They believed that they were safe, but a few blood drops betrayed them: Fifteen years after a daring robbery at a French jewelry store, the four alleged perpetrators have been found — in Serbia.
The Belfort job had all the hallmarks of a Pink Panther operation, the modus operandi used by an international jewel thief network of Serbs and Montenegrins responsible for some of the most audacious robberies of the past two decades.
Between 1999 and 2015, these criminals are thought to have carried out at least 380 armed robberies, targeting high-end jewelry stores and snatching 334 million euros (US$391.8 million) of loot, Interpol said.
One morning in September 2003, a group of masked men burst into a jewelry shop in Belfort, a town in eastern France just 25km from the Swiss border.
One pulled a handgun, while the others smashed open the glass cases, snatching 350,000 euros of jewelry and watches before fleeing — all within the space of a minute. Police later managed to arrest their Serbian fences, one of whom had a stolen watch on his wrist, but the thieves themselves were never caught. Nor were they identified until 2013 following progress in a forensic investigation into traces of blood on one of the glass cabinets, on a cupboard and on a Cartier box.
By analyzing the DNA, police identified two Serb nationals who were unknown in France, but wanted in Austria: “Zica” and “Boka,” both 41 years old.
By crosschecking their telephone records, police also found the other two robbery suspects: “Sasa,” 37, and “Luka,” 48.
All four come from Uzice, a once prosperous industrial town about 150km southwest of Belgrade, which has since fallen on hard times.
“Most of these criminals originate from Nis, Cacak and Uzice,” town prosecutor Ljubisa Dragasevic said, explaining that many in this western region end up turning to crime due to problems making ends meet.
However, there is also the “cult of the criminal within society, the tough guys,” he said.
“In such circles, these activities overseas are a matter of prestige. They ... see themselves as defenders of poor Serb victims of the West,” the prosecutor added.
Even though they have been identified, the four remain out of reach for the French justice system because Serbia does not extradite its citizens.
Over the past decade, France and Serbia developed close judicial ties following the 2009 murder of a French soccer fan in Belgrade, prompting a French judge to demand that the four be summoned to a hearing before a Serbia prosecutor.
At the hearing in November last year, all four denied involvement in the robbery.
If they were in Belfort at the time, they were there for “techno music parties,” one claimed.
Another said they were there “to buy second-hand cars.”
Boka had just been jailed over a fatal car accident, while shortly after the November hearing, Zica and Sasa began serving five years for stealing watches worth about 950,000 euros from a Hamburg jeweler in 2014. Several of them are also suspected of involvement in robberies in Switzerland and the Netherlands.
Such audacious robberies fund a lavish lifestyle back home, Dragasevic said, explaining that their takings are quickly spent “in bars and restaurants, taking cocaine, paying for prostitutes ... buying luxury cars and expensive clothes” and often at expensive tourist sites.
“Such a lifestyle requires a lot of money, which they spend quickly and then return to their criminal activities,” he added.
Their activities are not just limited to hitting jewelry stores, with one Serb investigator saying that they also link up with Albanian gangs to smuggle drugs to the West.
The money is also used for loansharking, financing younger criminals or investing in property, bars and restaurants, he said, but added that they never stage robberies on home territory, their “refuge.”
With extradition out of the question, if France wants a trial to be held in Serbia over Belfort, as happened with the Hamburg heist, the justice system would need to transfer the case to Belgrade.
However, that would have to happen quickly, as the 15-year statute of limitations expires on September 19.
“Everything should be done quickly, so we can prosecute the criminals,” Serbian deputy prosecutor Gordana Janicijevic said.
If found guilty, the perpetrators could face up to 15 years behind bars. Otherwise, French prosecutors would have to fall back on a conviction in absentia and the issuing of an international arrest warrant — which would mean that the four thieves could no longer leave Serbia without risking arrest and extradition.
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