Life Imitates Art: How the Pink Panthers Purloin and Plunder

Nov 25, 2013 - by Denise Noe - 0 Comments

In the annals of international diamond heists there has never been a group like the Pink Panthers. Of the estimated 200 members of the gang, most are Serb or Montenegrin nationals. Their estimated 120 heists in Britain, France, Dubai, Geneva, Monaco and Japan are marked by the gang’s cool cleverness, boldness and speed.  

by Denise Noe

Smash and grab job by the Pink Panthers (Photo The Guardian)

Since the early 1990s, jewel theft gangs from Balkan areas have robbed high-end jewelry stores around the globe. These gangs operate separately from each other as individual Mafia families do and are believed to have looser structures than is typical of Mafia families. Authorities have nicknamed these disparate Balkan jewel thief gangs the “Pink Panthers.”

British police bestowed this moniker on the entire slew of jewel theft gangs when, in 1993, they searched the home of suspected robber Milan Jovetic, who was from Serbia. They discovered a purloined diamond hidden in a jar of his girlfriend’s face cream. Life appeared to have imitated art as the jewel thief in the 1975 motion picture The Return of the Pink Panther hid a stolen jewel in a face cream jar.

Part of the reason members of so many different gangs are called “Pink Panthers” is that the gangs themselves were spawned in a similar criminal cauldron and are strikingly similar in both the targets they select and the techniques they deploy.

Belgrade criminologist Dobrivoje Radovanovic believes recent violent political conflicts were instrumental in nurturing the Pink Panthers. “The 1990s were an ideal time for creating criminals in the Balkans,” he said.  Investigators think the many groups often referred to under the rubric of the Pink Panthers includes “a host of ex-soldiers hardened by the Balkan wars of the 1990s.”

It is believed there are as many as 200 Pink Panthers, most of them Serb or Montenegrin nationals. Writing for The New York Times, Doreen Carvajal reports that a high number of Pink Panther suspects hail from the Serbian town of Nis and authorities believe many of these thieves are “linked by village and blood.”

The majority of Pink Panthers are men but there are women in these gangs. In a Los Angeles Times article, Jeffrey Fleishman describes the typical Pink Panther modus operandi, “They come in rough, swinging hammers and axes, shattering glass, flashing semiautomatic pistols and an occasional grenade, and vanishing with gems in satchels lined with toilet paper to prevent scratching.” The average time of a Pink Panther heist is 90 seconds.

Even though some news reports refer to the gang as the “rock stars robbers,” both Fleishman and Carvajal note that they are not movie star glamorous. “They’re untailored and uncoiffed, preferring black leather jackets and ball caps to cashmere and cufflinks, a kind of Ocean’s 11 minus the panache. But they’re disciplined and fluent in many languages, and they strike with precision,” Fleishman reports. Carvajal writes that investigators believe, “The group’s members live all over Europe, with some working in mundane jobs [such] as hospital cleaners, waiting to be summoned for the next discount flight to a foreign capital.”

Attention to Detail

Jeff Pohlman and Andrea Day report for NBC News that FBI Special Agent Dan McCaffrey “said the Pink Panthers are known for attention to detail and planning every step of the job – including how they will unload the stolen goods. He added that their goal is to get rid of diamonds as quickly as possible, and in past Pink Panther thefts, FBI agents have recovered stolen diamonds in the United States just days after they were lifted from jewelry stores in Europe.”

Reporting for the Telegraph Media Group, Peter Allen writes that most Pink Panthers are believed to “speak several languages and travel on genuine passports issued to other people.” Allen also reports that they may have perpetrated as many as 120 heists in such far-flung parts of the world as Britain, France, Dubai, Geneva, Monaco, and Japan.

The Pink Panthers are known for their attention to detail and creative thinking they bring to their crimes. Allen reports, “In Biarritz, for example, they applied fresh paint to a bench opposite the jewelry store they were about to rob to deter potential witnesses from sitting on it.”

Carvajal observes, “The fact that cool cleverness, boldness and speed are the hallmarks of the group’s robberies has led investigators to speculate that the Pink Panthers are casting for ideas from movie thieves.”

