Photo of a Pink Panther gang member (Image Source)
In the popular Pink Panther movies, the Pink Panther refers to the world’s largest diamond. In the 1975 movie The Return of the Pink Panther, there is a scene where the thieves hide the expensive diamond in a jar of face cream. This same scene was played out in real life when a gang of thieves hid a million-dollar blue diamond in a pot of face cream. The ingenious mimicry of the scene in the Pink Panther movie led the media to dub the jewel thieves the Pink Panthers.
The Pink Panthers first came to attention in 2003 when they pulled off a $23 million heist of a jewelry store in London called Graff Diamonds.
They robbed different branches of Graff Diamonds again in 2007 and then in 2009. The 2009 robbery was simple but daring. Two men who may have been disguised in Mission Impossible-type rubber face prosthetics walked into Graff Diamonds. They walked out of the store within minutes of the robbery holding the jewelry and a hostage. The hostage was released quickly but the Pink Panthers made their getaway by switching cars and firing warning shots at bystanders.
Following the robbery, the police offered a reward of $1.6 million for information about the thieves. Who are the Pink Panthers and how did they pull off such extravagant jewelry heists?
The Identity of the Pink Panthers
From surveillance footage of the 2003 Graff Diamonds robbery, police were able to identify one man who they believed was one of the leaders of the group. His name was Predrag Vujosevic and he was from Montenegro. The Pink Panthers were well-dressed but one giveaway was that they all had strong Eastern European accents.
Vujosevic had his accomplices help him pull off the jewelry heists. Even before the 2003 Graff Diamonds robbery, Vujosevic had robbed stores in Frankfurt, Geneva, Paris, and Barcelona.
He was eventually intercepted and interrogated by the police but he would not give away any information about the masterminds behind the Pink Panther group or the location of the stolen jewelry.
Detectives believe that there may be up to 200 or more Pink Panthers. The men and a few women in the group are mostly from the Balkan countries of Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia. Most of them are ex-military.
The gang came into existence from the black market during the Balkan Wars when there were international sanctions against Serbia.
The modus operandi of the Pink Panthers is to typically do a quick smash and grab. They are known as “gentlemen criminals” because they avoid violence as much as they can although they are usually armed during their jewelry heists.
Police in different countries have been on the lookout and have been able to capture prominent members of the Pink Panthers. In 2014, Borko Illinicic was arrested in Spain. He was charged with robbing $2.5 million worth of jewelry from a commercial center in Dubai.
Detectives believe that the Pink Panthers are headed by a core group of 20–30 experienced thieves with dozens of facilitators in major European cities. The original gang is based in Montenegro and there are 4 main Pink Panther groups that branch out from here. The core command group assigns the crews who will carry out the heists.
Since 2005, European police have stepped up arrests of potential members of the Pink Panther group. However, the organization has stood strong. For every few members who are arrested, there are more willing to take their place.
The Famous Heists
The Pink Panthers have been operating for more than 30 years. In 1984, 3 armed robbers stole $39 million worth of jewelry from the Carlton Hotel in Cannes on the Cote d’Azur. Throughout the years, they may have robbed more than 120 jewelry shops in more than 20 countries.
In 2004, 3 Pink Panthers were convicted of stealing the Comtesse de Vendome necklace in Japan’s biggest jewelry heist. The necklace costs more than $31 million because it is composed of 116 diamonds and a 125-carat diamond centerpiece. The robbers were able to immobilize the boutique clerks, break the glass case holding the necklace, and run away. They were eventually captured but the necklace itself was never recovered.
The most incredible Pink Panther jewelry heist took place in Cannes in 2013. A lone thief walked into the Carleton International Hotel which was the site of a diamond exhibition and walked out one minute later with $138 million worth of jewels.
The Pink Panther even managed to fall from a hotel window dropping his loot but he simply picked himself up, gathered the most expensive pieces, and escaped. The heist became France’s biggest jewelry theft.
In most cases even if the thieves are caught, the jewelry is never recovered. The diamonds are usually cut, polished, and altered so that they cannot be traced back.
Another famous Pink Panther heist had to do with Kim Kardashian. In 2016 during Paris Fashion Week, Kim was held at gunpoint and robbed of $10 million in jewels. While there is no definite proof that it was the work of the Pink Panthers, most investigators believe it is their handiwork.
The Pink Panthers are one of the most successful gangs of thieves in recent history. Since 2016, there hasn’t been much evidence of activity on their part. It is possible that most jewelry stores have stepped up their security in the wake of the robberies or it could be an indication that the group is finally disbanding.
Either way, it cannot be denied that they were a formidable gang of thieves who have managed to steal in total more than $500 million worth of jewelry. Using their wits and ingenuity, they have become real-life characters who make even better thieves than their fictional counterparts in heist movies like Oceans 11. It will be interesting to see if they make a reappearance again.