Top 10 Highlights
The term cat burglar evokes images of daring, handsome men whisking great riches away from the homes of millionaires and, keeping it for themselves of course. These are not normal burglars. Jimmying a window open and taking a tv while no one is home is not what the cat burglar wants.
No, cat burglars are after the thrill of doing something risky or difficult, of going after magnificent objects of art or fine jewellery. They enjoy climbing two stories to enter a house rather than just picking the lock downstairs, tackling intricate alarm systems just to show that they can and entering a house when the occupants are home. And they just love a good escape.
Cat burglars often gain notoriety and even celebrity because of their daring ways. It helps that they often rob from the rich because they get the support of the common masses, even as they live like kings with their stolen riches.
10. Various, Cannes
These jewel heists have not been attributed to any individuals and therefore they shouldn’t make our list, but the numbers are so big they just have to get a mention. And they all happened in Cannes, giving them a touch of glamour.
In July last year a man walked into the InterContinental Carlton Hotel on the Cannes Promenade in the middle of the day and walked out a few minutes later with a briefcase full of €100 million ($136 million) worth of jewelry. The bold as brass thief was wearing a baseball cap, gloves and had a bandana covering his face. Brandishing a pistol, he casually walked in off the street and took the jewels from an exhibition by the diamond house Leviev, which is owned by an Israeli billionaire. It’s one of the biggest heists ever. Amazing.
Also in Cannes last year during the famous film festival, one heist saw thieves make off with $1.4 million worth of jewelry that was due to be loaned to film stars, and robbers in a second heist got away with a diamond necklace with an estimated value of $1.9 million.
It seems that the movie industry is not the only industry to converge on Cannes each year.
News coverage on one of the world’s biggest jewel robberies.
9. Hajime Karasuyama
Takings: US$450,000 per annum
Hajime Karasuyama is actually the real burglar’s pseudonym, the name under which he released a book detailing his exploits.
In the book Karasuyama describes himself as a Japanese ‘gentleman’ cat burglar who can pick a lock at will, silently get through windows with a glass cutter and has an uncanny knack of knowing where jewellery and cash is stashed away in a house.
Details of the real person are not revealed in the book. Perhaps this crafty Japanese gentleman will fill us all in at a later date.
8. Charles Peace
Takings: Unknown, but he was wealthy
Where: UK, Sheffield, London
Peace was a career criminal, starting in his late teens and continuing up to his final capture and eventual hanging at the age of 47. He was a small man with a limp but was extremely fit and very agile, qualities he used to great effect to avoid being caught. On numerous occasions he would climb onto the roof of a house, or up a chimney or slip through a small window opening to make his escape.
He was also very clever at disguising himself, including using a prosthetic arm, walnut oil to colour his skin and an apparently remarkable ability to alter his face for mug shots. What it seems he wasn’t very good at doing was hiding his takings as they were found several times and on at least one occasion he was captured picking them up.
Peaces’ achievements as a canny burglar were punctuated by three stints in goal before his final capture. In fact between the ages of 19 and 47 he spent more time in prison that out. In his time out of goal he built substantial wealth and an aura as an accomplished cat burglar. Added to that were incredible tales of escape and the occasional capture, all of which summed up to create a romantic notion of a ‘good’ criminal that bordered on the mythical.
Most of his escapades occurred north of London where he grew up around Sheffield, but his last two years as a free man were spent in South London where he pulled on many of his greatest burglaries. So good was he that the police thought they were dealing with a criminal gang.
Tarnishing his profile somewhat were several murders. Charles Peace may well have been one of the best cat burglars ever and a great escape artist and it is said he showed remorse for his crimes on the eve of his death. But he was a simply a criminal and unfortunately a murderer as well.
Peace was hanged on 25th Febuary, 1879.
A detailed and very interesting historical overview of Peace’s life.
7. Alan Golder
Takings: $1 million or thereabouts
When: 1970’s to 2000’s
Where: US, France, Belgium
Like most of the group on our list, Alan Golder started young. He became known as the ‘Dinnertime Bandit’ in the 1970’s while he was still in his 20’s.
Like all good cat burglars he was fit and adept at climbing walls, trellises and drain pipes, and would do this to get into the second story of homes while the occupants were having dinner, helping himself to valuables in the empty rooms upstairs. He knew that alarm systems would be turned off when people were home.
He was carrying out a robbery in 1978 when one of his accomplices tragically shot and killed an occupant of the house. Golder served 15 years in prison.
Undeterred he returned to burglary as soon as he was released and is thought to have carried out dozens of high profile burglaries around Greenwich and Darien in the mid 1990’s. Later court proceedings showed that individual break-ins netted Golder $200,000, $102,000, $39,000 and a couple of Rolex watches. And that’s just four of dozens he carried out.
