On the heels of the robbery of around $10 million of reality star Kim Kardashian’s jewelry, sources are pinning the crime on the notorious Pink Panther gang. Coined the world’s "best" and most accomplished diamond thieves and hailing from various Eastern European countries, including Serbia and Montenegro, the network of criminals – which consists of roughly 200 individuals – has stolen more than $500 million in jewelry during highly-planned heists spanning more than 30 years.
The Pink Panthers, which earned their name when police in London made an arrest in 2003, and found a diamond ring hidden in a jar of face cream - a ploy used in the original Pink Panther comedies starring Peter Sellers - committed upwards of 380 armed robberies and aggravated thefts around the world as of 2015. Their exploits have become the stuff of legend, with elaborately-planned jobs taking place in London and Tokyo, Geneva and Singapore. Few of the group’s members have ever been caught since they first struck in 1984, and those who have been apprehended and incarcerated – such as Nebojsa Denic, one of those arrested following a diamond robbery in London in 2003 and Borko Ilincic, who was caught by Spanish police in 2014 – tend to provide authorities with little, if any, information about the group’s other members.
According to a lengthy article published by the New Yorker in 2010, "One of the most important Panthers to have been caught is Dragan Mikic, a burly native of Belgrade. During the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, he avoided serving in the Serbian Army, taking criminal jobs instead. He grew into a thief with powerful underworld connections." When taken into custody following the robbery of a jewelry store in the French ski-resort town of Courcheve in 2003, Gilbert Lafaye, a local prosecutor, was impressed by "his physical size and strength, and by his intimidating aura." “He had an ironic grin on his face,” Lafaye said, recalling that Mikic didn’t say very much. “These guys don’t care about being put into jail. They know they are going to escape.”
A HISTORY OF SPECTACULAR CRIMES
In May 2003, the gang executed a robbery of the New Bond Street location of Graff Diamonds, a British multinational jeweler, making away with nearly 50 pieces of jewelry. The London robbery - which was investigated by Scotland Yard (after months of investigating, detectives "were no closer to understanding who had commissioned the robbery, or where the diamonds had gone," according to the New Yorker) - was soon followed by dozens of other Pink Panther heists in Europe and Asia; the value of the jewelry from these robberies approached a quarter of a billion dollars.
Thereafter, in March, 2004, Panthers targeted a jewelry store in Tokyo. Two Serbs, wearing wigs, entered the store and immobilized a clerk with pepper spray. They made off with a necklace containing a hundred-and-twenty-five-carat diamond. That same year, in Paris, the Panthers stole fourteen million dollars’ worth of jewels from an unguarded display case in the Chopard store. In 2005, a Panther team, dressed in flower-print shirts, raided Julian, a jewelry store in Saint-Tropez. The heist, which took place in broad daylight, lasted just minutes. The thieves ran out of the store and down to the harbor, where they escaped in a waiting speedboat.
The group’s Dubai robbery in 2007, however, is possibly their most impressive to date, according to experts. “It was stunning for the amount they stole ($3.4m), the time it took (in 170 seconds they had left the store, jumped back in their cars and left the building), and the precision of their planning. The gang only drives Audis – you can't do a robbery driving a car you don't know; it's too risky. But Audi was a make virtually unknown in the Middle East in 2007 and getaway cars have to be found and stolen just hours before a robbery. The S8 is the brand's flagship high-performing car: so rare was the model in Dubai that one of the cars was stolen in the neighboring emirate of Abu Dhabi and driven across the border,” documentary film maker Havana Marking, who is behind the 2013 Pink Panther-specific film, Smash & Grab, wrote in 2013.
"I had to see the video to believe that they actually drove two cars through the mall. And then to do all that in less than 45 seconds, yeah, it was hard to believe. But it happened," Ron Noble, who was serving as the secretary-general of the International Criminal Police Organization ("INTERPOL," the world’s largest international police organization, with 190 member countries,) at the time, said of the Dubai heist. "They've become legendary because they are so good in their planning and their execution of robberies. From the time they enter the door until they break all the glass in the cases, take the jewelry, and are out in less than 30 seconds. And then they have a getaway plan. Within a matter of hours, they're in another country. That's their classic MO."
THE MAKE UP OF A CRIME SYNDICATE
André Notredame, the detective in Western Europe who is reputed to know the most about the Pink Panthers, is not listed in any public directory or police organizational chart. In 2010, he agreed to speak to the New Yorker about the gang. "Notredame believes that the core of the Panther operation consists of between twenty and thirty experienced thieves. Dozens of other facilitators in various European cities, including Brussels, provide logistical assistance."
