On Valentine’s Day weekend in 2003, a gang of Italian thieves, led by a man named Leonardo Notarbartolo, broke into the Diamond Center, a vault in Antwerp, Belgium. Using items like Styrofoam, a dustmop handle, and hairspray, the thieves disabled a state-of-the-art security system that included infrared heat, motion, and light sensors, as well as a lock with 100 million possible combinations. Police say at least $100 million in diamonds went missing in the biggest diamond heist ever.
But the thieves made a mistake. While hightailing it back to Italy, they tossed bags of garbage containing receipts, loose gems, and other incriminating information into a stretch of Belgian forest routinely patrolled by a retiree on the lookout for litterbugs. The garbage cracked the case. Four of the thieves were convicted, including Notarbartolo, who got ten years.
It sounded like a Hollywood movie. And soon it will be. Notarbartolo gave an interview last year to Wired contributing editor Joshua Davis for a magazine story that has since been optioned and is currently being produced by J.J. Abrams for Paramount Pictures.
Davis’s jailhouse interview with Notarbartolo, published in March 2009, introduced an exciting new twist. According to Notarbartolo, he didn’t mastermind the Diamond Center caper. He was in Antwerp to fence other stolen jewelry, and was approached by a diamond dealer who wanted the vault robbed in order to collect insurance. Notarbartolo said his backer built a replica of the light-sensitive vault—a detail straight out of the movie Ocean’s Eleven, to which this heist has been compared—so the thieves could memorize its dimensions and do the job in the dark.
On the night of the break-in, he said, the thieves stole what they thought were bags full of diamonds, only to open them later and discover they were largely empty—a double-cross. Nearly everyone with gems in the vault had removed them, Notarbartolo claimed, presumably in order to join the insurance scam.
Dramatic stuff. The only problem, according to Belgian police and others with knowledge of the case, is that it’s not true. Greg Campbell and Scott Andrew Selby devote an entire chapter in Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History, their recent and meticulously reported book about the theft, to debunking Notarbartolo’s account. The evidence marshaled by the authors is considerable.
One example: when a security guard discovered the crime scene, the lights were blazing and a pile of ransacked bags and other containers, as well as distinctive jewels and other items like credit cards and passports, which might leave a trail, were piled on the floor. Black electrical tape covered the light sensor. Clearly, darkness wasn’t a factor, and the thieves had gone through the loot in the vault.
A reader of the Wired article, though, would not know about this or any of the contradictions between Notarbartolo’s story and what the police found. Instead, Davis simply included a series of hedges at the end, suggesting that his storyteller could be lying, posing questions like, “Is Notarbartolo’s story a decoy to throw suspicion on others?” Davis says his article was never meant to be a straightforward presentation of the facts of the case. Rather, as Wired editor Mark Robinson put it, “Our approach—telling the story from Notarbartolo’s point of view—was entirely valid considering that it had never been heard before.”
Agim De Bruycker, one of the lead detectives on the case, told CJR he met with Davis several times prior to Davis’s jailhouse interview with Notarbartolo. But he said Davis never made an effort to check Notarbartolo’s story with him or his partner, Patrick Peys. “Not one detail of Leo’s story can be confirmed by the facts in the investigation,” De Bruycker said. Davis’s explanation? “I did not ask for the police point of view on the story as I directly explored the reasons why Notarbartolo might lie, an exploration that was informed by my [earlier] conversations with the police.”
Is that good enough? We don’t think so. Without giving readers, who come to the story without any context, at least a glimpse of the police version of events—beyond the obvious caveat that the storyteller was a known thief and liar—the article gets too close to qualified stenography. Even some of Wired’s readers knew dereliction of journalistic duty when they saw it. “Who, exactly, is supposed to be fooled by this silly tale?” read one letter to the editor. For this, Wired earns a DART.
In an interesting epilogue, about four months after his early release from jail last spring, Notarbartolo was pulled over in Milan, where police found a kilogram of diamonds stuffed between the seats of his car. He said they were low-quality industrial grade diamonds purchased in 2008 (odd, since he was in jail that year); nothing like the highly valuable stones that would have been stored in the Antwerp Diamond vault. But according to the Belgian police, the diamonds have been inspected by experts who determined that they were indeed of the highest quality.
Moreover, these diamonds, about $80,000-worth, may be connected to the heist, a source told CJR. According to the source, the stones await an Italian court’s permission to be brought back to Belgium, a factual detail that seems compelling enough to fold in to the movie. But don’t look for it in a theater near you.