After realising that things were a little too hot for him in the US, Golder moved to Paris in 1998 and continued on his stealing ways. He later moved to Antwerp and, after being on the run for eight years, was arrested there in 2006 and extradited back to the US.
In 2007 Alan Golder was charged with 40 counts of burglary stemming from his activities in 1996 and 1997 around New York. He is serving 15 years in prison.
A dramatic re-enactment of Golders exploits.
6. Doris Payne
Takings: $2 million
When: 1950’s to 2000’s
Where: Anywhere there are jewels pretty much. New York, London, Paris, Rome…
Doris Payne was born in 1930 in West Virginia, an African American woman who went on to become one of the world’s most prolific jewel thieves with a career spanning 60 years and taking her to cities across the world.
At a very young age Payne accidentally took a watch from a store she was at with her mother, returning it before leaving. In that innocent moment she had found her calling.
Armed with an uncanny knack of being able to walk into a jeweller, have them show her some pieces, then somehow make off with one or two of them without the store knowing.
Payne travelled the world. She started at her local stores and worked her way up to the finest jewellers in the world. Catier, Tiffany’s, London, Paris, Rome.
Using various aliases, Doris Payne travelled the world. Now the 83 year old is reaching the end of the road. Kind of sad, but I’m sure she doesn’t think so.
The Producers of a documentary on Doris Payne talk about getting their film together.
And a bit about her last, rather sad robberies.
5. Blane Nordahl
Takings: $3 million or more
When: 1980’s to 2000’s
Where: US, at least 10 States
Blane Nordahl is variously known as the Silver Thief or Thief to the Stars because of his liking for silver items and his predilection for robbing well known identities such as Steven Spielberg, Ivana Trump, Bruce Springsteen and Curt Gowdy.
Although he was clearly skilled at the art of cat burglary, drawing comparisons with the best in history, he was also caught numerous times and spent at least eight stretches in prison for his crimes. Amazingly he continued to be granted early release on bail on most occasions he was incarcerated, only to re-offend almost immediately. He was continuously wanted by authorities.
Nordahl was very specific about what he wanted to steal. It had to be silver. He would research wealthy individuals to give himself the best chance of striking silver and even carry a test kit to confirm the quality of each item. He would leave anything that wasn’t pure silver, including items that were silver plated.
Despite being extremely careful not to leave anything at the scene of a crime that might incriminate him, Nordahl was again arrested late last year and is currently serving time in prison. Probably not for long though. If you have any silver, make sure it’s exceptionally well hidden.
A look at some of the homes Nordahl broke into and an overview of his exploits.
4. Ignacio Pena Del Rio
Takings: At least US$16 million over several years
When: Mid 2000’s
Where: US, Los Angeles
Del Rio was once infamous in Los Angeles as the cities most active cat burglar. He immigrated to the US from Spain and went to university but soon found that stealing art works and jewellery was more to his liking. So much so that it’s estimated he carried out over 1,000 break and entries around the San Fernando Valley.
He learned to use a wide range of the professional burglar’s tools of trade such as crow bars, bolt cutters, ropes for abseiling down walls, glass cutters and even the trusty old blowtorch. However he was also an exceptional climber and could lithely scale downpipes and balcony railings. He even used a grappling hook although the two things he used in most of his crimes were simply a pair of gloves and a screwdriver.
Victims were generally older people who Del Rio reasoned would have more valuable items in their homes, and people who didn’t like banks and locking their money up in paper investments as these people were most likely to have stacks of money somewhere close at hand.
His two prize takings were a Degas painting worth $10 million and a diamond ring worth around $400,000. When he was caught he did a deal to get a reduced sentence and took the police to a stash of loot buried in empty land off the 118 Freeway.
Del Rio was charged with stealing more than US$16 million.
Okay, it’s not Ignacio Pena Del Rio, but it is a cat burglar.
3. Bill Mason
Takings: US$35 million or more
When: 1960’s through to the 1990’s
Where: US, various places across the country
Bill Mason was the archetypal cat burglar, stealing only from the rich and famous, avoiding arrest by cunning and stealth, and carrying out elaborate schemes to fence the goods he stole. He was also described as debonair and charismatic, a response to his poor childhood growing up in West Virginia.
For more than thirty years Mason lived a double life and became part of the high society from which he stole. His victims included Bob Hope, Truman Capote, Armand Hammer, Phyllis Diller and even a mafia boss. Now that takes cat burglar balls.
He was romantically involved with several high profile socialites and used these connections to find targets and plan his elaborate heists.
In 2004, after the Statute of Limitations allowed him to write about his exploits without fear of prosecution, he released a memoir that details his methods, victims and what drove him to do it all. In the end it wasn’t about the money, it was the thrill of doing something difficult, something that other people couldn’t do.
