Fri, Feb 29, 2008 - Page 6 News List

Robbers tunnel into jeweler's offices in Milan, empty vault

AP , MILAN, ITALY

In a heist worthy of Hollywood treatment, masked thieves entered the offices of a jewelry company through a tunnel they drilled through thick concrete, bypassing security and catching off-guard employees preparing for a weekend VIP showing.

The robbers walked away on Sunday morning with bags full of jewels -- gold, platinum, diamonds and rubies, Damiani SpA CEO Guido Damiani said.

His third-generation family-run business caters to stars such as Isabella Rosellini and Tilda Swinton -- who wore one of the luxury line's one-of-a-kind diamond bracelets to pick up her Oscar just hours after the robbery.

The losses are being inventoried and Damiani is not issuing estimates. But he discounted a 5 million euro (US$7.5 million) figure cited by the Italian media.

The safe normally would have had even more valuable, unique pieces -- but a "significant number" were on loan to stars attending the Oscars, including Swinton, or in Tokyo for the opening of a new boutique, Damiani said on Wednesday.

"Luckily, many of these pieces were not in the safe," he said in a telephone interview.

Lead investigator Francesco Messina said the heist was highly professional and that the robbers left few traces.

The four thieves did not brandish arms, but entered initially under the ruse of representing Italy's powerful financial police, wearing vests identifying them as officials, Messina said.

Wearing face masks and dark glasses, they forced four showroom employees, a caterer and a cleaning woman into a room, where they were bound after entering the central Milan showroom around 10am on Sunday, Damiani said. One of the Damiani employees was forced to open the safe, but was bound with the others during the theft.

No one was harmed and no clients had yet arrived, Damiani said.

"The timing was planned. They knew that there would be people in the building -- otherwise they would not have been able to get into the safe -- but that it would not be full," Damiani said.

Damiani said they had drilled into the basement from a neighboring building through 1.2m-thick basement walls that are so sturdy the cellar had been designated a bomb shelter.

They gained cover for the noise from renovation work in the adjacent structure.

"We've heard an account from one woman who heard noise in the early mornings and had even complained to police," Damiani said.

Because they entered from inside the building, the thieves did not pass armed guards posted at the entrance.

"A guard could have gone up at any minute and one did go up by chance -- but seconds after they left," Damiani said.

"It could have been a drama, so all the better that no one walked in," he said.

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