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July 30, 2014

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The story of jewel thieves who count Vegas among their daring jobs

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Diamond Ringleader: Juro Markelic, one of the jewelry thieves Interpol has likened to a terrorist organization.

The first man enters the jewelry store just after 8:30 p.m. He is tall, with a receding hairline, accented English, and a sportcoat slung over his shoulder "in an European style," a detective would later write.

Once inside, the man asks a saleslady about jewelry in an exterior display case. As they head outside to look, his arm is around her, guiding her out of the store — a luxury jeweler in the Venetian's Grand Canal Shoppes.

Fifteen seconds later, a second man enters. He is wearing a beret. He demands the attention of another saleswoman, who begins showing him jewelry.

Four seconds later, two more men enter. By now, the sales staff is too occupied to notice the pair positioning themselves very close to a large display case. They do not notice as the pair begins to fuss with the case, or when they open the case, or when they leave immediately afterwards, followed by the man in the beret.

Three minutes, 52 seconds after the man in the sportcoat arrived, he leaves, too. Now the store is empty. Now employees realize the Millennium necklace is missing.

Like all jewelry sold in the Bernard K. Passman Gallery, the Millennium necklace was billed as wearable sculpture. It was made of platinum, black coral and 2,000 diamonds. It retailed for $1 million.

The four men had pulled off a classic "distraction team" heist, Metro Det. Brian Mildebrandt said. Two of them charmed employees while the other two stole the necklace. Then everybody vanished. That was December 5, 2002.

"They worked like a well-oiled machine," Mildebrandt said. "Everybody had their job. Everybody did their job well. We were dealing with a really high-end team."

Burglarizing a casino jewelry store — without a gun, or a threat, or even a ripple of disturbance — is a kind of art. Though police didn't know it at the time, this particular crew had direct ties to a now-notorious gang of international jewel thieves — a group Interpol says has stolen more than $350 million worth of jewelry in the past 15 years, often targeting the world's most exclusive jewelers, pulling off some of history's biggest diamond heists in the process.

It was one of those heists that earned the group its name. In 2003, after the Graff jewelry store in London was taken for more than $30 million in diamonds, detectives tracked down suspects in possession of a stolen ring worth $750,000. Detectives found the ring buried in jar of face cream, a trick also employed by slinky 1960s thieves in the first Pink Panther movie, prompting the press to name the group behind the Graff sting — and dozens of similar robberies since — the Pink Panthers.

The man who strolled into the Passman Gallery with a sportcoat slung over his shoulder has played a part in some of the Pink Panthers' earliest-known thefts and is considered by some to be one of the groups' oldest members. The Panthers are best known for targeting high-end retailers in the enclaves of Europe and Asia's super-rich: Paris, Monaco, Geneva, Tokyo, Saint-Tropez. The gang's American exploits seldom are mentioned or described in much detail, and so it can seem that the Pink Panthers are a distinctly foreign operation.

There are indications that Pink Panther members hit Las Vegas not once, but twice. And there is concern that increasing European pressure could prompt the group to focus more on America, where they aren't expected. The man in the sportcoat is the only person to be arrested in connection with the Millennium theft, and it likely will remain that way. Still, his crimes provide a glimpse into the Pink Panthers' complicated background. His story, in many ways, echoes the group's story. And like the Pink Panthers, he remains somewhat of a mystery.

***

Four surveillance cameras caught the Millennium theft from four angles; none helped detectives identify or locate the men on the tape. Moreover, nobody was able to lift fingerprints from the display case that held the necklace. Mildebrandt, the lead detective, had nothing to work with. The crime remained unsolved for seven months before a stroke of good policing and great luck advanced the case.

The JCK Show is one of the jewelry industry's largest trade events. In June 2003, it took up two floors of the Sands Expo and Convention Center, with high-end jewelry concentrated on the second floor. This was where Metro Sgt. Priscilla Green was working undercover, strolling the halls half an hour after closing.

The jewelry convention must have been hard for the Millennium crew to resist. Mildebrandt figured as much, and handed out pictures of the Passman Gallery surveillance footage to officers working the convention floor. The man Sgt. Green saw strolling the halls that evening was well-dressed, wearing a convention-guest badge — he was tall and thin, with a dark, receding hairline, and he looked just like a man from the surveillance photo in her pocket. Green trailed him for a few minutes, then arrested him. Before the cuffs were on, he let a Flamingo room key fall to the ground. Green grabbed it, then called Mildebrandt.