"I don't have a badge that says Pink Panther on it," a man involved with the gang told Havana Marking in 2013. "It's nothing to do with us, this name. But I do like those films … Everyone in the Balkans knows The Pink Panther." He also told Marking that there are "no victims to what we do. We scare people but we do not hurt them. We only take expensive things from rich people."
Mike, a former Pink Panther insider that Marking also met when preparing to make her film, told her about the structure of the group: "We are a network of teams working together. As soon as I got involved I became part of the network." The structure is likened by INTERPOL to al-Qaeda – the ultimate contemporary crime gang – in that it is a series of cells that come and go overnight, working independently. "They share methods, they share contacts and they share origins, but it is to everyone's advantage that links are thin," according to Marking.
However, unlike most organized crime networks, the Pink Panthers do not observe a central chain of command. "They've got networks and depending on the robbery there's someone who organized a particular robbery, but there are no kingpins. There's no Al Capone, or John Gotti at the top of the organized crime groups like classic or traditional organized crime.They have specialists in everything - from alarms to safecracking to stealing cars," Noble said of the group.
There is, however, "an inner circle, who have been doing this a long time, and we call each other family," says Marking's source, Mike. "But there are guys who don't know who their bosses or associates are. You have to be with them a long time dealing with the bigger jobs. You get tips from your supervisor – but there is also a wider chain of people. You don't know where you stand in the hierarchy because you never meet the 'boss'. There is no 'Big Boss'. Everyone has their specific job to do, so we all depend on each other."
As for the women in the group, Mike told Marking: "Women in the Panthers have to be exceptional. We have high requirements of them because they have the leading roles, but you can only have one in each gang. She has to be intelligent. She has to be beautiful. And she has to love money very much."
In 2007, INTERPOL organized the Pink Panthers project – an initiative dedicated exclusively to helping police worldwide identify members of the Pink Panthers international network. The project centralized data on the crimes and criminals, analyzed the information, and built networks of investigators. Working groups brought together investigators from around the world to combine their input in specific cases and to help overcome differences in legal systems. This sharing of information and data enabled investigators to make links between crimes in different countries that might not have been noticed otherwise, and has allowed INTERPOL to identify 800 core Pink Panthers using photos, fingerprints, and DNA. They are notorious for using fake passports, which makes them very hard to catch.
Other officials have joined to fight the illusive group. Five alleged members of the gang were arrested in Barcelona in August 2016 after attempting to rob a jewelry store on the city's famous Passeig de Gracia avenue. The bust was part of a larger investigation with different crime units in Spain, and with the collaboration of the Serbian and German police.
As for how the gang will offload $10 million in jewelry, according to Lee Henderson, an intelligence officer at SaferGems, an organization aimed at fighting jewelry industry crimes: "If it's a diamond ring, the stone will most likely end up broken down into smaller pieces. Otherwise, it will be very difficult to sell in any legitimate marketplace. Nobody will want to handle it."
However, given the inherent level of sophistication of the Pink Panther group, they likely thought about these issues ahead of the time, and already found a handler who has agreed to sell the pieces. And according to Marking, that is usually the case: "They know who in advance will buy what and for how much. The Pink Panthers receive around 15% of the value, the courier 5%."
According to André Notredame, "Luxury watches can make their way east, to Serbia and Russia, hidden inside cars. 'Some of the money winds up in Serbia. The Serbian authorities like money investments.'" "Proceeds are laundered in Belgrade," he said, where they are invested in cafés, restaurants, and real estate.
As for the diamonds, “Mr. Green,” yet another one of the Pink Panther affiliates that Marking spoke to, is primarily tasked with getting the diamonds back on to the market. His team re-cuts the diamonds and creates new certificates of origin. "In the end it just made it easier for us: we simply forge those certificates of origin and create a 'new' diamond," he said. The diamonds of very high value will usually make it back into the legal trade "on the hands of brides,” but the smaller ones will become the currency of the global black market. "You can have a pocketful of diamonds and buy a boatful of cocaine.”
Speaking out since the heist, Palve 'Punch' Stanimirovic, once a member of the Pink Panther gang, said Kim K was an "easy target" for the Panthers. He told the Daily Beast: "Everybody knows that Kim Kardashian is an easy target. She's by herself and you know who the people are that work in the service industry in Paris and all over Europe." He continued: "And they have friends that have friends that have friends. It's so easy to pick up a phone and say, 'Hey, Kim Kardashian is here in room so-and-so.' You know how fast they can set this up? They know the area. They know the hotel because she came there a couple of times already. They just waited for her and they knew she was coming for fashion week. This was a pre-planned, inside job and they pulled it off."