He knew lock-picking experts, alarm aces, safecrackers, guys who could tunnel under anything, and a man who could scale the sleek exteriors of office buildings. Each job brought a different mix of thieves into play. Most, including Notarbartolo, lived in or near Turin, and the group came to be known as the School of Turin.
Notarbartolo's specialty was charm. Acting the part of the jolly jeweler, he was invited into offices, workshops, and even vault rooms to inspect merchandise.
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He would buy a few stones and then, a week or a month later, steal the target's entire stock in the middle of the night. Antwerp provided a wealth of opportunity and a good place to fence hot property. A diamond necklace stolen in Italy could be dismantled and its individual gems sold for cash in Antwerp. He came to town about twice a month, stayed a few days at a small apartment near the Diamond District, then drove home to his wife and kids in the foothills of the Alps.
When he had stolen goods to sell, he dealt with only a few trusted buyers. Now, as he finished his espresso, one of them—a Jewish dealer—came in and sat down to chat. They headed out, and once they were clear of the district, the dealer picked up the conversation. His tone had changed however. The casualness was gone. The agreement was straightforward.
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For an initial payment of , euros, Notarbartolo would answer a simple question: Could the vault in the Antwerp Diamond Center be robbed? He was pretty sure the answer was no. He was a tenant in the building and rented a safe-deposit box in the vault to secure his own stash. He viewed it as the safest place to keep valuables in Antwerp. But for , euros, he was happy to photograph the place and show the dealer how daunting it really was. So he strolled into the Diamond District with a pen poking out of his breast pocket.
At a glance, it looked like a simple highlighter, but the cap contained a miniaturized digital camera capable of storing high-resolution images.
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Photography is strictly limited in the district, but nobody noticed Notarbartolo's pencam. He began his reconnaissance at the police surveillance booth on the Schupstraat, a street leading into the center of the district. Behind the booth's bulletproof glass, two officers monitored the area. The three main blocks of the district bristled with video cameras: Every inch of street and sky appeared to be under watch. The booth also contained the controls for the retractable steel cylinders that are deployed to prevent vehicular access to the district.
As Notarbartolo walked past, he began taking pictures. He headed toward the Diamond Center itself, a gray, story, fortresslike building on the south end of the district.
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It had a private security force that operated a nerve center located at the entrance. Access was blocked by metal turnstiles, and visitors were questioned by guards.
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Notarbartolo flashed his tenant ID card and breezed through. His camera captured crisp images of everything. The 3-ton steel vault door. He took the elevator, descending two floors underground to a small, claustrophobic room—the vault antechamber.
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A 3-ton steel vault door dominated the far wall. It alone had six layers of security. There was a combination wheel with numbers from 0 to To enter, four numbers had to be dialed, and the digits could be seen only through a small lens on the top of the wheel. There were million possible combinations.
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The door was rated to withstand 12 hours of nonstop drilling. Of course, the first vibrations of a drill bit would set off the embedded seismic alarm anyway. The door was monitored by a pair of abutting metal plates, one on the door itself and one on the wall just to the right.
When armed, the plates formed a magnetic field. If the door were opened, the field would break, triggering an alarm.
To disarm the field, a code had to be typed into a nearby keypad. Finally, the lock required an almost-impossible-to-duplicate foot-long key. During business hours, the door was actually left open, leaving only a steel grate to prevent access. But Notarbartolo had no intention of muscling his way in when people were around and then shooting his way out. Any break-in would have to be done at night, after the guards had locked down the vault, emptied the building, and shuttered the entrances with steel roll-gates.
During those quiet midnight hours, nobody patrolled the interior—the guards trusted their technological defenses. Notarbartolo pressed a buzzer on the steel grate. A guard upstairs glanced at the videofeed, recognized Notarbartolo, and remotely unlocked the steel grate.
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Notarbartolo stepped inside the vault. It was silent—he was surrounded by thick concrete walls. The place was outfitted with motion, heat, and light detectors.
A security camera transmitted his movements to the guard station, and the feed was recorded on videotape. The safe-deposit boxes themselves were made of steel and copper and required a key and combination to open. Each box had 17, possible combinations. Notarbartolo went through the motions of opening and closing his box and then walked out.
The vault was one of the hardest targets he'd ever seen. Notarbartolo leans toward me in the Belgian prison and asks if I have any questions so far. It is a rare break in his fast-moving monologue. There is a sense of urgency. He is allotted only one hour of visiting time per day. Notarbartolo was born in Palermo, Sicily, and members of his extended family have long been dogged by accusations of Mafia connections.
Those accusations reached a crescendo last year when anti-Mafia police arrested Notarbartolo's cousin Benedetto Capizzi, claiming he was about to become the new leader of the Sicilian Mafia. Notarbartolo says the Italian authorities traveled to Belgium soon after the heist to question him about Capizzi's possible role in the robbery. If there is an organized-crime link, Notarbartolo might be inventing a story about the Jewish diamond dealer to distract attention from what really happened. Notarbartolo scoffs at this idea and insists that his cousin had nothing to do with the heist.
The reality, Notarbartolo says, is that he thought the vault was impregnable. He didn't believe it could be robbed until the dealer went to extraordinary lengths to prove him wrong. The Door 1. Combination dial 2. Keyed lock 3. Seismic sensor built-in 4. Locked steel grate 5. Magnetic sensor 6. External security camera.