A yellow-diamond pendant worth more than $700,000 had been stolen from the jewelry show four days earlier. This, some theorize, was the Pink Panthers' second Las Vegas heist, though the case has never been solved.

By 8 o'clock that evening, Mildebrandt was facing the man with the sportcoat, who admitted to the detective that he had been at the Venetian when the Millennium was stolen. According to his passport, the man's name was Juro Markelic, 47, a married father from Zvornic, Bosnia. He was personable, Mildebrandt says, "a smooth talker. A player." And then he stopped answering questions. The detective charged Markelic with burglary, grand larceny and conspiracy to commit both. At booking, Markelic told jail staff he was a self-employed cook, with a monthly income of $1,500.

He then hired longtime criminal defense attorney John Momot, who perhaps most notably represented Sandy Murphy in the Ted Binion murder trial, and presumably does not come cheap.

The Flamingo room key led back to a suite with two queen beds and two roll-away cots. Perfect, detectives thought, for a four-man distract team. The room was booked for two more days, but when detectives arrived, it was vacated and wiped down. Not one fingerprint could be found in the entire room.

"They were gone in a heartbeat," Mildebrandt said. "We probably missed them by about 10 minutes."

***

The theft of the millennium necklace was different than most Pink Panther gambits in one respect: It wasn't violent — in the surveillance tapes, the men appear to pick the display-case lock, and leave quietly.

Almost every other publicized Panther theft, however, involved the "smash and grab" method: One or two men go in first, posing as customers then brandishing weapons. They are followed by others who, using hammers or something good and blunt, smash into display cases and grab. It's chaotic, but not random — at least not to some detectives, who suspect Panthers take orders from wealthy clients who pay a percentage of retail value as bounty.

And perhaps because the Millennium theft wasn't violent, it also was slow — just shy of four minutes. In 2004, Pink Panthers armed with pepper spray stole a $31.5 million diamond necklace from a Tokyo boutique in under three minutes. In 2007, Panthers drove two Audis into the lobby of a Dubai mall. While the getaway drivers waited, thieves jumped out, grabbed almost $3.5 million in jewels from a nearby store, then sped away — all in 55 seconds.

Once, Panthers painted a park bench outside a French boutique just before they robbed it. The wet paint was to prevent potential witnesses from sitting down and watching.

Interpol Secretary General Ron Noble has likened the Pink Panthers to a terrorist organization — a network of dozens, if not hundreds, working in small cells for mysterious central authorities. In 2007, Interpol launched a task force to identify and catch the Pinks, as they are sometimes called. Comparing notes, task-force members confirmed a growing suspicion: Most of the Pink Panthers are from a handful of Balkan countries — Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia — places where government corruption and political instability created poverty and rewarded crime. Many Panthers, it appears, were soldiers in the early 1990s, when the former Yugoslavia dissolved into deadly war. And when the war was over, and their countries were still destitute, riddled with land mines and corrupt, it's said that many Panthers snuck into wealthy European Union countries looking for jobs and, given strict immigration sanctions, found no honest work.

It's logical for the Pink Panthers to target posh European cities — diamonds are big where people are rich, and Cannes is closer to Eastern Europe than Las Vegas or New York. But beyond these practicalities, another motivation may churn.

In an April article about the Panthers, New Yorker contributor David Samuels described the rage that young men in Serbia — and neighboring countries, no doubt — must have felt for the European Union, which "failed to stop the carnage in the Balkans" and "tantalized them with its wealth yet forbade them legal entry."

Who better to steal from than the people you hate?

In that same New Yorker article, Samuels wrote one brief line about a Serbian named Vinko Osmakcic, who was arrested in Monaco and suspected of crimes in Basel, Honolulu and Las Vegas. That man, it turns out, is Juro Markelic — the man in the sportcoat — using one of his many known names, none of which Mildebrandt thinks are legitimate.

***

Markelic and the distract team visited the Passman Gallery twice on the day before the Millennium theft. At trial, store employees testified they thought the men were perhaps Italian, because they said "ciao" when they left.

There is surveillance footage from the day the men visited the store, and footage from the day the necklace was stolen. It's soundless, however, and it's all that remains on tape from the theft. Surveillance recordings are erased after two weeks, a gallery manager testified, unless someone copies them.

Markelic's lawyer, Momot, tried to make something of this fact, noting how convenient it was that no footage could show employees had properly checked locks and inventoried jewels before the theft. Momot also argued there was no way of proving that Markelic was part of the team — there's no audio to indicate that the men spoke to each other, and in a casino crawling with cameras, there was no other shot of the four together.

