SMOKE: Heist Of The Century

Originally published: 28 February 2003

Hollywood has always glamourised bank heists, even though invariably the bad guys get caught, so perhaps this is why I've always loved reading about massive heists against all the odds.

A couple of weeks ago (the weekend of 15-16 February) four people - three Italian men and a Dutch woman - and a team of highly trained professional crooks, pulled off what has been dubbed by Belgian press as the "Heist of the Century", cleaning out diamonds and cash from more than 120 vaults in a heavily guarded diamond exchange in Antwerp, Belgium.

They got away with more than R800-million and the robbery was only discovered the next Monday when the caretaker arrived, who no doubt must have thought all his Christmasses had arrived at once (let's face it - how often do you get to call your boss breathily on a Monday morning and inform him that he's just been ripped off to the tune of nearly a billion rand?)

Unfortunately the four have been arrested by Belgian police, but none of the stolen stuff has been recovered yet, which means a judge has to decide whether or not to keep them under lock and key until the diamonds are recovered, or whether to let them walk.

I doubt the prosecutors will have much trouble persuading him which way he should swing.

Details of the robbery are sketchy, but Belgian papers are claiming that the head of the gang is believed to be a Sicilian banker who a few months previously had set up shop in the diamond centre, running one of the companies there. The centre that was robbed is one of four major gem-trading exchanges in Antwerp.

According to news reports the security cameras had been tampered with, the vault sensors did not work and the robbers had the security code for the exchange. The robbery was carried out over two days, meaning they were walking in and out with total freedom.

Now that's my kind of apples. So great to know that people are still getting creative, and that despite all the modifications made to banks since the days when you could just walk in, point a gun at someone and politely ask them to empty the vault, criminals are thinking up new and creative ways to steal large sums of cash.

Of course - it all falls a little flat when they're caught and the loot returned, but hey - you gotta try. 'Cos if you succeed it's instantly off to the Bahamas for a lifetime of chillin' out with scantily-clad women, sipping back on long, tall beverages, and burying your head in a bottomless sack of cocaine.

Which of course is what we all aspire to.

I've pulled off a heist or two in my day, although not necessarily as spectacular as the Antwerp one, and usually just involving chocolate bars I couldn't afford. A regular little Son of Fagin I was - darting hither and thither, whipping Bar Ones off 7-11 shelves, the whole bit.

As a kid you just don't consider the truly great danger you actually place yourself in - I went to the United States for two months when I was 12, to visit friends of ours who had lived in South Africa for a few years.

The mother was a diplomat involved with the Washington administration and I actually went with her to some major government building (can't remember what it was), and had to speak in an American accent for fear of being recognised as South African (we're talking 1984 here).

Her son and I would go off to the 7-11 every day and do nothing but pretend to browse up and down the shelves, while indiscriminately stuffing our pockets with all manner of sweets.

It was a small store and the owner used to watch us, but despite the fact that we never purchased a thing he never came over to search us. I certainly would have.

Years after I still get cold sweats when thinking about it, because if we'd been caught and I was discovered to be South African I would have no doubt ended up spawning an international affair once the Washington spin doctors had got hold of me.

I'd have been held up aloft to the world as a Typical South African Child - one who lies, cheats, steals and even - it is whispered - has leanings towards murder and Satanic ritual, despite his tender age of 12.

I'd have been taken to Staten Island, or thrown to the Projects to fend for myself, and I'd have never been heard from again.

All true.

But I clearly remember my first ever heist - Pretoria, 1982. I went to the Checkers in Lynwood Manor and spent the best part of an afternoon trying to work out what to steal, and checking out the cashiers and where all the mirrors were placed.

Armed with my accumulated knowledge I went home. I returned the next day to pull off my robbery. It worked, and I got away with it, and to this day they've never caught me. I still look over my shoulder now and then - habit, really - but so far the shadows have proved to be nothing more than just that.

The prize? A 12-pack of party balloons. Please don't ask - I have no idea. Precisely what a ten-year-old boy would want with a party pack of balloons is completely beyond me, and with my well-documented memory problems the problem is even more difficult than we originally imagined.

I would have thought I might have nicked a nice new pair of undies, or a calculator, or Something Groovy, but instead I went with balloons.

If memory serves me correctly (and it usually doesn't) I threw the balloons away on the walk home, the terror of a lengthy jail term too much to bear. At least at that tender age I understood the importance of not being caught with the evidence, a discovery that has served me well in later years.

But one of my best mates from varsity pulled off the greatest heist I have ever been witness and party to. It was 1992, and I was living in Newlands, Cape Town at the time - very near to Tuynhuis, which at the time was occupied by FW de Klerk.

We were both mad-for-it students, always looking for something to do in between consuming enormous, life-threatening amounts of alcohol.

Duncan was staying with me at my parent's house (we'd been evicted from our flat for some reason) and one night, walking home from Rondebosch after a heavy night's drinking, Duncan conceived a plan to break into Tuynhuis.

We went home, got dressed in black and headed back to Tuynhuis, studying it from a distance.

The plan was for Duncan to infiltrate the perimeter and get as far as he could without being arrested, while I would wait on the outside for him to return.

If he didn't return I was to somehow explain to the authorities that he was just a mad student, which would somehow get him off the hook. He even suggested that I try convince them that he was a relative of de Klerk.

He scaled a tree that stood just outside the barb wire fence and dropped over it and out of sight. He hadn't been gone a minute before a security guard - patrolling the perimeter on the outside - stopped at the tree.

I thought Duncan had been rumbled (watching from my vantage point across the road), but the guard stood in the shadow of the tree (the streetlights were very bright, offering no protection), and pulled out a half jack which he swigged on enthusiastically.

I waited the prescribed 20 minutes and there was still no sign of Duncan, so I went to stand on an island in the middle of the road, staring vainly into the darkness of the trees into which he had disappeared.

I was contemplating what to do when a routine police patrol pulled up and asked me what I was doing. I mumbled something about how a friend was coming to pick me up (like they believed that - I was standing in an island in the middle of the road at two in the morning, staring intently at the home of the president, dressd in black from head to toe and very obviously shit-faced), but I somehow got them off my back and they drove off.

Once they'd gone I thought bugger this for a laugh and headed home, preparing my story for the next day. Five minutes after I got in Duncan arrived - covered in mud and scratches and soaked to the skin.

He's gone over the fence and into a copse of trees which bordered the property. Going deeper in he discovered another five fences, all of which he had to scale, getting badly cut in the process.

Then he came across a stream, through which he belly-crawled for a way, and eventually came across open ground with a guard's hut directly in front of him. There was light spilling from the open door and he could see five guards sitting around joking and laughing.

He went right up to it, crept under the window below their line of sight and continued past it, evading the filthy commie pigs.

He came across a gardener's shed which contained a tractor and attempted to get it going (as he explained he wanted to drive it out of there), but when that failed he ripped the number plate off instead as a trophy.

He continued up towards UCT, climbing the fences again, and emerged on the highway which runs from Cape Town to Muizenberg, just below the university. Then he came home.

Nuts? That's nuts. I still shudder. But he pulled it off, and they haven't found him yet either.

There's just something brilliantly exhilirating about pulling off a major heist (I know - all Duncan got for his efforts was a number plate, and if he'd been spotted they would have shot him on sight), but to get away with it is a great feeling, especially if no harm was done to anyone.

So I really want our friends in Antwerp to get away with this one - they deserve it.

The Bahamas await.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
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