A Lone Bandit and the Mystery of France's Greatest Diamond Heist

A gunman stole $136 million of jewelry from an exhibition at the Intercontinental Carlton Cannes hotel in July. Investigators and gem experts are still wondering how it happened. 
French police investigate the crime scene outside the luxurious seaside hotel on the day the robbery occurred. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

The terrace doors of the opulent Intercontinental Carlton Cannes hotel on the French Riviera were supposed to be locked. 

But before lunchtime on the last Sunday of July, a thief—whose face was obscured with a bandanna and a motorcycle helmet—managed to slip through them and directly into an exhibition room loaded with millions of dollars worth of Leviev diamonds, "the world's most extraordinary." Armed with an automatic pistol and an uncanny familiarity with the setting, the mystery bandit began his heist.

The operation was the largest value jewel theft in French history, and one of the biggest in the world—and all it took was some brute force and about sixty seconds.

"He was professional and very rapid," Philippe Vique, a deputy prosecutor for the region based in the nearby town of Grasse, told the New York Times a day later. Vique told The Atlantic he was no longer divulging details about the investigation, which is ongoing.

The robber was not confronted with a particularly intimidating scenario. Because the exhibit had not yet opened, there were no hotel guests or customers milling about. In fact, he had arrived at exactly the most opportune moment, just before the high-profile jewels were to be loaded into secure display cases. 

He did have to contend with a small group that had gathered in the room: two vendors, a show manager, and three unarmed private security guards, according to the Associated Press. But the threat of the firearm was evidently enough to hold them off. 

They watched as he seized a briefcase and a box full of jewels belonging to Israeli diamond and real estate billionaire Lev Leviev. The haul contained 72 pieces, 34 of which were considered "exceptional" because of the gems' unblemished clarity, brilliant color (which, in diamond circles, sometimes means no color at all), large carat weight, and their intricate cuts and polishes by master craftsmen. The company aims to deliver natural, non-treated gems, meaning that it avoids dyeing, filling, and other processes frequently used to enhance the clarity and color of raw stones. The loot included "many high karat, internally flawless colorless diamonds along with large pink and yellow diamonds, and emeralds and sapphires, set in platinum and 18k gold,” according to Forbes.

Press reports suggested that the unidentified intruder made his getaway through a side door. But a source close to the investigation told The Atlantic that he climbed through a window, lugging $136 million worth of bounty with him, hopped the five or so feet down to the street, and fled on foot. Some of the jewels came loose and scattered onto the ground.  No one pursued him.

The operation was the largest-value jewel theft in French history, and one of the biggest in the world -- and all it took was some brute force and about 60 seconds. 

As if this weren't enough to satisfy the requisites of any good jewel-heist movie, the crime had yet another flourish. It occurred in the same hotel that Alfred Hitchcock shot much of the classic 1955 romance-thriller To Catch a Thief. The film follows a reformed burglar (Cary Grant) who—in pursuit of a copycat—falls for a seductive bon vivant (Grace Kelly).

A bit of scene setting:  


Though gun laws in France make it extremely difficult to arm private security personnel, American and European experts in high-profile jewel crime agreed that something was amiss at the Carlton. They alternately described the conditions at this particular event as "ridiculously insecure," "painfully inadequate," or, as Martin Winckel, a jewel expert who runs the Germany-based International Jeweller Security Service, phrased it in an email: "there was no security!"

The event's organizers should have been prepared for an attempted breach, the experts say. A few months earlier, during the course of the Cannes Film Festival in May, thieves outmaneuvered 80 security guards at the nearby Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Cap d'Antibes to pilfer a single $2.6 million De Grisogono necklace. A week before that, cat burglars broke into the Novotel hotel room of an employee of the Swiss jewel and watch maker Chopard and wrenched a safe containing $1 million worth of jewelry out of the wall.  

According to Anthony Roman, CEO of the global risk management firm Roman & Associates, the security architecture at the Carlton did not resemble anything like what his company would have devised, especially after the recent spate of crimes. These types of venues and high-value products, Roman explained, need a clear, central command that oversees several perimeters, including undercover guards monitoring for getaway vehicles or other suspicious activity outside the building. "Detection is the primary weapon in this type of security plan," he said of the optimal setup. "Detect what's going to happen before it happens, and interrupt it there. The robbers are not looking to get into a shootout 40 yards from their target."  

Under a more rigorous system, Roman said, every access point should be manned, and guests should only be able to reach the "outer ring" of an event before they come face to face with security personnel. These types of checkpoints can also be masqueraded as champagne registrations and the like so that the event doesn't sacrifice its elegant aesthetic. If such a plan was in place at the Carlton, the thief probably wouldn't have made it up the terrace steps, let alone through the French doors. Security would have immediately marked a guy lingering outside an entrance as a threat, approached him casually, offered help, and told him that he was in a restricted area, Roman said. Usually, such an approach spooks the would-be criminal, Roman observed, and he'll improvise an excuse about looking for a bathroom before making a swift exit.

"You don't market 64 carat diamonds with a sign on the outside of a hotel."

But even a more sophisticated criminal who vaults past the initial layers of security and makes it to the room holding the jewels can still be thwarted by a secure holding case. At minimum, Winckel said, the jewels should be placed in a show case with "unbreakable laminated glass and electronic locks with time delay for opening." If cracking the electronic code or breaking into the case takes more than a few minutes, the thieves will usually abandon the operation. The most secure cases are built to resist the force of hammers, sledgehammers, crowbars, and even guns. "If such show cases are used, the only dangerous time is the [distance] between a vault and the show cases," Winckel added. This distance "must be as short as possible" and, Winckel wrote, the jewels must be accompanied by armed guards. In the case of the Carlton, the jewels were lying prone, and the guards were unarmed.

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Ryan Jacobs is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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