Balkans’ Pink Panther jewel thieves smash their way into myth

So let’s get this straight. A guy in the raspberry business from western Serbia smashes and grabs his way through a heist eight time zones away in Tokyo and scoots off past shopping centers and sushi bars with a $31-million necklace known as the Countess of Vendome.

It happens.

Djordjije Rasovic graced arrest warrants, a thief with brazen nerves, part of an international Balkan crime gang known as the Pink Panthers. He and one of his accomplices, Snowy, another name too whimsical for the harsh impulses of the former Yugoslavia, brought a bit of high jinks to a land haunted by war criminals and atrocities.

The Panthers, a collection of 150 to 200 Balkan bad guys and a few women, have stolen about $140 million in jewelry and watches over the last decade from 100 luxury shops around the world, including boutiques in Paris, London, Monaco and Dubai.


They come in rough, swinging hammers and axes, shattering glass, flashing semiautomatic pistols and an occasional grenade, and vanishing with gems in satchels lined with toilet paper to prevent scratching.

They’re untailored and uncoiffed, preferring black leather jackets and ball caps to cashmere and cuff links, a kind of “Ocean’s 11" minus the panache. But they’re disciplined and fluent in many languages, and they strike with precision.

Their heists usually clock in at 90 seconds, and when one of them gets arrested, like, say, Rasovic, another takes his place in an organization that has grown wiser since the early days, when its members were so brash they didn’t bother to conceal their faces.

“They’ve become more than pure criminals, they’re heroes,” said Dragan Ilic, a morning radio talk show host in Belgrade, the Serbian capital. “They’re violent but they haven’t killed anyone. It’s as if they’re saying, ‘We can beat the technologically superior West with our raw power and intelligence.’ They’re feeding the Western myth of the dark, tribal Balkans -- these criminals coming from those wars and woods.”

Panther lore has crept into chat rooms and elsewhere in cyberspace. One of them skied in the French Alps before knocking off a nearby jewelry store; others case shops for months, buying watches and trinkets and befriending managers.

On the website of Blic, a popular Serbian tabloid, a man giving his name as Markus wrote: “I hope somebody from the Pink Panthers corporation reads this message and invites me to join their team. You have become myth and you’re still alive. I’m crossing my fingers for you. I hope you rob the U.S. Federal Reserve.”

The Panthers lead hidden lives among Europe’s Balkan diaspora of refugees, former paramilitary fighters, opportunists and laborers who watched Yugoslavia splinter throughout the 1990s. Working in hospitals, bars and restaurants, they’re summoned by messages to join comrades and hatch robberies on streets that glow with designer names.

Some law enforcement officials suggest the Panthers work for the Italian or Russian mafias; others say they’re an independent syndicate whose money is sent to the Balkans to buy real estate.

They’ve become so proficient that they’ve inspired copycats, and the aura of the Pink Panthers lingers around crime scenes like the infectious theme from the 1963 movie that is their namesake. Scotland Yard came up with the nickname after police found a blue diamond ring worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in a jar of face cream -- similar to a scene from “The Pink Panther.”

Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau would be stymied by the likes of Dragan Mikic, a former soldier, taxi driver, used-car salesman and business manager who, with two accomplices, headed for the Courchevel ski resort in France and walked into the Doux jewelry store at 11:30 a.m. on Jan. 31, 2003. Dressed like tourists and brandishing fake guns, the thieves made off with jewelry valued at several million dollars. Mikic was arrested the next day after a clerk identified him while he was buying a train ticket with a 500-euro note.

Described as one of the group’s masterminds, Mikic rarely goes quietly to his cell. In 2003, he escaped from a French courthouse. He was captured, but two years later he was sprung from prison when fellow Panthers fired Kalashnikov rifles at guard towers while he hustled down a ladder. In 2008, he was convicted and sentenced in absentia for the Courchevel robbery and heists in Saint-Tropez, Cannes and Biarritz.

“It’s audacity,” said Monaco criminal investigation chief Andre Muhlberger. “Difficulty doesn’t stop them. . . . When you’ve lived through the atrocities of war, and especially a civil war, you don’t have the same fears as you or me.”

Most of the Pink Panthers are Serbs, and most of them come from the city of Nis, an amalgam of block-style buildings and flaking Ottoman-era facades rising from farm fields at the foot of a mountain. Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s warped nationalism resonated in Nis for years, but wars and sanctions hobbled the town’s big employers -- TV manufacturers and the textile and metal industries -- and Serbia’s third-largest city quickly became less enchanted with “Slobo.”

