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Pink Panthers: Daring heists rake in half-a-billion dollars

Using expert planning and military discipline, a loose group of European thieves dubbed "the Pink Panthers" has stolen $500M over 20 years
Pink Panthers: Daring heists rake in half-a-billion dollars 13:57

The following script is from "The Pink Panthers" which aired on March 23, 2014, and was rebroadcast on Aug. 31, 2014. Bob Simon is the correspondent. Katherine Davis and Sam Hornblower, producers.

The largest, most successful gang of diamond thieves in the world is credited with over 370 heists worth $500 million -- and it's getting bigger and more daring every year. The gang is composed of networks of teams who work together, in Europe mostly. But they have done jobs in 35 countries, as far afield as Tokyo and Dubai. They are ex-Yugoslavs, many fought in the Serbian special forces during the Bosnian wars. They are called the Pink Panthers. And that's not a joke.

Jewel thieves doing less time for the crime 02:38

They got their name from those famous Peter Sellers movies of the 70s and 80s. But as you can well imagine, there are scores of jewelers and cops in many countries who do not find them funny at all. As we first reported in March, their exploits have become the stuff of legend, but what they did in Dubai a few years ago shocked even the police officers who'd been after them for years.

Security camera footage captured the scene at the upscale Wafi mall. They drove right into the mall in two Audis, crashed the cars into the doors of a jewelry store. Then men in commando gear jumped out, ran into the shop, seemed perfectly relaxed as they broke into glass cases and bagged diamonds worth $3.5 million. Then they got back in their cars and just drove away

Bob Simon: How did you react when you heard about the Dubai heist? I mean, it was pretty brazen wasn't it?

Ron Noble: I had to see the video to believe that they actually drove two cars through the mall. And then to do all that in less than 45 seconds, yeah, it was hard to believe. But it happened.

That's the world's chief cop who found it hard to believe. Ron Noble is secretary general of INTERPOL, the global police organization based in Lyon, France.

Ron Noble: I'd say that they are the most notorious, organized crime group that I've been involved in investigating in my life.

Bob Simon: So they're really good?

Ron Noble: The problem is that they've become legendary because they are so good in their planning and their execution of robberies.

A Pink Panther jail break in Switzerland 02:05

Legendary, in part, because of their name. Remember this scene from that hilarious Peter Sellers comedy where the thief hides the diamond in a jar of cold cream? Well, these professional thieves did exactly the same thing after they hit a high-end jewelry store in London in 2003, making off with $40 million in diamonds. That's how they became known as the Pink Panthers. Incidentally, it was the largest jewel heist in British history.

Then Tokyo, men wearing wigs entered luxury shops, immobilized clerks with pepper spray and made off with diamonds, a tiara, and the Comtesse de Vendome necklace worth $30 million.

Copenhagen 2007, a jewelry store inside a hotel, in front of stunned guests, three men raced through the lobby and into the store. They smashed glass cases and made off with more than a million dollars worth of stones.

In the last 20 years they have been responsible for a half a billion dollars in robberies. In all that time, there's been one fatality.

What makes the Panthers so successful, Noble says, is how they do weeks of surveillance and preparation before an attack. These undercover shots show a team taking the measure of a target before a hit.

Ron Noble: The MO of the Pink Panthers is very clear. They tend to use a woman to case the jewelry stores first.

Bob Simon: An attractive woman.

Ron Noble: Attractive woman, woman wearing expensive clothing, woman wearing expensive jewelry

A well-heeled man enters next, blocks the door open with his foot and clears the path for the "smash and grab" men. Four people altogether. Precise timing and well-planned getaways are their trademark.

Ron Noble: From the time they enter the door until they break all the glass in the cases, take the jewelry, and are out in less than 30 seconds. And then they have a getaway plan. Within a matter of hours, they're in another country. That's their classic MO.

If the Mafia grew out of Sicily, the Pink Panthers are a product of Montenegro & Serbia, the now independent republics in what was once Yugoslavia. They were allies in the brutal Bosnian Wars against the Muslims.

When U.N. sanctions halted the flow of products into the country, groups of soldiers became professional smugglers.

Bob Simon: Did many of them have paramilitary training?

Ron Noble: The core were fighters during the war. Paramilitary training. Very organized, very disciplined and ruthless. And were the ones who started it back in '94, '95, '96.

Bob Simon: So they learned their trade in the war?

Andrea Scholz: They grown up with aggression. They know if you want to have success in life, you have to use force and for them, it's common.

Andrea Scholz is a risk prevention consultant in Germany who has been investigating the gang for 10 years.

Bob Simon: So the distinctive thing about Pink Panthers from robbers in other countries is that since they're so experienced in war, they are not afraid?

Andrea Scholz: They are not afraid, absolutely.

To date, INTERPOL has identified 800 core Pink Panthers using photos, fingerprints, and DNA. They are notorious for using fake passports, which makes them very hard to catch. Noble says, unlike the Mafia, they have no chain of command.

Ron Noble: They've got networks and depending on the robbery there's someone who organized a particular robbery, but there are no kingpins. There's no Al Capone, or John Gotti at the top of the organized crime groups like classic or traditional organized crime.

They have specialists in everything -- from alarms to safecracking to stealing cars -- and those experts are not hard to find.

Bob Simon: Do they have connections in every country?

Jan Glassey: In Europe, in quite every country you have the Balkan community. So they have the possibility to have a connection. In Switzerland we know that and it's the same in France, in Germany, in Sweden, in Denmark.

Swiss detective Jan Glassey says Geneva is one of their favorite cities because it's so rich. It's where billionaires come to shop and play.

Bob Simon: So they went into this store?

