A Sweet Old Man Used To Give Candy To Bank Workers– Then They Discovered His Devilish Scheme

Whenever the man claiming to be called Carlos Hector Flomenbaum walked through the doors at Antwerp’s ABN Amro bank, his visit may well have brightened up workers’ days there. Known for his friendly demeanor, the middle-aged man would even bring gifts from time to time. But little did the bank staff know that the man they had come to like and trust wasn’t who he claimed to be.

In TV and film, diamond heists typically involve painstaking planning and careful execution. And when it comes to seizing the swag, charm, good looks and a devious demeanor often don’t go amiss, either. But while such events are often over-hyped by Hollywood, some of the biggest robberies in history have been no less outrageous.

Take, for example, the diamond heist that unfolded in Antwerp, Belgium, in 2003. Nicknamed “the heist of the century,” it went down as among history’s biggest ever robberies – involving as it did over $100 million worth of gold, diamonds and jewelry. The crime is thought to have been orchestrated by an alleged Italian gangster named Leonardo Notarbartolo. The supposed ringleader was linked to the heist after authorities found his DNA at the scene. Where? On a half-consumed salami sandwich.

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In order to pull off the heist, as it’s claimed he did, Notarbartolo rented an office in Antwerp’s World Diamond Centre, underneath which the diamonds were stored. This, you see, gave him around-the-clock access to the building. But how he apparently managed to break into the subterranean vault containing the diamonds and jewelry remains a mystery.

The underground chamber had an incredible ten different security measures. These included heat detectors, a seismic sensor, radar and a combination lock that had 100 million different potential sequences. Yet somehow thieves managed to gain entry, and they went on to loot over half of the vault’s 189 deposit boxes. What’s more, the authorities have been unable to retrieve most of the valuables that the crooks plundered.

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Another famous heist occurred in 2005, two years after the Antwerp robbery. This time, the target was Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. The airport is easily the biggest in the Netherlands as well as Europe’s third most bustling. However, despite security procedures at the transport hub, thieves were able to carjack an armored vehicle before making off with approximately $80 million worth of diamonds.

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The authorities later apprehended seven suspects in connection with the crime. It is understood that the gang masqueraded as airport staff in order to intercept the diamonds before they were set to be loaded onto an aircraft. And while some of the loot was later found in the getaway vehicle, much of it has never been recovered.

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Yet although some real-life armed gangs and criminal masterminds more or less correspond with their depiction in the heists that we’ve seen on screen, the details of certain historical robberies are actually stranger than fiction. And one such crime occurred in 2007, again in Antwerp’s famous diamond quarter – and with a seemingly unlikely protagonist at its center.

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It all began when a self-styled wealthy businessman began frequenting an Antwerp branch of the ABN Amro bank. The man in question became a seemingly loyal customer at the branch, which is located in the heart of the city’s diamond quarter. There, he told staff that he was one Carlos Hector Flomenbaum, and the employees grew to like the apparently harmless mature man in their midst.

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Over the following year, visits from the man claiming to be Flomenbaum became a regular occurrence at the bank. And furthermore, he used his appointments to make friends with staff and earn their trust. In order to cement his status as a benevolent benefactor at the branch, he would even gift employees chocolates, according to some reports.

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And as the bank staff’s relationship with the supposed businessman developed, they evidently saw no reason to distrust him. Indeed, it seems that they decided to repay his kindness by giving him a key to the vault. This gave him unrestricted access to his valuables – so that he could collect and store them as he pleased.

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This sort of practice is not unusual in Antwerp, mind you. The city’s diamond district is the world’s largest, covering as it does a square mile of winding streets surrounding the train station. Antwerp has in fact been an important hub for diamond dealing since all the way back in the 1400s, and nowadays over 80 percent of all those uncut precious stones make their way via its famous quarter at some point.

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In 2012 it was stated that the annual turnover of Antwerp’s diamond district was $56 billion. However, in the past, traders have been accused of cutting deals on the mere shake of a hand. And that lack of a paper trail has been tied to allegations of money laundering, tax evasion and the sidestepping of customs duty laws.

