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The Untold Story Of The Greatest Diamond Heist In History

Michael Minay

| Last updated 

The Untold Story Of The Greatest Diamond Heist In History

As burglaries go, this one was special. In February 2003, a gang of Italian thieves, headed by Leonardo Notarbartolo, were accused of breaking into a vault two floors beneath the Antwerp Diamond Centre and making off with at least $100m worth of diamonds, gold, jewellery and other precious items.

The vault was thought to be impenetrable. There were 10 layers of security, including infrared heat detectors, a Doppler radar, magnetic fields, seismic sensors, and a lock with 100 million possible combinations.

It was called the heist of the century, and even now the police can't properly explain how it was done.

The goods were never found, but based on circumstantial evidence, Notarbartolo was sentenced to 10 years, despite claiming he had nothing to do with the crime.


He remained silent before finally telling his tale from his prison cell.

Leonardo Notarbartolo (Credit: Wired)

February 16 2003, Notarbartolo took the E19 motorway out of Antwerp, racing towards Brussels. He hadn't slept in two days. In the passenger seat was a man known only as Speedy. These two had known each other for over 30 years, as school mates and now as partners in crime.


Apparently, Speedy was notorious for bottling it on jobs as they came to an end. Others in the gang hadn't wanted him in on this job, yet Notarbartolo stuck by his friend.

This job had worked. Speedy had done his part, and to perfection. There were no alarms, no police, nothing. The men had a fair few hours before the aftermath of their work would be discovered - the guards were due in first thing Monday morning.

The other half of the team were en route to Italy, they had the gems. Milan would be the end destination, they'd all meet up and divide out all the stolen items.

The last job fell to Notarbartolo and Speedy. Burn the evidence that was sitting in a garbage bag in the backseat. They pulled off the motorway, in a spot not visible to passers-by. The bag must have ripped, suddenly all the evidence was strewn across the trees and floor. And then they heard someone else.


Notarbartolo and Speedy raced back to the car, no one else would find the evidence here, surely?

As the security guards arrived on the Monday morning they realised that the thick steel door to the vault was open and 100 of the 189 safe-deposit boxes had been raided - with some of the loot still on the floor.

How the guards found the vault (Credit: Wired)


The world's only specialised diamond police, Patrick Peys and Agim De Bruycker, phoned the vault's alarm company. "What is the status of the alarm?" they asked. "Fully functional," came the reply.

This wasn't a simple operation. It hadn't been crafted in the moment. In 2000, Notarbartolo had rented an office inside the Diamond Centre. He'd presented himself a gem importer based in Turin and scheduled meetings with dealers.

Notarbartolo claims he was born to steal, he'd done it all the way through school and it wasn't about the money anymore. Someone, a 'Jewish diamond dealer', knew of his desire to steal and told him: "I'd like to hire you for a robbery. A big robbery."

For an initial 100,000 euros, Notarbartolo was to answer a simple question: Could the vault in the Antwerp Diamond Centre be robbed?


His initial thought was no, but the intrigue, the desire to do it, sent him on a path to investigate further. He began spying and researching exactly how the vault was constructed and monitored.

Notarbartolo told the diamond dealer that it couldn't be done. The dealer called a meeting at an abandoned warehouse.

Inside was an exact replica of the vault inside the Diamond Centre. The dealer had based it on the photos that Notarbartolo had sent to him. The guys that were stood around the vault told the Italian thief that they could disable some of the alarms, but others would need to be done by Notarbartolo himself.

Two days before the heist, Notarbartolo walked into the vault. In his jacket, as he walked alone, he carried a can of women's hairspray.

Notarbartolo had covered the heat sensors with hair spray (Credit: Wired)

Police would watch the footage back and realised that he had covered the heat and motion sensor with the hairspray - the security guard, so used to Notarbartolo's visits, had merely taken his eye off the ball. The hairspray would stop the sensor realising fluctuations in the room's temperature, the only problem was, nobody knew how long it would last for.

On the Saturday night - the gang picked the lock, and moved in. One man avoided the heat-sensing infrared detector using a shield of polyester. Heavy duty tape stopped the magnetic field detecting uncertainties. The vault was opened.

They raided 109 boxes, and at 5:30am, Notarbartolo called it off. People would soon be filling the streets. They needed to get in the car and go. It took an hour to get all the bags upstairs, past all the sensors and into the car - driven by Speedy.

When back at his apartment, they realised they'd been set up. Some of the satchels were empty. They were now looking at a loot of $20m instead of $100m.

The man who had disturbed Speedy and Notarbartolo while they tried to destroy the evidence was a weasel hunter. He'd bought the land purely for that. He saw the mess the following morning and contacted the police. They did nothing. That was until they heard that some of the envelopes that had been discovered had 'Antwerp Diamond Centre' written on them.

The evidence in the woods (Credit: Wired)

The dealer never showed in Milan. They'd initially agreed he'd get a third for financing the deal and putting the team together, now it looked like the split would be a lot more unfair than that.

Notarbartolo ended up going back to Belgium, right onto the doorstep of Peys and De Bruycker. The guard had called them at the Diamond Centre. They told Notarbartolo to take them back to his flat, he did. One minute later the Italian's family would have gone, but instead they were caught with bags and a rolled-up carpet.

The bag contained critical evidence. On the same day, Italian police broke into safes at his home in Turin. They found 17 polished diamonds attached to certificates that the Belgian detectives had traced back to vault.

Full details as to the specifics of the scam remain unknown, whether Notarbartolo's fortune still awaits him somewhere, but what is known is that this crime, the level of detail and investigation, will go down as one of the greatest heists in history.

Featured Image Credit: PA

Topics: Belgium, robbery, Italy

Michael Minay
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