victim of two attempted purse-snatchings by scooter-riding thieves while in her car, but is otherwise philosophical about life here.

"It's a tradeoff," she said. "It's so fun, so vibrant, there's so much happening here. You can't take the crime personally. Better to be in Nice and have to be careful than in the boonies with just the cows for company."

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Dana Kennedy, a former correspondent for ABC News, Fox News and MSNBC, who also writes for the The New York Times, the Financial Times, the International Herald Tribune, Time magazine and People, among others, is based in Europe.