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On the trail of the Pink Panthers

Matt McAllester talks about how he managed to get world-class diamond thieves to reveal the secrets of their trade for his GlobalPost feature.

 

A saleswoman displays a 26.62 carat diamond, valued at $5.3 million, at a shopping center in Nanning, China, Nov. 27, 2006. (Photo by Reuters/China Daily.) 

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Read Matt McAllester's article, Inside a world-class ring of diamond thieves

 

Passport: Good afternoon and welcome everyone! It’s Thursday, Feb. 4, 2010. I’m David Case, Editor of GlobalPost Passport in our Boston newsroom. Today we’re talking about diamond thieves. Interpol has dubbed them “the Pink Panthers.” They’re battle-hardened men and women from the former Yugoslavia, who have pulled off some of the most outrageous, lucrative heists of the past decade. In a GlobalPost exclusive, Matt McAllester traveled to Podgorica, Montenegro, where several of the brazen bandits revealed how they planned their robberies. A contributing editor for Details and a former Newsday reporter, Matt is the recipient of many journalism awards, including a Staff Award for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for spot reporting. He has covered conflicts in the Balkans, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. He has published books about the wars in Kosovo and Iraq and his most recent is a memoir entitled “Bittersweet: Lessons from my mother’s kitchen,” published by Dial Press. He joins us today from Brooklyn. Good afternoon Matt.

Matt McAllester: Good afternoon David.

Passport: Before we begin, please let me remind you that the call is being recorded and will be posted on Passport’s website. As usual, I will lead a Q and A that will last about 20 minutes. As the Q and A proceeds, if you’d like to ask a follow-up question on the topic that we’re discussing, please feel free to jump in. Your lines are currently muted. To un-mute your lines before you speak, you need to press *6. We ask that you identify yourself and be mindful of the time and the topic we’re discussing. We’ll also have about five or 10 minutes at the end for unrelated questions.

First, Matt, let me congratulate you on the reporting. This is the kind of get that journalists dream about. It’s a story from the underworld, where it’s almost impossible to get access. You managed to talk to four criminals, one in Vienna and the others in Podgorica. And they told you all about their craft, the tricks of their trade, one went so far as to show the hammer that he used robbing jewelry stores. Pretty incredible. How did you find these guys, Matt?

McAllester: The credit for that really goes to my dear friend, colleague and fixer, Jovo Martinovic a Montenegrin who initially started as a translator during the war in Kosovo and has developed over the last decade into one of the best investigative reporters that I know, anywhere, and works as a fixer. So, essentially, a sort of gun-for-hire. And we’d been knocking on dodgy peoples’ doors for a decade, mainly war criminals, war crimes suspects, and together have built up a reputation among those sort of chaps for not getting them into trouble after they’ve spoken to us, and allowing them to speak freely in the knowledge that there’s not going to be a knock on their door from police or war crimes investigators. And there are overlapping worlds here: the world of former paramilitary and war criminal and soldier and the world of organized crime and diamond thieves. And I’m sure we’ll get into that. So, that enabled us to make the calls and work the contacts and do this, and I should say, Jovo  spoke to two of these guys on his own, without me, including the trip to Vienna. He’s extraordinarily resourceful and I trust him immensely.

Passport: At times, the story reads like a draft from the next Ocean’s Eleven sequel. Can I ask you to read a few sentences? Why don’t you read the first three paragraphs of the piece, which describes a really great scene, frankly.

McAllester: Sure. “Each member of the gang did his or her job perfectly. The attractive young woman seduced the son of the jewelry store owner in Rome to find out where the safe was in the owner’s house. She also discovered that the owner needed builders for repairs. Some of the others secured the renovation contract and cased the house. The get-away driver spent weeks learning every one-way road and stop sign in downtown Rome. And eventually the safe-cracker, the smallest in the group, hid himself inside a false-bottomed chest that the others left on the balcony of a bedroom where the safe was located.

