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Tuesday, September 02, 2014         

NEW YORK TIMES


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Belgian diamond theft, filled with cinematic thrills, also has a blooper reel

By DOREEN CARVAJAL

POSTED:



GENEVA » When squads of fake police officers arrived in a whirl of blue lights, they struck with clockwork precision, plundering closely guarded packets of diamonds from the cargo hold of a parked plane and fleeing without troubling the passengers.

Since the theft on the windblown tarmac of the Brussels airport in February, though, the episode has veered from thriller to comedy, featuring a roundup of unusual suspects who, naturally, came together in Casablanca, Morocco.

The robbery was marked by meticulous planning, inside information and swift execution - eight armed men in 11 minutes - that left investigators marveling. As the investigation has deepened in Morocco, Belgian officials conceded last week that the value of the cargo stolen might be far higher than the $50 million first estimated. Some industry analysts said it could be worth as much as $350 million, which would rank the robbery among the biggest diamond thefts in Belgium, a hub of the international gem trade.

But the frantic effort to sell the diamonds afterward was so ham-handed that some who watch the industry have begun to doubt that the robbers were after diamonds at all, but were instead seeking hard cash. Since they were arrested after trying to sell the diamonds, most suspects have denied involvement, while others offered a defense rarely employed by the suave celluloid jewel thieves or their conspirators: stupidity.

The flawed second stage of the robbery is emerging in various legal proceedings since more than 30 people were detained in dawn raids last month by investigators in Belgium, France and Switzerland. The suspects include a French former convict with a restaurant in Casablanca called Key West and a wealthy Geneva real estate investor who insists that he was conned into hiding a paper sack of gems.

"Today he can't understand himself why he was so stupid," said Shahram Dini, the lawyer for Pascal Pont, 56, the real estate investor, who has been released from prison but remains under investigation on suspicion of receiving stolen property. "He was naove. He is someone who has a thriving real estate business, doesn't need more money and has a family and children. It wasn't for himself. It was a favor for someone who charmed him and also scared him."

It was in the effort to sell the diamonds in Geneva that the meticulous planning broke down, leading to speculation in the diamond industry that the thieves were not so savvy after all.

"Geneva is not a big diamond center, and that's what surprises me about this story," said Edahn Golan, an analyst in Israel specializing in the economics of the diamond industry. "Everyone thought they were tipped off from the inside in the airport because of the incredible timing, but if they knew what they were doing, they should have waited for a trade show."

He added, "The surprise is that it seemed so well planned when in reality it wasn't well planned at all."

The key relationship, which helped crack the case, is the tie between Pont and Marc Bertoldi, 43, the Casablanca restaurateur, with a sideline exporting luxury cars and a prior conviction in France for trafficking in stolen cars. Bertoldi's name first surfaced in an unrelated Swiss inquiry, prompting a wiretap that connected him to the robbery in Belgium, according to the Swiss prosecutor, Marc Rossier.

Last month, a grim Bertoldi was rushed into a courtroom in Metz, France, for an extradition hearing. Wearing jeans and a pink Ralph Lauren sweater, with his cuffed hands covered by a yellow blanket, he denied involvement in the robbery.

The judges nonetheless agreed to send him to Belgium, based on information from wiretaps and GPS tracking that placed his car near the robbery. Prosecutors said that Bertoldi also warned a friend that he would be unreachable on the day of the theft. Two days later, according to the Belgian authorities, he was overheard boasting about his part in the robbery and urging his friend to "watch television."

His lawyers appealed the ruling, arguing that Pont had falsely implicated Bertoldi in exchange for his release. "They found millions of euros in diamonds on the property of the Swiss businessman, and he's free," Bertoldi told the judges. "In my home, it's the contrary. They found nothing."

Bertoldi and Pont met in 2011 in Casablanca, where Bertoldi ran his restaurant and a luxury-car business and Pont had a pied-‘-terre. Pont sought Bertoldi's help after his Ferrari broke down, and they bonded over a shared passion for expensive cars.

At one point, Pont lent Bertoldi about $50,000 to start a nightclub that ultimately never opened. Bertoldi tried to repay his debt by traveling to Geneva this year to offer Pont two small diamonds, Pont's lawyer said.

At Bertoldi's request, the lawyer said, Pont approached a few of his friends to see if they were interested in buying four diamonds.

But when Bertoldi showed up again with a big sack, filled with packets of the stones, Pont panicked. "He knew they were diamonds," said his lawyer, Dini. "He realized he had a problem. He put his finger on a gear he could no longer control."

On May 7, Bertoldi was arrested in France while driving Pont's borrowed Porsche Panamera. The police called a friend of Pont's, a lawyer who has not been identified publicly, to ask whether he would represent Bertoldi. The lawyer declined.

Tipped off to the arrest, Pont summoned the lawyer to La Coupole, an expensive retreat near Lake Geneva, where he handed over three keys for a cellar in the Champel district of Geneva. The police, who had been monitoring Pont's telephone calls for almost two months, arrested both men on suspicion of receiving stolen property, and discovered the diamonds in the cellar.

The men have since been released, but they are still suspects. Of the 30 other suspects, most have been released on bail, and seven remain jailed in Brussels. Five have challenged their arrests, arguing in one case that telephone recordings were of such poor quality that the police had mistakenly heard the words "gold and diamonds."

Investigators are still searching for another prime suspect, believed to be in Morocco and identified only as "Tarek B."

Dini said that Pont was aware of his friend's checkered past, but that Bertoldi was so droll that Pont came to admire and fear him. Handed bags of diamonds, Pont just took them. "In my line of work," Dini said, "there are people who do things that are really stupid, because they don't have the force of character to say no."






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