"Is there something in your police bag of evidence," Momot asked Mildebrandt, that could connect Markelic to the other men?

"No sir," the detective replied, "unless your client wants to tell me who they are."

In the end, Markelic took a deal. In March 2004, he pleaded guilty to grand larceny and conspiracy to commit it. Markelic was promised a shorter sentence in exchange for "providing substantial assistance" — which likely meant giving investigators details about the crime. Markelic got the shorter sentence: one year and $125,000 in restitution.

But in November 2004, a few months into his Nevada prison stay, California authorities extradited Markelic to face charges there — he was wanted for burglarizing Cartier in Cosa Mesa, where more than $50,000 in goods had been stolen just nine days before the Millennium theft.

Markelic was sent to California, where he pleaded guilty. Seven months into his prison sentence there, in June 2005, federal authorities then swept in with orders to extradite Markelic to Hawaii. He was wanted in connection with the 1995 burglary of a Waikiki jewelry store, where three men made off with more than $1 million in diamond Piaget watches.

In Hawaii, Markelic was charged as "Vinko Osmakcic" — and so this is the name he signed on his guilty plea.

More than any other, it's the Hawaii case that reveals the most of Markelic. Through court filings, we learn that one week before the Waikiki burglary, Markelic and two men stole three watches worth more than $50,000 from a Tokyo department store. We learn that directly after the Waikiki burglary, the men flew to New York, where they handed off the stolen Hawaiian watches to a man at the New York Jewelry Exchange.

We learn, from his attorney, that Markelic became a criminal in the early '90s "in order to support his displaced family and help his family and others rebuild their shattered lives."

His attorney, who declined the Weekly's request for comment, described in court filings how Markelic was his family's sole provider. While Markelic fought as a Bosnian soldier in 1991, the attorney claimed, his brothers and mother fled to Croatia. After Markelic was wounded, he unsuccessfully tried to find work in Germany and turned to crime. This was how Markelic paid his family's bills, put his brother through architecture school in Zagreb and rebuilt their Bosnian home, though land mines in the area made it too dangerous to return to for years.

Most revealing, however, is the letter Markelic wrote the judge, excerpted and uncorrected in part here:

"In 1992 my village was attacked and fully destroyed. Everybody from my family was in the street overnight. The only hope I had was to leave my country and do whatever it took to help my family survive … I am not looking for any excuses for what I did. I just wanted to explain my wrongful doings ... I hope you honor may understand my situation."

Markelic's attorney felt the judge should bear these tragedies in mind during sentencing. She also revealed that Markelic willingly met with Homeland Security agents while incarcerated, and told them how he got multiple visas from the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo using a fake Bosnian passport, allowing him to travel into the country three times after 9/11 without detection.

In March 2006, Markelic was sentenced to 21 months in Hawaii federal prison, with credit for time served. He was released, Bureau of Prison records indicate, eight months later, in December.

Now that his brothers had their own jobs, and his home country had stabilized, Markelic's attorney wrote, it was "highly unlikely that he will need to commit other crimes."

***

He was wearing a pink shirt. It was June 2009 in Monaco, and police had been following him for five days, waiting.

It was Markelic. Two years after Interpol formed the Pink Panther task force, he was a recognized gang-member, spotted prowling around the main square — the wealthy shopping hub of a wealthy principality. A few months earlier, one of the most-wanted Pink Panthers was caught here, doing much the same thing. Now it was Markelic — putting it in their faces, maybe — with that pink dress shirt.

Click to enlarge photo

From the "Dateline NBC" episode, Juro Markelic being arrested in Monaco.

They arrested him sitting in a parked car. Markelic was wearing a wildly expensive watch — a $200,000 timepiece one Monaco detective said was Markelic's "Trojan horse" — his entrée into the expensive shops. His confident arm curled around a saleslady, guiding her outside. His goodbye "ciao." His sportcoat, slung over the shoulder in that European fashion.

In January, Dateline NBC did a story on the Pink Panthers, and Mildebrandt caught it. Towards the end of the show, one quick still photo of a man caught his eye. The man is thin and balding, sitting on a curb in Monaco, hands cuffed behind his back. Dateline's narrator says it's Vinko Osmakcic, just after that June arrest.

Mildebrandt recognized Markelic immediately.

"They zoomed right in on his face," Mildebrandt says. "I wasn't surprised."

After a few months in Monaco jail last year, Markelic was released. He hasn't been seen since, reportedly. Neither has the Millennium necklace.

— Originally published in Las Vegas Weekly

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