2. Peter Scott
Takings: £30 million
When: 1940’s to 1990’s
Where: Ireland (Belfast), England (London) and the South of France (the Riviera)
Peter Gulston grew up in Belfast, Ireland, and decided crime was going to be his career from the ripe age of 12. He learnt his craft around the wealthy parts of Belfast; his passion was taking from the very wealthy, although unlike Robin Hood, he didn’t necessarily pass the loot on to the poor.
After something like 150 burglaries around Belfast he was caught and did a stint in prison. After his release he realized he was a ‘known man’ in his home town so he changed his surname to Scott and moved to London.
It was here that he made a real name for himself, staging carefully planned break-ins into the most secure houses and country mansions of the wealthy. He became a specialist in jewellery and expensive art and in his memoirs claims to have stolen a £200,000 necklace from Sophia Loren, which in 1960 was a fortune on its own.
Other well known figures he is said to have burgled include Zsa Zsa Gabor, Vivien Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor, Lauren Bacall and John Aspinall.
Like all good cat burglars he was very athletic and adept at climbing up drain pipes, dropping from roofs onto balconies, scaling high fences and getting around sophisticated alarm systems.
The last heist Scott was involved with was the theft of Picasso’a Tete de Femme from a gallery in Mayfair. He was eventually caught and convicted of the theft and served three years in prison. He had served twelve years in various prison stints up to that point.
Although he enjoyed his wealth and lived a flash lifestyle he ended up bankrupt and on a state pension. He died in 2013 at the age of 82.
1. Leonardo Notarbartolo
Takings: $100 million, at least
When: 1970’s to 2000’s
Where: Italy, Belgium
Leonardo Notarbartolo grew up in Turin, Italy in the 1950’s. He started to steal cars in his teens before turning to jewels and other valuables in his twenties. By the time he was in his thirties he was a well practiced thief with a wide network of connections; experts in various aspects of the trade of burglary. Lock pickers, safe crackers, security gurus, even a human fly who could scale commercial office towers.
They were known as the ‘School of Turin’ and Notarbartolo was their leader. He would pull together whatever mix of expertise he needed for each project. By the year 2000, with Notarbartolo in his late 40’s, he says they had successfully completed dozens of major robberies.
It was that year that he rented an office in Antwerp, in a building called the Diamond Center. This part of Antwerp, the ‘Diamond District’, is the diamond trading hub of the world. About 80% of the rough cut diamonds in the world pass through this part of Antwerp, roughly $3 billion in 2003.
Notarbartolo passed himself off as a gem importer from Turin but used his office there to move jewels that he and his crew had stolen back in Italy and helped himself to easy targets in Antwerp when the opportunity arose. He dealt with a very small number of trusted dealers to take his stolen bounty and it was one of these acquaintances that put him on the path to the infamous diamond heist of 2003.
For a cool €100,000 Notarbartolo did a complete reconnaissance of the diamond district, taking photos of police points in the area, surveillance cameras that covered every angle of every street, the Diamond Center building, the entry, guard posts and the vault where he had a safe-deposit box for his own jewels. He used a camera hidden in a pen that poked out the top of his jacket. Nice.
The security systems in the vault were of epic proportions, but his contact who had paid him the Euros had built a replica of the vault on the outskirts of Antwerp and assembled a team to do the heist. The details of the security systems and how they got into all the safe-deposit boxes is a story in itself, suffice to say that they picked a day for the robbery that coincided with a De Beers shipment of diamonds hitting town. All the safe-deposit boxes would be brimming with more than $100 million of diamonds.
Notarbartolo was caught because he and one of his closest accomplices, a childhood friend, had disposed of incriminating rubbish in woods outside Antwerp. They had meant to burn it but in a panic, left it out in the open. Notarbartolo spent 10 years in prison.
The really interesting part of the story is how much money was taken and who got it. One version says that the dealer, Notarbartolo’s original contact, told a number of his close friends about the heist and they all emptied their boxes before the heist but claimed insurance on all the diamonds, ending up with millions of dollars of insurance money and the diamonds as well. In this scenario Notarbartolo and the heist crew ended up with around $30 million.
The other version is that one of Notarbartolo’s cousins, an Italian mafia boss, financed the whole thing and that Notarbartolo’s account of the dealer contact was just a ruse to put investigators off the real story. In this scenario Notarbartolo and the heist crew do get the full $100 million.
Wherever the truth lies, it’s a pretty incredible story.
See just how big this was and why it came undone for Notarbartolo.
One of Blane Nordahl’s more publicized burglaries was that of Ivana Trump’s home in Greenwich in the mid 1990’s. He was charged with stealing 120 pairs of silver salt and pepper shakers belonging to Trump. They were said to be worth $50,000. What we think is interesting is that someone, even a very wealthy someone, would have 120 pairs of salt and pepper shakers, each pair worth about $400.