Jan Glassey: They went inside this store

Bob Simon: And if they get - if they only get 15 watches, they've made like a million bucks?

Jan Glassey: Yeah.

Bob Simon: In 50 seconds?

Jan Glassey: Yeah, exactly.

This team wearing wigs and sunglasses robbed a luxury store on the Rue de Rhone, THE street in Geneva. They grabbed $4 million worth of diamonds and made their getaway in motorcycles down a street which was too narrow for police cars.

Bob Simon: So it's almost a sport between you and them, isn't it?

Jan Glassey: It is. It is always a bit like that. That mean, they are always a step before us because they are changing the modus operandi and yes, it's a little bit a cat and mouse game.

Bob Simon: They are professionals

Jan Glassey: They are really, really professionals.

Bob Simon: There is no way for you to get there in time.

Jan Glassey: No, no, no. For the cops it is very difficult. Normally, we can say between three and five minutes.

Bob Simon: And by that time, they are in France.

Jan Glassey: At that time they are on the way to France.

A James Bond blockbuster could be made out of what they did in St. Tropez. The roads get clogged in the summer. So after posing as tourists and scoring more than $3 million worth of jewelry, the Panthers made their getaway by sea.

Bob Simon: And when you hear that they got out of St. Tropez in speed boats, are you thinking, "That's pretty good"?

Jan Glassey: I really - all the cops are thinking that. That's pretty good. And now we have a lot of job to do.

We drove to the seaside town of Ulcinj, Montenegro to meet a semi-retired Pink Panther who has been associated with that job. He calls himself Filip. He agreed to talk to us at a rented apartment in a secret location. We had to turn off our electronic devices before he appeared and we agreed not to show his face.

Bob Simon: How many jobs have you done?

Filip: Nine.

Bob Simon: Nine. What was your best robbery?

Filip: My best robbery? OK, my best robbery was in France. It was very speedy.

Bob Simon: Very speedy

Filip: Yeah, very speedy. Like Speedy Gonzalez. It was good money and nobody hurt.

Bob Simon: You get a couple of million Euros in France and then how did you get them someplace where you could get money?

Filip: I have connection everywhere. If I say everywhere, I mean everywhere. We got to Belgium, we have friends.

When they go to Belgium, they always drop in on Antwerp where gems worth billions are traded every day.

In Antwerp: Diamond detectives v. diamond thieves 02:33

Patrick Peys: We know that a lot of diamonds come to Antwerp - stolen diamonds, stolen jewelry. Why do they come to Antwerp? Because the diamond trade is here in Antwerp.

Patrick Peys is chief inspector of the Antwerp Diamond Squad.

Patrick Peys: If you compare their volume and their value, the best products in the world, of course. That's why diamonds are so much used in criminal acts.

Making matters worse for cops, only the most expensive diamonds have laser inscriptions with identifying numbers. And even then, large diamonds can be recut making it impossible to tell whether or not they've been stolen.

Bob Simon: So from what you're saying being a diamond thief isn't a bad career. You make a lot of money, and the odds are with you that you're not going to get caught.

Patrick Peys: I wouldn't advise anybody to start that career, but yes, I can imagine that from their view that, yeah, it's a living. It's a way of living. And the possibilities of getting caught are probably not that high.

And recently, we learned, the Pink Panthers have started branching out.

Bob Simon: We know them as jewelry thieves, are they expanding their operations?

Ron Noble: They're expanding their operations into art. And very, very fine art

In 2008, a group of armed and masked Panthers hit this museum in Zurich, making off with a Monet, a van Gogh, a Degas and a Cezanne. It was the largest art robbery in European history.

The last of the paintings was recovered in April 2012 in a dramatic raid captured on videotape. A Serbian SWAT team stormed this house to arrest the men accused of snatching the impressionist works. The cops took a van in for examination and found something hidden in the ceiling. When they pulled it out, they discovered it was Cezanne's "Boy in the Red Vest" estimated value $113 million, but nailing a couple of Panthers doesn't help the police nearly as much as they would like it to.

Bob Simon: If one of these guys gets caught, will he squeal? Will he give evidence about the other people, his partners?

Jan Glassey: No, there is an omerta between them.

Bob Simon: The omerta really works?

Jan Glassey: The omerta really works, and when we are speaking of the best teams, a lot of them are really friends, that means, they grew up together.

Still, since 2007, hundreds of arrests have been made, but those Panthers just keep on reproducing.

Bob Simon: And we understand there are approximately 180 new members in the last couple of years?

Ron Noble: Yes, so the next generation is being recruited.

Bob Simon: And trained presumably?

Ron Noble: Recruited and trained.

Their daring has inspired legions of copycats disguising themselves as women in burkas, these thieves robbed a jewelry store in a mall in Bahrain and this gang took to their motorcycles to rob a jewelry store in London.

Ron Noble: The copycats are really just organized crime groups that have identified an easy way to make money based on the celebrity status, I would say, in large part, of the Pink Panthers.

And the police admit that, unfortunately, they themselves didn't help matters when they started calling the gang Pink Panthers.

Ron Noble: The problem with this group is that the name Pink Panthers it engenders inside us - the first memory is the movie or movies - about the Pink Panthers - and we smile at the name of Pink Panthers.

[Pink Panther movie clip

Clouseau: Does your dog bite?

Clerk: No.

Clouseau: I thought you said your dog did not bite!

Clerk: It is not my dog!]

Bob Simon: And indeed the first thing you think of when you hear Pink Panthers is comedy.

Ron Noble: That's why we try to highlight whenever we can the way in which they perpetrate the robberies. They are not nice guys. These are not nice guys who are stealing from the rich to give to the poor. These are just coldblooded and ruthless and notorious thieves.

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