Suspects Questioned in Paris Diamond Heist

Thieves dressed in drag sped off with more than $118 million worth of jewels.

June 23, 2009, 10:25 AM

PARIS, June 23, 2009 — -- French police today questioned 22 people rounded up in Paris this week in connection with last December's record-setting diamond heist at the Harry Winston store in Paris that netted a group of thieves an estimated $118 million worth of jewelry.

The jewelry was stolen in December from the renowned American store in Paris, the largest jewelry theft ever in France and just slightly below the $127 million world-record diamond heist in Antwerp, Belgium, in 2003, according to reports from AFP.

Insurance company Lloyd's of London offered a $1 million reward for information leading to the recovery of the Harry Winston jewels.

Police initially believed the theft was orchestrated by an international organized crime gang such as the Pink Panthers, a group of thieves from the Balkans famous for daring jewelry store heists around the world. But French authorities said the group now facing questioning is local.

They are "typical experienced thugs of the Paris [suburbs]," Christophe Gesset, representative of Synergie Officiers police union, told "They are very well known to the police."

No charges have yet been filed, and the suspects, who reportedly range in age from 22 to 67, can be held for questioning for up to 96 hours.

French media reported Monday that a store security guard was among the people being questioned.

"Following the theft, French investigators very quickly looked into possible inside complicities. They had been very interested by the behavior of some members of the gang for months," Gesset said.

On Dec. 4, 2008, four armed robbers, some reportedly dressed in drag, entered the Harry Winston store in broad daylight on the chic Avenue Montaigne, off the Champs Elysees in central Paris, a heavily patrolled area less than 330 feet from a police station. At the time, 15 or so employees and customers were inside the store, according to local press reports.

It took the gun-toting thieves just 20 minutes to raid the store safes and swipe rings, necklaces and luxury watches from display cases. The gang then casually exited and vanished without firing a shot, "discreetly, without screeching tires, without any agitation, nothing," a witness told France 2 TV at the time.

French TV showed pictures of just three remaining diamond-rimmed watches in one display case after the robbery, sorry remnants of the once sparkly window display.

Gang Planned to Sell Stolen Harry Winston Jewels

This week's crackdown came as the gang was allegedly preparing to sell some of the stolen jewels to a buyer or multiple buyers coming to paris from abroad. Searches of some of the suspects' homes turned up jewels, weapons and close to $1,745,000 in cash, according to French media reports.

Helene Dupif, head of the organized-crime police unit in Paris, told the press tonight that 80 percent of the stolen jewels have been recovered from the home of the person believed to be the leader of the gang.

French police refused to comment to on the media reports about the foreign buyers or whether any potential buyers were among the 26 people still being questioned.

The same store was hit in October 2007, when more than $12 million worth of jewelry was stolen. At the time, Harry Winston offered a $500,000 reward to the first person who could provide information leading to the recovery of the goods.

French investigators are trying to determine whether the same group of people being questioned is responsible for this theft as well.

A couple of weeks before the Harry Winston heist, a diamond ring estimated at more than $800,000 was stolen from a Cartier store in the same area. In that crime, a couple of alleged tourists from Qatar entered the store and asked to see several jewels of great value. The couple managed to spirit away a ring mounted with a 5.5-carat diamond and replace it with a fake.

A 55-year-old woman and her 40-year-old son were arrested in nnorthern France last March for this theft and are awaiting their trial in a French jail. But the diamond ring was not recovered.

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