Indeed, the hiding of a diamond in a face cream jar is only the most dramatically obvious instance in which Pink Panthers have patterned their actions after those seen in films. Many of their heists seem oddly reminiscent of motion picture robberies in swiftness and careful planning.

A Brief History of Pink Panther Heists

Three robbers sauntered into the Doux jewelry store in the Courchevel ski resort in France at about 11:30 a.m. on January 31, 2003. The trio threatened store workers and absconded with jewels valued at millions of dollars.

The next day, someone recognized one of the robbers. He was arrested and found to be Dragan Mikic, a Serbian. Convicted of taking part in the Doux robbery, Mikac’s prison stay was cut short in 2005 when accomplices sprayed the prison watchtower with machinegun fire and Mikac scrambled down a ladder to freedom. He was re-captured in 2009.

Authorities believe that, in 2004, Djordijije Rasovic, Aleksandar Radulovic, and female Pink Panther Snezana “Snowy” Panatojotovic went to the Le Supre-Diamant Couture de Maki store in the Ginza shopping district of Tokyo. Panatojotovic waited in front of the store while the men entered. One man distracted a shop worker and the other sprayed one with pepper spray. The robbers smashed glass cases and fled with jewels including rare yellow diamonds and the famous Countess of Vendome necklace that Jeffrey Fleishman describes as “studded with 116 diamonds, including a 125-carat oval center stone.” The robbery was captured on videotape. Panatojotovic, Rasovic, and Radulovic were apprehended and tried in Serbia in an agreement that country made with Japan. The trio were convicted. However, according to the Los Angeles Times, “Rasovic was sentenced to six and a half years in 2005 for the heist, but he, Snowy and Radulovic have won an appeal for a new trial.” The Countess of Vendome necklace – valued at $31 million – has not been recovered.

In July 2004, Milan Jovetic, whose hiding of a jewel in a face cream jar led to the naming of his criminal coterie as the Pink Panthers, sat in the defendant’s dock beside fellow Serbian Nebojsa Denic in a London courtroom before Judge Gerald Gordon. The defendants had just been convicted of the May 2002 robbery of a Graff’s jewelry store. Judge Gordon had harsh words for Denic, stating, “To achieve your ends, you took with you a fully functional and loaded Magnum .357. Not surprisingly, your use of it succeeded in subduing staff who were terrified and have been, in different ways, markedly and perhaps permanently affected by what you did.”

Judge Gordon sentenced Denic to 15 years imprisonment and Jovetic to five and a half years.

In 2007, masked Pink Panthers rammed two Audi cars into the window of a Graff jewelry store in Wafi City, Dubai. The robbers grabbed $3.4 million worth in diamonds and made getaways in those same cars. The vehicles were later found – burned to obscure evidence. Nevertheless, investigators found DNA in the fire-scorched cars as well as a mobile telephone number on a car rental agreement.

The phone number was that of the cellphone of Bojana Mitic, a female Pink Panther. Her cellphone led investigators to six other suspects. Two Serbians were arrested in Dubai only a few days after the robbery. They were identified in the Arab press as “Nichola M.” and “M.M.” In June 2008, Nichola M. was convicted of aiding and abetting unidentified fugitives in connection with the robbery and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment followed by deportation. M.M., accused of possessing stolen property, was acquitted. Reporting for Arab News, Shadiah Abdullah states that the two Serbians were “the only suspects” who have been “tried in connection with the crime."

Interpol’s Project Pink Panther

The jewel thefts perpetrated by Pink Panthers alarmed law enforcement agencies throughout the world. A conference was held late in 2007 at Interpol headquarters in Lyon about the Pink Panthers. Doreen Carvajal reports, “Interpol now presides over what it calls Project Pink Panthers to share and coordinate information about the gang.” She wrote that Interpol circulated names and photographs of alleged Pink Panthers. One was Dusko Poznan, a dark-haired man from Bihac in Bosnia and Herzegovnia and a suspect in the Dubai caper and one in Liechtenstein.

In October 2008, Poznan was in Monaco crossing a street when a car struck him. Carvajal writes, “Initially, he resisted medical treatment, according to police officers who arrived on the scene.” He was taken to Princess Grace Hospital where an officer recognized him from an Interpol photograph. Poznan and his companion were found to be traveling on forged passports but they insisted they were tourists. Pink Panthers typically insist on their innocence even in the face of overwhelming evidence of their guilt.