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Nevertheless, trust between traders allows Antwerp’s billion-dollar diamond industry to function. And yet while specialist security measures protect the district, there remains room for human error. What’s more, if taken advantage of, such potentially small mistakes can have extremely costly consequences.

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During daylight hours, diamonds travel across the district in briefcases and even people’s pockets. But by night, Antwerp’s precious jewels are locked away in bank deposit boxes and subterranean strongrooms. Together, those diamonds form one of the highest concentrations of riches on the planet. So, unsurprisingly, they are also a robber’s dream.

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But despite the attraction that Antwerp’s hidden safes and vaults may hold for criminals, there are plenty of trustworthy people who need access to their valuables at certain points during both the night and day. As a result, banks there give out keys to select customers so that they can more conveniently get into the vaults. It’s as though the banks little expect that someone might simply help themselves to what is not theirs.

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But that’s exactly what seems to have happened in the case of the so-called Flomenbaum. You see, after obtaining his own electronic key card to ABN Amro’s vault, he allegedly robbed 120,000 carats of gems – reportedly worth $28 million. And to pull off the heist, it appears that the thief used just two tools: a false identity and natural charisma.

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The conman in question had simply been posing as Carlos Hector Flomenbaum. The real Flomenbaum’s passport had been swindled in Israel a couple of years before the heist. And after that ID document fell into the wrong hands, the mysterious felon used it to dupe bank staff into trusting him with a key to the vault.

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Needless to say, the whole debacle left staff of ABN Amro bank with egg on their faces. They were reportedly more than a little uncomfortable about the fact that they had been tricked by a fake Argentinian passport, some chocolates and a charming personality. However, Philip Claes, a Diamond High Council spokesperson, was surprisingly forgiving of the employees’ naivety.

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Claes revealed that the security setup in the locality had come with a price tag of over $1 million. But, he stressed, nothing is completely foolproof. As he put it in a statement obtained by The Independent in 2007, “Despite all the efforts one makes in investing in security, when a human error is made nothing can help.”

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According to reports, the man purporting to be Flomenbaum posed as a jewelry trader and made a number of transactions at the bank – in order, it appears, to conceal his criminal intentions. However, he was later identified on CCTV as the vault’s last visitor on the day of the robbery. Exactly what he did in there, though, remains a mystery.

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In the buildup to the heist, there had been at least one red flag surrounding the subsequent prime suspect, mind you. To wit, he was not known in Antwerp’s close-knit diamond-dealing circles. And yet he had nevertheless charmed his way into a favorable position at the bank as part of a con that is now thought to have been over 12 months in the making.

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Speaking of the thief in a statement, Claes said, “He used no violence. He used one weapon – and that is his charm – to gain confidence. He bought chocolates for the personnel, he was a nice guy, he charmed them, got the original key to make copies and got information on where the diamonds were.”

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In his statement to The Independent, Claes continued, “You can have all the safety and security you want, but if someone uses their charm to mislead people it won’t help.” And in a separate quote given to The Telegraph in 2007, he added, “In the diamond sector, we trust the people we are working with. Sometimes we pay the price for that.”

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It was on Monday, March 5, 2007, that bank staff first realized there had been a robbery. And they think the gemstones could have been snatched that very morning or else on the Friday prior. In any case, the vault that was targeted catered directly to diamond cutters and pawnbrokers, many of whom operate across Antwerp’s gem district.

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Explaining the background behind the stolen gemstones, a spokesperson for ABN Amro revealed, “The diamonds belonged to eight Antwerp companies. [They] served as collateral for bank loans.” And notable among the precious stones was a rough diamond weighing 133 carats as well as a pair of green pear-cut stones and 41 bright blue gems.

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More than a week after the heist, the police launched a public manhunt in search of the suspect. A photofit showed an older man with gray hair who was said to be well over 6 feet in height. Described as having a “slightly flaky” complexion, the conman spoke English, and his accent was American.

