Art of the Steal: On the Trail of The World’s Most Ingenious Thief
By: Joshuah Bearman
The plane slowed and leveled out about a mile above-ground. Up ahead, the Viennese castle glowed like a fairy tale palace. When the pilot gave the thumbs-up, Gerald Blanchard looked down, checked his parachute straps, and jumped into the darkness. He plummeted for a second, then pulled his cord, slowing to a nice descent toward the tiled roof. It was early June 1998, and the evening wind was warm. If it kept cooperating, Blanchard would touch down directly above the room that held the Koechert Diamond Pearl. He steered his parachute toward his target.
A couple of days earlier, Blanchard had appeared to be just another twenty-something on vacation with his wife and her wealthy father. The three of them were taking a six-month grand European tour: London, Rome, Barcelona, the French Riviera, Vienna. When they stopped at the Schloss Schönbrunn, the Austrian equivalent of Versailles, his father-in-law’s VIP status granted them a special preview peek at a highly prized piece from a private collection. And there it was: In a cavernous room, in an alarmed case, behind bulletproof glass, on a weight-sensitive pedestal — a delicate but dazzling 10-pointed star of diamonds fanned around one monstrous pearl. Five seconds after laying eyes on it, Blanchard knew he would try to take it.
The docent began to describe the history of the Koechert Diamond Pearl, better known as the Sisi Star — it was one of many similar pieces specially crafted for Empress Elisabeth to be worn in her magnificently long and lovely braids. Sisi, as she was affectionately known, was assassinated 100 years ago. Only two stars remain, and it has been 75 years since the public had a glimpse of…
Blanchard wasn’t listening. He was noting the motion sensors in the corner, the type of screws on the case, the large windows nearby. To hear Blanchard tell it, he has a savant-like ability to assess security flaws, like a criminal Rain Man who involuntarily sees risk probabilities at every turn. And the numbers came up good for the star. Blanchard knew he couldn’t fence the piece, which he did hear the guide say was worth $2 million. Still, he found the thing mesmerizing and the challenge irresistible.
He began to work immediately, videotaping every detail of the star’s chamber. (He even coyly shot the “No Cameras” sign near the jewel case.) He surreptitiously used a key to loosen the screws when the staff moved on to the next room, unlocked the windows, and determined that the motion sensors would allow him to move — albeit very slowly — inside the castle. He stopped at the souvenir shop and bought a replica of the Sisi Star to get a feel for its size. He also noted the armed guards stationed at every entrance and patrolling the halls.
But the roof was unguarded, and it so happened that one of the skills Blanchard had picked up in his already long criminal career was skydiving. He had also recently befriended a German pilot who was game for a mercenary sortie and would help Blanchard procure a parachute. Just one night after his visit to the star, Blanchard was making his descent to the roof.
Aerial approaches are a tricky business, though, and Blanchard almost overshot the castle, slowing himself just enough by skidding along a pitched gable. Sliding down the tiles, arms and legs flailing for a grip, Blanchard managed to save himself from falling four stories by grabbing a railing at the roof’s edge. For a moment, he lay motionless. Then he took a deep breath, unhooked the chute, retrieved a rope from his pack, wrapped it around a marble column, and lowered himself down the side of the building.
Carefully, Blanchard entered through the window he had unlocked the previous day. He knew there was a chance of encountering guards. But the Schloss Schönbrunn was a big place, with more than 1,000 rooms. He liked the odds. If he heard guards, he figured, he would disappear behind the massive curtains.
The nearby rooms were silent as Blanchard slowly approached the display and removed the already loosened screws, carefully using a butter knife to hold in place the two long rods that would trigger the alarm system. The real trick was ensuring that the spring-loaded mechanism the star was sitting on didn’t register that the weight above it had changed. Of course, he had that covered, too: He reached into his pocket and deftly replaced Elisabeth’s bejeweled hairpin with the gift-store fake.
Within minutes, the Sisi Star was in Blanchard’s pocket and he was rappelling down a back wall to the garden, taking the rope with him as he slipped from the grounds. When the star was dramatically unveiled to the public the next day, Blanchard returned to watch visitors gasp at the sheer beauty of a cheap replica. And when his parachute was later found in a trash bin, no one connected it to the star, because no one yet knew it was missing. It was two weeks before anyone realized that the jewelry had disappeared.
Later, the Sisi Star rode inside the respirator of some scuba gear back to his home base in Canada, where Blanchard would assemble what prosecutors later called, for lack of a better term, the Blanchard Criminal Organization. Drawing on his encyclopedic knowledge of surveillance and electronics, Blanchard became a criminal mastermind. The star was the heist that transformed him from a successful and experienced thief into a criminal virtuoso.
“Cunning, clever, conniving, and creative,” as one prosecutor would call him, Blanchard eluded the police for years. But eventually he made a mistake. And that mistake would take two officers from the modest police force of Winnipeg, Canada, on a wild ride of high tech capers across Africa, Canada, and Europe. Says Mitch McCormick, one of those Winnipeg investigators, “We had never seen anything like it.”