As luck would have it, he didn’t even have to break into the safe, which was hidden behind a painting. The jeweller’s other son left it open for 15 minutes, plenty of time for the diminutive safe-cracker to remove the diamonds and make his escape to the street, where the driver was waiting for him. Back in their rented apartment in Ostia, near the Fiumicino airport outside Rome, the gang met up and celebrated.

“That was one of the most beautiful jobs I’ve ever done,” the get-away driver said, smiling at the memory in an interview with GlobalPost at a seaside fish restaurant in the former Yugoslav republic of Montenegro last year.”

Passport: Great! And talk about meeting up with these guys… did you get their cell phone numbers when you eventually made contact with them and made an appointment? Or was it a complicated process?

McAllestser: Immensely complicated. And exasperating. They are not big on appointments. At the last minute, they’ll just not show up. They will turn their phones off for three days, they will change the venue, they’ll say, no let’s meet in three hours, and then three hours roll past and then let’s meet in another three hours. So it’s expensive and time consuming and frustrating and then finally, you sit down with them in cafes and restaurants and you know that this is pretty much your one shot at getting what you need from them.

Passport: And then in one case, you actually went to one of the criminal’s houses. Was it you or was that Jovo  who did that?

McAllester: That was Jovo .

Passport: Ok. Do you know? Did he just take a taxi and go up to the house? Or did they try to hide from him where he was going?

McAllester: I don’t know, but I very much doubt that they tried to hide… actually I do know. Yovo has known that particular guy for many years. And only recently was he willing to discuss this part of his many extracurricular activities that involve forgery and all sorts of other things. So they are, I wouldn’t say friends, but they have known each other for a while. So the trust goes so deep that Jovo  knows where he lives.

Passport: Ok, so good, old fashioned shoe leather reporting, essentially. He’s got great contacts.

McAllester: Yeah, its sources built up over years. You just keep taking these guys out for coffee now and then.

Passport: And how were you able to confirm that these guys were the real deal? Did they show you any of the loot? Or is there any way to confirm it? It’s just kind of taking them at their word?

McAllester: Their level of detail, like any interview you do, you sort of triangulate what you’re told with verifiable facts. And their level of knowledge and detail and their extraordinary language abilities, some of these guys, which they pick up in prison, and believe me, these are not well-educated men. And yet, they speak four or five languages, which is rather humbling. But that’s because they’ve been banged up in prisons in Holland, in Belgium, in France, in Germany, in Italy. And they’re in there, two or three years, doing time, and in Italy, they’ll learn Italian. So when they tell stories, they tell things that I could check later.

Passport: That’s a new and different way to get a language immersion program. I think the classic way is to actually have a girlfriend or a spouse from the country whose language you want to learn, but if you end up in prison, I guess that’s a pretty good immersion. So, most people who meet a journalist have something to get out of the transaction, otherwise, why would they take the time and the risk? Do you have any idea why these guys talked to you? Other than you’ve known them for, or Jovo's known them for a long time?

McAllester: My theory on why anyone talks to journalists, which bemuses me because you know, over my dead body would I talk to a journalist, is that human beings have a compulsion to tell their stories. And I think back to Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner” and his need to tell the story of his… the ancient mariner is stricken by guilt, but I don’t think you need to feel guilty to want to tell people about yourself. You know, what did you do today? We all tell stories at the dinner table at the end of the day, simply, what did you do today? And I think these people love to be in a sort of – its almost like going to a shrink. You’re in this completely secure environment and you can sit down and you can tell these great stories. And the getaway driver there, who’s a great storyteller, and who speaks very good English, clearly was just enjoying that. And Yovo and I, we’re smart enough to laugh along in the right places and to slightly flatter him, and to make him feel like this is, kind of, maybe a cool thing. Even though it is actually a crime, which can’t be forgotten. So it is a sort of form of seduction. And the other guy I met, Rocco, he’s in the story, is a deeply intimidating person, physically, in his manner, and I felt very uncomfortable for the first thirty or forty minutes, and by the end of it, he was laughing and getting up and acting out how he smashed windows in London and grabbed jewels and necklaces. So people just like to talk, I think.

