Jewel thieves' fan club grows as Pink Panthers strike again


A gang of Balkan jewel thieves have become popular heroes at home, writes JEFFERY FLEISHMANin Belgrade

SO LET’S get this straight. A guy in the raspberry business from western Serbia smashes and grabs his way through a heist eight time zones away in Tokyo and scoots off with a $31-million (€22-million) necklace known as the Countess of Vendome.

It happens.

Djordjije Rasovic graced arrest warrants, a thief with brazen nerves, part of an international Balkan crime gang known as the Pink Panthers.

He and one of his accomplices, Snowy, another name too whimsical for the harsh impulses of the former Yugoslavia, brought a bit of high jinks to a land haunted by war and atrocities.

The Panthers, a collection of 150 to 200 Balkan bad guys and a few women, have stolen about $140 million in jewellery and watches over the last decade from 100 luxury shops around the world, including boutiques in Paris, London, Monaco and Dubai.

They come in rough, swinging hammers and axes, shattering glass, flashing semiautomatic pistols and an occasional grenade, and vanishing with gems in satchels lined with toilet paper to prevent scratching.

They’re untailored and uncoiffed, preferring black leather jackets and baseball caps to cashmere and cufflinks, a kind of Ocean’s 11 minus the panache.

But they’re disciplined and fluent in many languages, and they strike with precision.

Their heists usually clock in at 90 seconds, and when one of them is arrested, like, say, Rasovic, another takes his place in an organisation that has grown wiser since the early days, when its members were so brash they didn’t conceal their faces.

“They’ve become more than pure criminals, they’re heroes,” said Dragan Ilic, a morning radio talk show host in Belgrade, the Serbian capital.

“They’re violent but they haven’t killed anyone. It’s as if they’re saying, ‘We can beat the technologically superior West with our raw power and intelligence’. They’re feeding the Western myth of the dark, tribal Balkans – these criminals coming from those wars and woods.”

Panther lore has crept into chat rooms and cyberspace. One of them skied in the French Alps before knocking off a nearby jewellery store; others case shops for months, buying watches and trinkets and befriending managers.

The Panthers lead hidden lives among Europe’s Balkan diaspora of refugees, former paramilitaries, opportunists and labourers who watched Yugoslavia splinter throughout the 1990s. Working in hospitals, bars and restaurants, they’re summoned by messages to join comrades and hatch robberies on streets glowing with designer names.

Some law enforcement officials suggest the Panthers work for the Italian or Russian mafias; others say they’re an independent syndicate.

They’ve become so proficient that they’ve inspired copycats, and the aura of the Pink Panthers lingers around crime scenes like the infectious theme from the 1963 movie that is their namesake. Scotland Yard came up with the nickname after police found a blue diamond ring, valued at more than $650,00, in a jar of face cream – similar to a scene from The Pink Panther.

“It’s audacity,” says Monaco criminal investigation chief Andre Muhlberger. “Difficulty doesn’t stop them . . . When you’ve lived through the atrocities of war, and especially a civil war, you don’t have the same fears as you or me.” Most of the Pink Panthers are Serbs, and most of them come from the city of Nis, an amalgam of block-style buildings and flaking Ottoman-era facades rising from farm fields at the foot of a mountain.

The names from Nis on Interpol warrants are tongue-twisters for the cops pursuing them: Mladen Lazarevic and Milan Lepoja, wanted for heists in Dubai and Lichtenstein; Milos Jovanovic, wanted in Liechtenstein; Bojana Mitic, a woman whose mug shot, which shows long hair framing her face, suggests a Bonnie linked to a bunch of Clydes. She’s wanted in a $3-million Dubai robbery captured on YouTube.

It’s a forbidden glamour the Balkans have long relished.

“They’re creating chaos. It’s not something I would do, but they’re rocking,” says Marko Petrovic, a university student studying environmental protection, who on a recent night strolled through Nis with enough money to buy a drink for himself, but not for a girl, if he met one. “They’re the main topic in coffee shops. Everybody talks about them . . . What they’re doing is stunning, amazing and awesome.”

At least 10 people, including Zoran Kostic, an alleged ringleader, have been arrested over the last 18 months, mostly in Europe. Gilbert Lafaye, a public prosecutor in Chambery, France, compares the organisation’s network to a global “spider web . . . You pull one string, and you find a group of others.” That is how, according to police, Rasovic, the raspberry guy, ended up in the Ginza shopping district of Tokyo in 2004 with a forged passport and big ambitions.

Police say Rasovic, Snowy (real name: Snezana Panajotovic) and Alexander Radulovic had cased the Le Supre-Diamant Couture de Maki store, pretending to be buyers. On the day of the robbery, police say, Snowy waited outside while Rasovic and Radulovic entered the store. One of the robbers distracted a shop assistant; the other sprayed a second salesperson with pepper spray. Glass cases were smashed with a bar and the thieves disappeared with jewels including the Countess of Vendome necklace, which is studded with 115 diamonds and has a 125-carat oval centre.

Rasovic was sentenced to 6½ years in 2005 for the heist, but he and Snowy and Radulovic have won an appeal for a new trial. The Countess of Vendome has not been found. – (LA Times- Washington Post service)