Night in downtown Nis these days is forlorn in the way of a traveling carnival: lights, but no splendor; a gritty whirl of cafes and the scent of popcorn sold in paper bags.

“We in Nis used to be fashionable. We copied Italian fashion and spent holidays in Spain,” said a cafe owner who, fearing retribution, asked not to be named. “But once the wars started and the borders closed, we were lost to the outside world and all we could do was copy Belgrade. So we turned to turbo-folk music, guns and the chic of the criminal class.”

The names from Nis on Interpol warrants are tongue-twisters for the cops pursuing them: Mladen Lazarevic and Milan Ljepoja, wanted for heists in Dubai and Liechtenstein; Milos Jovanovic, wanted in Liechtenstein; Bojana Mitic, a woman whose mug shot, long hair framing her face, suggests a Bonnie linked to a bunch of Clydes. Her cellphone, police say, is full of interesting numbers. She’s wanted in a $3-million Dubai robbery captured on video that shows two sedans squealing over broken glass.

It’s a forbidden glamour the Balkans have long relished.

“They’re creating chaos. It’s not something I would do, but they’re rocking,” said Marko Petrovic, a university student studying environmental protection who, on a recent night, strolled through Nis with enough money to buy a drink for himself but not for a girl, if he met one. “They’re the main topic in coffee shops. Everybody talks about them. Some of them are from Nis. What they’re doing is stunning, amazing and awesome.”

The Balkans have a history of spawning international thieves, who often collaborate despite ethnic animosities between Serb, Croat and Muslim. Some were assassins tied to Yugoslavia’s secret security forces. Throughout wars and sanctions, the country relied on corruption and smuggling as criminals and politicians -- sometimes one and the same -- negotiated deals over plum brandy and cigars.

One of the best-known outlaws was Zeljko Raznatovic, a Montenegrin Serb known as Arkan who, before he became a paramilitary commander with a penchant for war crimes, was wanted across the continent for robbery, murder and escaping a number of European prisons. Arkan embodied Serb nationalism, once kept a tiger as his mascot and was gunned down in the lobby of a Belgrade luxury hotel -- a messy end to a combustible man.

The Pink Panthers are the next wave. Police say some members of the group fought in the Balkan wars. The coterie from Nis would have memories of NATO bombing and Serb refugees fleeing Kosovo, but officials say today’s Panthers are infused with less patriotic fervor than Arkan was, though they share his brashness, cunning and fondness for making mischief in foreign lands.

“The 1990s were an ideal time for creating criminals in the Balkans,” said Dobrivoje Radovanovic, a Belgrade criminologist. “There became a breed of world-class criminals. The more aggressive and stupid, however, became war criminals. . . . With the Pink Panthers, the public has fallen for false images and mythology.”

That power is alluring. Sasa Lukic wrote of his fascination with the Panthers on Blic’s website: “I admire such people, who are not like me. I wake every morning at 6 a.m. like a monkey. I’m a welder breathing in exhaust for a salary I spend in two days.”

At least 10 people, including Zoran Kostic, an alleged ringleader, have been arrested over the last 18 months, mostly in Europe. Gilbert Lafaye, a public prosecutor in Chambery, France, compared the organization’s network to a global “spider web. . . . You pull one string, and you find a group of others.”

That is how, according to police, Rasovic, the raspberry guy, ended up in the Ginza shopping district of Tokyo in 2004 with a forged passport and big ambitions.

Police say Rasovic, Snowy (real name: Snezana Panajotovic) and Aleksandar Radulovic had cased the Le Supre-Diamant Couture de Maki store, pretending to be buyers. On the day of the robbery, police say, Snowy waited outside while Rasovic and Radulovic entered the store. One of the robbers distracted a shop assistant; the other sprayed a second salesperson with pepper spray. Glass cases were smashed and the thieves fled with jewels, including the Countess of Vendome necklace, which is studded with 116 diamonds, including a 125-carat oval center stone.

Rasovic was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in 2007 for the heist, but he, Snowy and Radulovic have won an appeal for a new trial. Snowy said she knew nothing of the crime and Rasovic testified that he was paid $100,000 to stage a robbery and that “the Japanese are the real thieves,” said a Serbian law enforcement official who asked not to be named. Rasovic’s defense suggested the robbery was an inside job arranged to collect insurance money.

The Serbian official believes the Pink Panthers may be controlled by larger forces: “These criminals are from small provincial towns in Serbia. You need big money for these kinds of crimes, and they aim for the most expensive jewels on the planet. In my opinion, they’re pawns and stool pigeons.”

The Countess of Vendome has not been found.

Special correspondent Devorah Lauter in Paris contributed to this report.