Passport: Where did you meet Rocco?

McAllester: The upstairs part of a small café bar that I kind of got the impression he might actually own. Because there was no one else in it and the waitress there, I think, was given the instruction not to let anyone upstairs if they had come in. It was late at night, so maybe there were just no customers, but there was also a painting on the wall of him and some of his underworld buddies in a sort of rip off of the Last Supper. So I got the sense that he was at least a regular customer.

Passport: Can you tell us what some of the other guys were like?

McAllester: Those were the two that I met.

Passport: Ok. You also talked to Interpol. What was that like? And did they try to get any information out of you? It must have been intriguing to be sitting across the table from someone who had actually met the folks that they were trying to track down.

McAllester: Yeah, I was slightly worried, going into the Interpol interviews, there was one in Podgorica with the head of Interpol in Montenegro and then one with a senior Interpol officer in France, on the phone. But they couldn’t have been nicer. And I think, especially the guy in Montenegro, who’s a very helpful and smart young guy, he was intrigued. But he didn’t try. I mean, he’s smart enough to not bother saying, how can I find them and where are they? But I also wasn’t really hiding anything because I knew that I was going to put most of the stuff in the story. And I wanted to know what he thought of various things. Again, this is a way of triangulating. I ran through a whole list of things they had told me. And I ran them past him and asked, is this credible, do you know about this, can you confirm this? So he was actually very, very useful in that sense.

Passport: And all they essentially need are your cell phone records to get leads, at least.

McAllester: Yeah, but of course, you’d need a court order to do that. One of the interesting things about this is that the local police in the former Yugoslav republics pretty much know who these guys are. But all of the Yugoslav have it in their constitutions, individually, that they cannot extradite their own citizens. So, these guys, once they make it back home, are pretty safe. If they’ve smashed in a jewelry store in Paris or Monte Carlo or Tokyo and manage to get on a plane and land in Montenegro, they are completely untouchable, basically. Unless, and this has happened only once, there’s an entire case that’s transferred from another court, another country, to Montenegro, and as I said, last year this happened from Germany. And so, Robitzer, one of these men, surprise, he was arrested at home and is currently in prison in Montenegro awaiting trial.

Passport: How much overlap is there between these thieves and the paramilitary gangs of the Balkan wars?

McAllester: It varies. To give you two examples, the driver, the getaway driver, really hadn’t been involved in the wars at all. He was a criminal before the wars and then Yugoslavia started. And he managed to avoid all the fighting which he thought was between a bunch of nationalist idiots on all sides, it had nothing to do with his life and it was a waste of money, time and life. And crime was much more enjoyable and worthwhile and profitable. So he kept out of it. Rocco, I didn’t put this in the story, and let’s keep it between all of us on Passport, but for complicated reasons, he had a very colorful and morally challenging past in the wars. He had been part of one of the most-feared paramilitary groups in Bosnia. And they have a lot of blood on their hands. And his connections from that era are still very helpful for him in this new role that he has.

Passport: And which countries do they come from?

McAllester: Mainly Serbia and Montenegro. But, there are Slovenians, there are Croats, Macedonians I don’t know, maybe Macedonians. The only former Yugoslavs that are not really involved in the Pink Panthers’ world are the Albanian Kosovos. There is just simply too much animosity, really, between Albanians and Serbs and Montenegrins – well, less so Montenegrins, but that’s just a step too far in this slightly weird sort of fraternity, reconstituted Yugoslav fraternity of criminals.

Passport: Speaking of the Pink Panthers, why do they call them the Pink Panthers?

