L O N D O N, Nov. 8, 2000 -- It would have been the world’s biggest heist; a James Bond movie come alive.
A gang of highly organized thieves today mounted an operation to steal $500 million worth of diamonds displayed inside London’s landmark Millennium Dome.
A dozen diamonds, including the irreplaceable De Beers Millennium Star diamond, would have been the prize. De Beers said the flawless, pear-shaped Millennium Star is arguably the most perfect large diamond in the world and third largest ever discovered.
They had planned the raid down to the last detail. Or so they thought.
The hole in the plan was that Scotland Yard knew the raid was being planned and switched the diamonds for fakes just hours ahead of the raid.
Officers of Scotland Yard’s Flying Squad arrested 11 people involved in the foiled heist on Tuesday in a coordinated swoop that included a powerboat chase down the Thames River.
Acting on intelligence reports, police were waiting when the robbers used a large yellow excavator to smash their way into the vault that usually houses a dozen top quality stones - including the 203-carat Millennium Star.
Four people were arrested in the vault, two were captured as they tried to escape by powerboat along the nearby Thames and five others were arrested in raids across southeastern England, police said.
‘World’s Biggest Heist’
The thieves, disguised as workmen, drove the excavator past security guards shortly after the dome opened its doors for the day.
At the time of the incident, 64 visitors were inside the dome’s 20 acre canopy - although none of them were closer than 100 meters to the Millennium Jewels exhibit.
Hundreds more visitors were outside the dome canopy but inside the dome’s gates.
As they entered the building, they donned gas masks and unleashed smoke bombs.
Police disguised as cleaners were positioned around the inside of the dome and “as the robbers went into the vaults they effectively imprisoned themselves and were ordered to come out at gunpoint by the officers,” said Detective Superintendent Jon Shatford, who led the operation involving more than 100 officers.
The thieves were overpowered as they bashed at the display cases with hammers and sledgehammers, he added.
“If this [robbery] had been carried out in accordance with their wishes, this would have been the largest robbery in the world,” Shatford said.
World’s Most Perfect Diamond
The De Beers Millennium Star diamond is kept inside a reinforced glass cylinder in the dome’s money zone, which explains currencies and their uses and has numerous alarms and security cameras, the company said.
It is surrounded by 11 other unique blue diamonds.
A spokesman for the New Millennium Experience Co., which operates the dome, said the diamonds were very closely guarded.
Like James Bond?
The robbers’ plan may even have been inspired by the latest James Bond movie The World is Not Enough, which featured a speedboat chase past the Dome in the opening sequence.
For the police though, thwarting the heist was hard work, coordinated and planned well in advance. “We’ve been working on this operation for a number of months,” said Shatford. “It’s fair to say though that we’ve never had precise information, we’ve been able to piece together parts of it over a long period of time.”
While the police had been ready for an armed robbery for weeks, it wasn’t until early Tuesday that P.Y. Gerbaud, CEO of the New Millennium Experience Co., was informed of a likely robbery attempt today.
“I have to say I had a short and difficult night,” Gerbaud told ABCNEWS. “You know everybody gets excited but at the end of the day, I just wanted to make sure that the members of the public and members of my staff were safe. That was my primary concern.”
As the word of the robbery bid spread through the Millennium Dome complex, the public could not help expressing awe at the sheer audacity of the heist bid.
An elderly visitor who was delayed in a tour bus during the police operation wanted to know if the robbers got away with their loot. When informed that the police had thwarted the attempt, she replied with a plaintive, “Oh, too bad.”
One group of visitors this morning was a group of 66 Dorset schoolchildren, aged 11 to 16, who were at the Dome to perform at a musical event. They were not injured in the robbery attempt. “Indeed, much to their disappointment they were kept safely on the opposite side of the site,” said David Kenyon, head of the Music Service for Dorset County Council.
Publicity for Derided Dome?
The success of the police may prove to be a boost for Britain’s much-derided dome, which has been struggling with low attendance levels since the $1.2 billion project opened to the public on New Year’s Eve.
Since the Dome opened to the public, British newspapers have carried a string of stories about poor attendance rates and public complaints about lines at the most popular exhibits.
But John O’Keefe, executive creative director at the Bartle Bogle Hegarty advertising agency, believed the caper just might have its economic benefits. “This is the kind of publicity money can’t buy,”
O’Keefe said. “In my opinion there should an ad in the papers tomorrow with an earth digger parked outside the dome and the phrase ‘YOU can get in for just 20 pounds.’”
The Guinness Book of Records says the world’s largest gem theft was carried out in August 1994 by three men who stole items valued at $43 million from a jewelry shop in the Carlton Hotel in Cannes, France.
The world’s biggest bank robbery was executed by guerillas who blasted the vaults of the British Bank of the Middle East in Beirut in January 1976, making off with valuables worth 22 million pounds ($31.4 million), according to the Guinness Book.
ABCNEWS’ Maggie Owens in London, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.