Pink Pan­thers of the Balkans seen as Robin Hoods at home

Jewel thieves gain pres­tige, but lit­tle lu­cre trick­les down

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By Du­san Stojanovic

CET­INJE, Mon­tene­gro — Their nick­name comes straight from Peter Sell­ers and In­spec­tor Clouseau, but there’s noth­ing bum­bling about them.

In heists from London to Paris to Tokyo, the crime ring that In­ter­pol calls the Pink Pan­thers is thought to have net­ted a quar­ter-bil­lion dol­lars in jew­elry and lux­ury watches. Many of its mem­bers are said to be from this tiny Balkan coun­try of 600,000 peo­ple, where they are be­com­ing lo­cal he­roes.

The leg­end started seven years ago in a jar of face cream.

Mi­lan Jovetic was among a group that robbed the Graff store on London’s ex­clu­sive New Bond Street of $30 mil­lion worth of di­a­monds. He was caught a cou­ple of days later, and Scot­land Yard found a $1 mil­lion di­a­mond ring that was pur­port­edly his share of the job.

It was stashed in his girl­friend’s face cream jar, the same hid­ing place used by the jewel thief in “The Pink Pan­ther,” the 1963 com­edy that in­tro­duced the world to Sell­ers’ fa­mously in­ept In­spec­tor Clouseau.

Bri­tish news­pa­pers dubbed the rob­bers the Pink Pan­thers, and as more rob­beries fol­lowed, enough of a pat­tern emerged for In­ter­pol to set up Project Pink Pan­thers.

“We are work­ing on 190 cases in 27 coun­tries on four con­ti­nents — a big in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” said Ju­lia Viedma, di­rec­tor of In­ter­pol’s op­er­a­tions.

In court, Jovetic claimed he had only ar­ranged lo­gis­tics and was paid with the di­a­mond ring. He was sen­tenced to 5½ years in prison, of which he served four. Now he’s back in this small Mon­tene­grin val­ley town, a hand­some 30-year-old with gelled black hair who is some­thing of a celebrity.

Push­ing his baby daugh­ter in a stroller down a dusty street, he is asked if he is in­deed Jovetic the Pan­ther. He grins and replies, “Do I look that way to you?”

But when asked about the crime ring, he snarls, “You don’t have the kind of money for me to talk,” and walks away.

Cet­inje, a poor town of 15,000, has pro­duced many of those ar­rested on sus­pi­cion of Pink Pan­ther as­so­ci­a­tions, In­ter­pol says. Im­pov­er­ished by the wars that broke up Yu­goslavia, Cet­inje has few ex­ports be­sides young, job­less men, many of whom hang out at a cafe owned by Jovetic.

A no­tion seems to have taken root here that the Pink Pan­thers are Robin Hood types, steal­ing from the rich and giv­ing to the poor. But other than some BMWs and Mercedes-Ben­zes parked out­side cer­tain cafes fre­quented by the un­der­world, there is no in­di­ca­tion of any wealth trick­ling down.

A man who iden­ti­fies him­self only as Zo­ran sips espresso at a side­walk cafe and asks for un­der­stand­ing for the Pan­thers: “They killed no one. They just wanted to es­cape this god­for­saken place.”

In­deed, al­though the rob­bers of­ten are armed, they haven’t shot at any­one.

In­ter­pol of­fi­cials are care­ful not to link ev­ery spec­tac­u­lar jewel rob­bery in the world to the Pink Pan­thers, and they are wary of en­hanc­ing the crime ring’s al­lure, one of­fi­cial said on con­di­tion of anonymity.

But the of­fi­cials think the Pink Pan­thers have been be­hind about 150 rob­beries since the late 1990s. They say that about 25 ar­rests have been made in re­cent years, and 400 peo­ple are be­ing in­ves­ti­gated as mem­bers or ac­com­plices, but the core group num­bers about 40.

Those ar­rested ob­serve a code of si­lence that con­founds at­tempts to break up the gang.

“There is no doubt that these men and a few women … mostly come from Mon­tene­gro and Ser­bia,” said De­jan Anas­tasi­je­vic, a re­porter from Ser­bia who in­ves­ti­gates Balkan crime syn­di­cates and who had to flee to Bel­gium af­ter es­cap­ing a grenade ex­plo­sion.

“We have no idea who hires these peo­ple, whether it’s the Ital­ian, Rus­sian or Ja­panese mafia or some­one else,” he said.

Their tac­tics are usu­ally sim­ple, In­ter­pol of­fi­cials say. A well-dressed man en­ters a shop and points his gun at a clerk. A few other masked in­di­vid­u­als fol­low, car­ry­ing ham­mers and steel bars. They smash jew­elry cas­ings and win­dows and are gone in min­utes, flee­ing in stolen cars.

In March 2004, in what was then Ja­pan’s biggest jew­elry heist, two be­wigged rob­bers burst into an up­scale Tokyo store, im­mo­bi­lized a clerk with pep­per spray and nabbed trea­sures in­clud­ing a $27 mil­lion di­a­mond neck­lace.

An April 2007 heist in Dubai was far less sub­tle. Two cars drove into a lobby of the Wafi shop­ping mall. One backed through a jew­elry store win­dow. Three masked men drove off with about $3.5 mil­lion worth of jew­els. The en­tire scene was filmed on a by­stander’s cell phone and posted on YouTube. Dubai po­lice said they iden­ti­fied eight sus­pects as Pink Pan­thers.

Last De­cem­ber, three Pink Pan­thers, two men and a woman, were con­victed by a Ser­bian court of steal­ing $31.5 mil­lion worth of jew­els, in­clud­ing the 125-carat neck­lace, two di­a­mond ear­rings and seven di­a­mond rings.

Those jew­els, as is of­ten the case in these rob­beries, were never found, rais­ing the sus­pi­cion that the gang is con­tracted for rob­beries by peo­ple with the re­sources to fence the stolen gems.

Harry Levy, vice pres­i­dent of the London Di­a­mond Bourse, said deal­ers in London, Paris and New York can spot high­pro­file stolen di­a­monds, but “it is easy to al­ter the weight and the shape by re-cut­ting or re­shap­ing the stone … mak­ing them easy to sell in such places as East­ern Europe or Asia, which have less reg­u­la­tion.”

Darko Vojinovic As­so­ci­Ated Press

Cet­inje, a town left poverty-stricken by wars, is thought to be the source of many re­cruits for the Pink Pan­thers, a crime ring blamed for steal­ing about $250 mil­lion worth of jew­els in sev­eral coun­tries.

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