McAllester: This came from one of the first cases in London when these Montenegrins had stolen huge amounts of jewels and the police found a very large diamond in a jar of face cream, belonging to the girlfriend of one of the thieves. And I’m sure you all remember, but that was straight out of the first Pink Panther movie, when the diamond itself, the Pink Panther, was hidden in a jar of face cream. So the British police thought this was rather amusing and dubbed the project, although they now sort of back away from saying they came up with, that they called these guys the Pink Panthers. They say no, we call it the Pink Panther unit, or the Pink Panther project. But their own press material rather shows this to be untrue and they do refer to them as the Pink Panther Gang.

Passport: Can you talk about some of the other notorious heists they’ve carried out?

McAllester: Yeah, they’re responsible for an extraordinary amount of extraordinarily gutsy heists in Tokyo, just walking into stores, smashing display cases, and riding off on bicycles into the crowd or running away. In London, they had getaway cars right on the poshest streets of the West End and New Bond Street and just driving straight away. And it’s very much a sort of smash and grab dynamic. And there are various other heists that people are not quite sure whether the Panthers themselves were responsible for. And these involve dressing up as women and then revealing themselves once inside. And I’m referring to a case in Paris that’s rather disputed about whether they were involved or not. My sources in the Panther world say that they were, Interpol says that they were not, so I’m not entirely sure of the truth behind that.

Passport: That’s incredible. Just to think. I lived in Tokyo years ago and foreigners there really stick out like a sore thumb in some ways. And it’s a closed country. You have to either get on a plane to get out of there, you can’t just sort of hop across the border, the way you can in Europe. Its remarkable that they would be so brazen as to try something like that.

McAllester: Yes. And one might say, stupid, because many of them were arrested. And that’s important to know. A lot of these guys do get arrested and spend time in prison in various countries. That’s not the end of it, though. They are not reformed characters when they come out.

Passport: And these are multi-million dollar heists.

McAllester: Yeah.

Passport: Considering that they’re taking in such major hauls, what is their lifestyle like? Are they living large? You mentioned that Rocco was kind of a scary fellow, but are they violent at this point?

McAllester: They haven’t killed anyone, thus far, in these robberies. And I think that does their image rather a lot of good and they’re somewhat mythologized in the Balkans as sort of folk heroes. That bothers Interpol, as you can imagine, and they’d like to point out that they are violent and they threaten and they do use guns, they have shot someone in one case, and indeed, the driver told me that, if necessary, they would use guns. They usually have fake guns and one of them, he said, will be a real gun. That’s the just-in-case-they-shoot-at-us gun.

Passport: Is this one gang? Or is it something different, structurally?

McAllester: It’s not a gang. It’s a loose conglomeration of people from the former Yugoslavia, many of whom know each other. But there was various talk at some stage that the French police had arrested the leader. There is no leader. There are sort of cell-like leaders, sure. But think of Ocean’s Eleven itself, that’s eleven people. And there’s the George Clooney, Brad Pitt characters who get everyone together, but you don’t have a union of diamond thieves, or a massive, military-like structure, spanning out across the Western world. That doesn’t exist. Do they know each other and incorporate sometimes? Absolutely. Are there individuals in the gangs interchangeable? Yeah. I mean, if you need a safe cracker or a getaway driver, then you can make discreet inquiries and come up with someone that you trust.

Passport: And they’ve maintained a folk-hero status in the Balkans. When these crimes are committed, are they covered in the local newspapers there they way maybe John Gotti is covered in New York by the New York Post? The Dapper Don?

McAllester: I think not. I think the folk hero stuff is more the talk of cafes and bars. And you know, I stopped at a bar in a town called Cetinje in Montenegro that a lot of these guys are from and I stopped and talked to a couple of people who actually knew some of these guys and in fact, one of them had been offered a role and turned it down. And he was typical, I think, of people who feel disenfranchised and disappointed that the economic miracle promise to many people in the former Yugoslav countries wasn’t as miraculous as they would have hoped. And so he was grumbling away saying, we don’t have jobs, and so I’m glad that my friends have gone off and taken what they can. And I think that’s quite common. Having said that, his friend, who we were sitting with, was very dismissive of them and he said, no, they’re criminals, they’re lazy, they should be staying here, helping to build the Montenegrin economy and starting legitimate businesses. He thought they were lazy and cowards and immoral.

