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France jewel thief’s diamond loot may mark a record haul

The Carlton InterContinental hotel in Cannes, on the French Riviera. A thief made off with $136 million in diamonds from the hotel on Sunday.
(Lionel Cironneau, Associated Press)

A lone jewel thief who struck the lavish Carlton InterContinental hotel in the French Riviera resort of Cannes made off with $136 million in diamond-encrusted watches and gems, in one of the biggest jewel heists in history, French authorities said Monday.

Initially, the jewels stolen midday Sunday were valued at $53 million. A subsequent inventory disclosed that more had been taken from a poorly guarded hotel room, where items were being stored for a diamond exhibit by the Dubai-based Leviev diamond house, Philippe Vique of the regional prosecutor’s office told local media.

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Nice-Matin, a leading newspaper in the region, speculated that the heist might have been the most costly in history. It eclipsed a $119-million take from a 2008 robbery at a similar jewel exhibit in Paris.

Security for the diamond exhibit, which opened July 20 and was to continue through August, was grossly insufficient, the newspaper said. It quoted unidentified detectives as saying the Carlton is difficult to protect because its doors open onto the Promenade de la Croisette, a seaside boulevard that teems with tourists and celebrities during the spring film festival and throughout the summer.

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On Sunday, authorities said, a man wearing a ball cap and a scarf across his face sneaked into the landmark hotel, which featured prominently in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 film “To Catch a Thief,” starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. He then held up participants in the jewelry show with a handgun, took the valuables, and fled through a side door, the Associated Press reported, citing the local prosecutor, Vique.

“He took a bag containing a briefcase and a small box,” Vique said. Rings, earrings and pendants were in the bag. “He left on foot…. It was very fast.”

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As the thief left through the side door, a few jewels spilled out of the bag and were quickly recovered.

The spectacular raid, which occurred without gunfire or injury, raised suspicions among investigators and security analysts that the notorious “Pink Panthers” jewel thieves were rebuilding their network. Two recent prison breakouts freed three key members of the gang, which Interpol says has stolen more than $400 million in jewels over the last 15 years.

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Accomplices of the gang were believed to be behind the Thursday night assault at a Swiss prison in Orbe, near the French border, that freed Milan Poparic, a 34-year-old Pink Panther from Bosnia serving a nearly seven-year term for a 2009 jewelry store robbery in Switzerland. Two other members of the Pink Panthers, which Interpol says consists mostly of thieves from the former Yugoslavia, were broken out of the Bois-Mermet prison in May.

Interpol dubbed the jewel thieves’ network the Pink Panthers in reference to the 1963 movie by the same name starring Peter Sellers as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau and David Niven as a wily jewel thief.

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Vique told the AP that French authorities were pursuing all possible leads and reviewing surveillance video. But he said there was no indication so far that the thief had links to any organized crime group.

Cannes was the target of two significant jewel thefts during this year’s film festival, including a cache of necklaces and earrings worth $1.4 million that were intended to be lent to movie stars to wear to the festival’s swank parties and premieres.

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carol.williams@latimes.com


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