[Top: Goran Drazic (C), one of the accused in the 'Pink Panthers' trial, leaves Chambery's tribunal under police escort on December 3, 2008, at the end of the trial. The court sentenced in absentia Dragan Mikic, on the run since October 2005, to 15 years of imprisonment. Two of his co-accused, Boban Stojkovic and Goran Drazic were respectively sentenced to 6 and 10 years.]
PARIS: It seems unlikely, almost farcical, that one of the world's largest jewel heists would be pulled off by a criminal group known as the Pink Panthers.
But while their name was inspired by a comedic film, their modus operandi is right out of a crime caper: a covert team of skilful ex-military personnel from a war-torn country, pulling off daring robberies while leading mundane double lives as janitors or waiters.
In what could be their latest stick-up three weeks ago, four of their members quietly entered the famous Harry Winston jewellery store near Champs-Elysees in Paris, disguised as women with long blond tresses, sunglasses and winter scarves.
Pulling out a hand grenade and a .357 Magnum, they proceeded to sweep up the diamond rings and gem-studded bracelets in the presence of security guards and cameras, as Parisians strolled unaware past the store's wrought-iron gates outside.
In less than 15 minutes, and without firing a single shot, the quartet made off with US$108 million (S$156 million) worth of jewellery - long before the nearest French police could even react, the International Herald Tribune reported.
While the crooks have not been identified, the meticulous planning, swift execution and creative style have led experts to point the finger at the Pink Panthers - a loose global network of battle-hardened ex-soldiers and their relatives from the former Yugoslavia.
The Pink Panthers were born four years ago, nicknamed by the British police after two members were found guilty of being involved in Britain's biggest diamond raid, where 47 items of jewellery were swiped in May 2003. Less than half the gems, or about £3 million (S$6.4 million) worth, were recovered.
Police had found one of the gleaming rocks - a £500,000 blue diamond ring - hidden in a jar of face cream, just the way "The Pink Panther" gem was hidden in the 1963 film of the same name.
The robbers apparently liked the joke so much that the name has stuck. On several occasions, witnesses have reported them carrying out raids dressed in trademark pink shirts.
The gang's cartoonish moniker, however, is a mere front for their vastly profitable crimes.
Investigators say there are about 200 members in the group, linked by village and blood, and many hail from the town of Nis in southern Serbia.
They have been active since at least 2003 and are blamed for scooping up jewels worth more than US$132 million in bold robberies in Dubai, Switzerland, Japan, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain and Monaco. Like secret agents, they live all over Europe, eking out a living in nondescript jobs while waiting for their next big assignment.
"They come in force, smash into the store, smash all the glass cabinets and are gone in a matter of seconds. What makes them unique, and effective, is the precision," Monaco's chief investigator Christophe Haget told Agence France-Presse. "Nothing is left to chance, especially their escape plan."
Their attention to detail allows them to adapt perfectly to their environment. In luxury neighbourhoods, they travel in chauffeur-driven limousines. In Japan, they ride bicycles and wear anti-pollution masks.
One apprehended member said the Pink Panthers would patiently stake out a target for up to 10 days before striking.
Then there are the touches of ingenuity, like how they once coated a bench outside a targeted jewellery store with fresh paint, to deter pedestrians from resting.
Such is their notoriety that Interpol has targeted the Pink Panthers under one of the organisation's five special projects.
The cell was set up in July last year in response to the gang's increasingly daring and lucrative crime spree. Through such efforts, about 30 of their members are now behind bars.
Just a day before the Harry Winston robbery, two men - Boban Stojkovic and Goran Drazic - were sentenced in Chambery, in the east of France, to six- and 10-year sentences respectively.
The group's fugitive ringleader, Dragan Mikic, was sentenced in absentia to 15 years. He vanished from prison in 2005 after sliding down a ladder while his accomplices attacked the watchtower with machine-gun fire.
Apprehending the whole group, however, remains a challenge. Gang members protect their identities by travelling on genuine passports issued to other people, making them difficult to track as they move around the world.
Meanwhile, Lloyds of London - Harry Winston's insurer - has placed classified advertisements all over the world, including the former Yugoslavia, to publicise a US$1 million reward for information that leads to the recovery of the Harry Winston sparklers.
They will be hoping, just like in the movie, that the bad guys eventually get caught.
The gang's heists
- 2003: The Pink Panthers were involved in Britain's biggest diamond raid, snatching some £23 million (S$49 million) in gems from an exclusive store in London. Some 47 items of jewellery were taken, but less than half - worth only £3 million - have been recovered. The method in which a £500,000 blue diamond ring was hidden in a jar of face cream - just like in the Pink Panther movie - gave the gang its nickname.
- 2004: Well-dressed Pink Panthers took less than three minutes to attack the Graff jewellery store in Tokyo's Ginza district and stuff a sack with rare yellow diamonds worth over 3.5 billion yen (S$56 million). Included in the haul was a 125-carat necklace of 116 diamonds, the Comtesse de Vendome, that has not been recovered and is worth an estimated US$31.5 million (S$45.6 million).
- 2007: In an area with more than 400 closed-circuit cameras, the Pink Panthers struck the Ciribelli shop in Monte Carlo, prompting the police to request an international conference of investigators. This led Interpol to start "Project Pink Panthers" - one of only five special projects that it runs - to share and coordinate information about the gang.
- 2007: In Dubai, masked members of the gang rammed two Audi cars into the window of a Graff jewellery boutique in a gleaming Wafi City shopping mall. They scooped up US$3.4 million worth of diamonds and then bolted away in the same cars - in a daylight heist that has become a YouTube classic with more than 200,000 hits. Later, they burned the cars to erase their traces.
- 2008: Dressed in drag, four Pink Panther members strolled into the fabled Harry Winston store near Champs-Elysees in Paris. In less than 15 minutes, and without firing a single shot, they made off with US$108 million worth of jewellery, pulling off one of the world's largest jewel heists.
Ms Zuniga appearing at a press conference with unidentified suspects on Tuesday after her arrest the day before.
This article was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 25, 2008.