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According to a prosecuting official, the suspect made trips to the bank’s vault often. Occasionally, he even paid such visits a couple of times a day. And when he did so, he invariably dressed smartly, in a bespoke suit, and as a rule wore some form of hat, seemingly preferring a baseball cap. Characterized as “very neat and precise,” he also came across as cautious where third parties were concerned.

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The authorities were so desperate to catch the suspected criminal that they put up a $2 million reward in exchange for information about his location. They were particularly eager to speak with any person who’d met and known the conman while he was in Antwerp. However, the police failed to disclose why it took them more than seven days to inform the public of the robbery. They also chose not to reveal where the reward money had come from.

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After the crime was made public, Dominique Reyniers, a public prosecutor, went on record about the case. She seemed confident that leads about the heist, as well as its prime suspect, existed somewhere. In 2007 she told Belgium-based Dutch language newspaper Het Laatse Nieuws, “Someone should have more information about him.”

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Speaking candidly with the publication, Reyniers revealed what kind of information she might expect to receive. “There must be people who met [the thief],” she explained to Het Laatse Nieuws. “In addition, there are a few very characteristic stones in terms of color, size and grinding method. They have to be signaled somewhere.”

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Following the appeal by Belgian prosecutors, American authorities helped to identify the suspect as Yehuda Mishali. It was claimed that he also went by the name Mordecai Meshaly. And according to a Chicago Tribune report from 1998, he had already been charged with two bank robberies, one of which involved diamonds worth half a million dollars – and for which he had served jail time.

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Confirming the news in Brussels-based French language newspaper La Dernière Heure, Reyniers credited U.S. officials with enabling this major development. She said, “They not only recognized ‘Carlos Flomenbaum,’ but they were also able to give us his true identity… He was known for similar acts in the United States, where he was also sentenced.”

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After identifying Mishali as the suspect in the Antwerp bank robbery, the authorities seized his brother, Eliser Mishali, at Frankfurt Airport in connection with the crime. But while Elisher Mishali admitted to having sometimes visited and been put up by his sibling in Belgium, he denied any knowledge of the heist. And a court later cleared him after uncovering no strong evidence linking him to the crime that had unfolded.

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Yehuda Mishali, meanwhile, had apparently disappeared. And yet this didn’t stop a court in Antwerp from handing down a five-year prison sentence and a fine of approximately $3,000 in spite of his absence. The authorities would, however, have to catch the thief first. So, with that in mind, they called for his prompt arrest.

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As of 2018, Mishali remained a fugitive. And what’s more, it was still not clear what had become of his alleged haul. Despite the obvious value of the diamonds that he’d apparently stolen, they would have been difficult to trade legitimately. But that’s not to say it would have been impossible to cash them in.

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Since larger illegally obtained stones are likely to attract unwelcome scrutiny, they are often cut into littler gems before they’re put on the market. This does, of course, have a negative impact on each original stone’s worth. However, by the same token it renders the newly created gemstones virtually untraceable.

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According to experts, ahead of a given heist, any thief worth their salt would already have a diamond handler in place, ready to get the newly acquired stones cut and thereby made untraceable. In 2016 top London-based diamond dealer Neil Duttson told BBC News, “Once [stones have] been recut, that’s it. The pieces are invisible. Gone for life.”

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And, commenting on similar crimes, Antwerp World Diamond Centre spokesperson Caroline De Wolf agreed that stolen gems can be notoriously difficult to find. In 2013 she told USA Today, “It is impossible to say what the thieves will do… In any case, rough or polished, it is virtually impossible to trace stolen diamonds.”

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It would therefore appear that the diamonds Mishali is accused of taking might never be seen in the same form again. And furthermore, if the man believed to be responsible for the heist continues to evade capture, it’s quite possible that no one will ever do jail time for the crime. In conclusion, when it comes to the diamond trade, it almost seems as though you can’t really trust anyone… Not even sweet old men with chocolate.

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