It was close to closing time at the high-end Harry Winston store on Avenue Montaigne in Paris on December 8, 2008, when the shop’s employees saw a man and three stylish women sporting long blond hair, sunglasses, and thick winter scarves huddled out front. Carvajal reports that one of the women “demurely requested to enter” the store. Workers buzzed the four in.

The group rolled in a valise on wheels. Then one member brandished a hand grenade and another a .357 Magnum. The robbers broke display cases and shouted out orders in voices that unmistakably indicated that the three blond ladies were actually men in drag. The strong Slavic accents of their French also led authorities to suspect Pink Panthers, as did their modus operandi. In less than 15 minutes, the four had escaped in a waiting car, taking with them sacks filled with emeralds, rubies, and diamonds. The value of the heist is estimated at $100 million.

Boban Stojkovic was apprehended for the Harry Winston robbery. An ex-soldier from the former Yugoslavia, Stojkovic’s attorney, Emmanuel Auvergen-Rey, said that Stojkovic did not belong to the Pink Panthers and insisted that the collection of groups was a figment of police officers’ imaginations. However, Stojkovic admitted to being part of the group that robbed Harry Winston. Before sentencing, Stojkovic told the judge, “I don’t demand your pity because I know I have to pay for these crimes but just leave me an open door to remake my life.” The judge may have been moved by this plea as Stojkovic was sentenced to six years imprisonment.

Prison Escapes

In May 2013, a Serbian Pink Panther, together with four fellow inmates, escaped from a Swiss prison. As Chris Irvine wrote in a report for the Telegraph Media Group, “They were in the walled courtyard at the Bois-Mermet prison on the outskirts of Lausanne with some 30 other inmates when three masked accomplices on the outside climbed a ladder and threw a bag filled with weapons and other items into the yard.”

One of the five flashed a gun retrieved from the bag while others sprayed irritants to keep the guards at bay. The group used pliers from the bag to cut a hole in the fence that blocked the prison wall. Then they climbed the ladder supplied by the masked trio to get over the prison wall. The group of eight raced away in two vehicles.

On July 25, 2013, two people rammed vehicles into the fence of the Orbe prison in Switzerland. By doing so, they cleared away barbed wire, helping two prisoners, Milan Poparic and Adrian Albrecht, make it out of the prison. The escapees and their outside accomplices raced away from the prison in one of the vehicles.

Two days later, on July 27, 2013 a man with a scarf drawn over his face walked into a diamond show at the Carlton Hotel in Cannes, France and waved a gun in one of his gloved hands. In only one minute, the robber grabbed jewels and diamond-encrusted watches. Then he jumped out of a low hotel window, stumbled and fell, and yet still held onto the loot and made a getaway. According to FBI Special Agent Dan McCaffrey, more than 20 of the jewels weighed at least 30 carats. Carol J. Williams reported, “A subsequent inventory disclosed that more had been taken from a poorly guarded hotel room, where other items were being stored for a diamond exhibit.” The haul was estimated to be worth $136 million. The manner of the crime strongly suggested that the culprit is a Pink Panther.

Ironically, or perhaps appropriately, the Carlton Hotel in Cannes had been featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s famous movie starring Cary Grant, To Catch a Thief.

No Band of Robin Hoods

The Pink Panthers are hardly a bunch of Robin Hoods – they have threatened and traumatized store workers and they do not give any of their ill-gotten gains to innocent poor people – but their audacious robberies and prison escapes have endowed the group with an aura of glamour among some observers. A Serbian college student said, “It’s not something I would do but they’re rocking. They’re the main topic in coffee shops.” He added, “What they’re doing is stunning, amazing, and awesome.”

Belgrade criminologist Dobrivoje Radovanovic worries about the tendency to romanticize these thieves. “With the Pink Panthers, the public has fallen for false images and mythology.”

Carol J. Williams reports that Interpol believes that Pink Panthers have “stolen more than $400 million in jewels over the past 15 years.” Jeffrey Fleishman reports that investigators believe that they have stolen from over 100 luxury stores throughout the world in the last decade. Well over 100 Pink Panthers are at large.

 

Bibliography

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