BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh
BBCi CATEGORIES   TV   RADIO   COMMUNICATE   WHERE I LIVE   INDEX    SEARCH 

BBC NEWS
 You are in:  UK: England
Front Page 
World 
UK 
England 
Northern Ireland 
Scotland 
Wales 
UK Politics 
Business 
Sci/Tech 
Health 
Education 
Entertainment 
Talking Point 
In Depth 
AudioVideo 


Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

SERVICES 
Monday, 18 February, 2002, 14:21 GMT
Diamond gang betrayed by informer
Millennium Star diamond
Flawless: The dazzling Millennium Star diamond

By BBC News Online's Peter Gould

It had all the ingredients for a fantasy film script.

A dazzling array of priceless diamonds, an audacious smash and grab raid carried out in broad daylight and plans for a high speed getaway by speedboat across the Thames.


I was twelve inches from pay day

Gang member

But this was no screenplay. This was the blueprint for the world's biggest robbery, and the gang who planned it so carefully came tantalising close to pulling it off.

Unfortunately for the villains, the real life plot also featured an informer, an undercover police operation... and a sting.

Rare gems

The jury who sat through the evidence at the Old Bailey could have been forgiven for thinking they were in the stalls at the Odeon.

In fact the location for the heist, the Millennium Dome, featured in a recent James Bond movie. But that wasn't what had attracted the attention of the criminal fraternity.

Actress Sophie Marceau displays the Millennium Star
A girl's best friend - actress Sophie Marceau displays the Millennium Star
On display as part of the celebrations for the year 2000 were some of the most stunning diamonds ever to come out of Africa.

In pride of place was the 203-carat Millennium Star. Discovered in the Congo, and without a single flaw, it has been described as the most beautiful diamond in the world.

Also on show were 11 rare blue diamonds, mined in South Africa and owned by De Beers since 1890.

Together, they formed the most spectacular collection of diamonds ever put on public display, anywhere in the world. The jury was told that the value of the gems was at least 200m.

'A piece of cake'

Who came up with the plan to steal them is not clear. But it was alleged at the trial that crucial information came from someone who was working at the Dome.

When members of the gang were recruited their initial response was one of disbelief. One regarded it as a joke. He told the jury: "I thought it was pie in the sky."

The plan to make 200m in five minutes
Smash into Dome with excavator
Weaken armoured glass with nail gun
Break into display cabinets with sledgehammers
Snatch diamonds
Make getaway by speedboat

They changed their minds when they went to the Dome to see the diamonds for themselves.

They realised with amazement that the robbery was feasible. It would be "a piece of cake", said one of the men.

They were encouraged by what they saw as lax security at the Dome. Because they knew very few people would be around, the raid was timed to begin at 9.30am.

The means of getting into the Dome was crude but effective. A JCB excavator with a large shovel on the front was chosen by the gang to smash their way in.

Surveillance

Once inside the vault, they knew they would face armoured glass three-quarters of an inch thick.

The plan was to use a nail gun to weaken the glass, and then smash open the display cabinets with sledgehammers.

Dome interior
The gang knew the Dome would be almost empty
On the day of the intended robbery, the earthmover was driven to the Dome. It looked as if it was part of the construction work taking place nearby.

The vehicle broke into the structure exactly as planned, and two of the gang went into the vault.

But at that point the police pounced. More than 100 officers were waiting, some of them disguised as cleaners. Many were armed.

Unknown to the gang, they had been under surveillance for five months, following a tip off from a police informer.

The police not only knew about the planned robbery, they had been following the gang, and even compiled a video record of the preparations. The plotters had walked into an ambush.

High stakes

Outside the Dome, another man was captured as he waited to take the gang across the river by speedboat. On the other side of the Thames, a van was waiting to complete the getaway.

Had the police not been waiting, the robbery would have taken no more than five minutes.

The Dome & the Thames
The gang planned a river getaway by speedboat
The plan was to drive to a pub to exchange the diamonds for the cash offered by the buyers. Within 20 minutes, the robbers would have been clean away, with no evidence to link them to the crime.

That was the theory. But some of the gang had doubts about their safety, and had decided to wear body armour in case of a double cross during the pay off.

They were afraid of being shot by the men buying the diamonds, so high were the stakes. But as they were to discover, they had already been betrayed.

Fakes

One of the gang members, thinking of what they might have got away with, told detectives plaintively: "I was twelve inches from pay day..."

But had they smashed their way into the display cabinets, as planned, they would have been disappointed.

Knowing that the raid was imminent, the police had ensured that the real diamonds were replaced with crystal fakes.

The criminals who hoped to carry out the world's biggest robbery are now facing prison sentences, no doubt reflecting on just how close they came to pulling of the crime off the millennium.

By the time they get out, they may find that someone really has made a film about it.

Links to more England stories are at the foot of the page.


E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more England stories