Passport: Why do they steal jewels? Why don’t they try other sorts of crimes?

McAllester: Basically, there is no cash left in the world to steal. By which I mean, banking has become almost purely electronic, other than the moment in which you get cash from the ATM, banks just really don’t have that much cash. And they’re also defended extremely well. In a bank, you don’t have display cases of dollar bills, they’re firmly behind walls of glass, impenetrable glass. Diamonds are simply the most vulnerable, the most valuable thing there is to steal. They’re small, they’re portable, they’re sellable, you can cut them into different shapes and make them disappear into the mainstream market and you can get away with it. And this is what I picked up from these guys; this horrifying thought that this is actually very easy. You could troll downtown right now, scope out the swankiest jewelry store in Boston and take a hammer with you and probably get away with it if you had a friend with a car who was just idling close by… a stolen car, which is what they use.

Passport: It’s incredible, really. These diamonds are stolen and then they make their way back into the consumer product stream and perhaps you propose to your girlfriend with a diamond that was stolen weeks or months earlier.

McAllester: It’s entirely possible, because …

Passport: They’re completely untraceable.

McAllester: The one thing that Interpol are very honest about is they just don’t know where the stuff goes. Because they’ve arrested a lot of people. But when they arrest them, the diamonds are gone. The jewels are gone. Even within a day or two. And they have no idea. And in my reporting, I found out the answer to why they disappear, which is there are middlemen and indeed, Rocco is one of these characters, who take the stolen goods and move them incredibly, take them very quickly, almost as soon as the robbery is done. And move them very quickly onto third parties. And some of these third parties, I was told, are employees of well-known, world famous diamond companies and jewelers who, and this is very murky, and I actually have no idea and I’m not going to pretend that I do, whether the people involved at a senior level in these companies have any idea that this is going on. I suspect not. It’s not in their interest. So, on a much lower level there are people integrating these diamonds into the mainstream market.

Passport: Perhaps a don’t ask, don’t tell type policy. And then the money goes into a Swiss bank account or bags of cash are exchanged or something to that effect?

McAllester: Yup.

Passport: Ok, we’re running a little bit over, does anybody have a question? If you do, remember to press *6. Questions? No questions? Alright, I’ll ask one final question and then I’ll give you another chance to step in, if anyone wants to ask a question. Who’s winning the battle? Are the cops winning this battle? Or are the criminals? It sounds to me like the criminals are.

McAllester: It’s unwinnable battle, but I think when you get locked up for five years in a prison in the South of France, and you’re a criminal, you pretty much feel like the cops are winning. So I think it veers backwards and forwards. And the driver told me that he felt that the police were.

Passport: The other side’s always winning.

McAllester: But they will never go away. As I said, they just reoffend, repeatedly, these guys. And they, in a sense, get better and better, and they make connections in prison that they can then use on the outside.

Passport: Right. I guess it’s a cost of doing business for the jewelry industry. If you go down 47th Street in Manhattan or in Paris, and people don’t see the jewels sitting out there, there’s not much to entice them. And then the insurance companies step in when something happens, don’t they?

McAllester: Yeah, absolutely.

Passport: Great. Fascinating reporting, Matt. Ok, one last chance for a quick question. Anyone want to jump in? Ok, no questions, today, but thanks a lot Matt, fascinating piece and we’ll talk to you soon.

McAllester: Thanks very much David.

Passport: Bye bye.
 

http://www.globalpost.com/passport/correspondent-call/100210/the-trail-the-pink-panthers