Hunt for Thieves Begins after Massive Diamond Heist in Germany

18th-century diamond collection stolen by jewel thieves

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Jewel thieves stole part of a diamond collection in Dresden, BBC News reported. Three of 10 sets of diamonds from an 18th-century collection kept in the Dresden Green Vault are missing, totaling 111 pieces of jewelry. Here’s how police will try to catch the thieves.

German police car in focus with officers in background
Even as technology advances in terms of DNA matching and facial recognition software, jewel heists are still happening as thieves are also getting more sophisticated. Photo by Joerg Huettenhoelscher / Shutterstock

The 10-set diamond collection that was partially robbed was curated in 1723 by Augustus the Strong, ruler of Saxony, according to the BBC article. Evidence shows that the jewel thieves broke into the museum by removing part of an iron grating covering a window then smashing the glass. Prior to this, they set fire to an electrical box nearby, which is believed to have disabled the museum’s alarms and turned off several street lights. Though elaborate heists often make for an entertaining evening at the box office, they’re also multimillion-dollar crimes that involve brilliant police work to solve—often ending with decades of prison time for the larcenists.

Catching Crooks the Old-Fashioned Way

On March 24, 1972, the United California Bank in Laguna Niguel, California, was relieved of between $8 and $12 million—the biggest bank robbery in history at the time, which would be about $100 million today. Evidence was shared with the FBI, who soon found similarities to several robberies linked to Youngstown, Ohio, resident Alfred Dinsio. So now what?

“One way law enforcement typically tracks people is using the trails left by financial transactions, especially purchases,” said Dr. Elizabeth A. Murray, Professor of Biology at the College of Mt. Saint Joseph. “But back in 1972, that type of investigation was much more labor-intensive than it is today; I mean, the internet wasn’t around and far more people used cash back then than today’s easily-tracked debit and credit card transactions.”

In order to trace Dinsio’s journey from Ohio to California, law enforcement looked at flight records for Los Angeles International, the airport nearest the bank. They found Dinsio and his crew’s names among the flight registry lists a week before the heist. From there, they showed photographs of the men to cab drivers, hotel clerks, and others, some of whom recognized the gang and pointed law enforcement in the right direction. The hunt for evidence ended with the discovery of the getaway car, containing both concrete dust that matched the bank vault and fingerprints from five of the robbers. They were tried and convicted all thanks to good old-fashioned sleuthing.

How Heists Are Planned

Speaking from the planning viewpoint of criminals, a 1996 heist in Australia at the Bank of Melbourne in Victoria offered terrific insight into how heists come together.

“The building was situated with a back door that led to a walled-in courtyard adjacent to an alley,” Dr. Murray said. “By scaling the wall from the alley side, a person could easily get onto the roof of a small outbuilding that was just inside the bank’s courtyard, and from there, it was an easy drop down into the bank’s yard.”

In addition, Dr. Murray said, a person listening closely enough to the back door, they could hear the beeps of the vault code as a guard entered it. The bank was also close to a train station, offering an easy getaway.

Finally, a date was picked: September 14, 1996. “That was the Saturday morning of the Australian football semifinals, being played in Melbourne,” Dr. Murray said. “They knew the bulk of the police force would be at the stadium for security and that most people would either be at the game or watching it on TV, not out and about in town.”

And what time of day would be best for the crew of bank robbers preparing to strike the Bank of Melbourne? They chose the hour between bank tellers’ arrival at the bank and the opening of the bank to the public. According to Dr. Murray, this was done because the vault would have to be opened to stock the tellers’ registers for the day; it would also guarantee fewer witnesses and no panicky customers.

“The whole heist took just a bit over two minutes and the pair left with $137,000 in cash, plus a stack of bank traveler’s checks and bank drafts,” Dr. Murray said. “That wasn’t a huge haul, but these guys were well-prepared and they were careful not to leave clues.”

It took police eight years and a subsequent crime by the same suspects to link their DNA to the 1996 robbery and solve the case.

With developments in DNA testing, cell phone records, credit and debit card usage, facial recognition technology, and more sophisticated alarm systems, the world of heists is evolving at a dizzying pace. The Dresden Green Vault robbery may be an example of just how much.

Dr. Elizabeth A. Murray, Ph.D.

Dr. Elizabeth A. Murray contributed to this article. Dr. Murray is a forensic anthropologist and also Professor of Biology at the College of Mount St. Joseph. She earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from the College of Mount St. Joseph and her master’s degree in anthropology and Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Studies in Human Biology from the University of Cincinnati.