No matter where she falls on the altar of public opinion, Kim Kardashian is a human being with human emotions and, as such, was likely terrified when two armed gunmen dressed as police officers kicked in the door of her Paris apartment early Monday morning. The assailants bound and gagged her, forced her into the bathtub and stole some $9 million in jewelry from her arsenal of luxury. She survived, understandably rattled but fortunately unharmed. Concerns about her safety assuaged, investigators have turned their attention to uncovering who would be so bold as to trample on the safety of the central Kardashian: pop culture doyenne, boss business move maker, mother of North and Saint, wife of Kanye. According to the speculation of French and British media, the robbery could be the handiwork of a gang of international jewel thieves called the Pink Panthers.
Since the early 1990s the collective – estimated to be 150 to 200 strong, mostly men and a handful of women, comprised largely of Serbs from Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia – has hit glamorous targets in the world’s swankiest cities. Their style is smash and grab. A stunning $31 million diamond necklace with a 1,225-carat center stone, known as the Comtesse de Vendôme, jacked from a Tokyo jeweler? They did that in less than a minute, making history for the biggest jewelry take ever in Japan. The theft of $136 million worth of gems and jewels from the Carlton International Hotel in Cannes by a single gunman in broad daylight? They’re suspects in that too, setting another record for pulling off the largest jewelry theft ever in France. Since 1999, they’ve pulled some 380 heists across 35 countries, bringing in an estimated $372 million in stolen goods that are rarely, if ever, recovered.
Police have been methodically plucking off leadership to weaken the gang’s executional power, using DNA, fingerprints and, in some more brazen cases, facial recognition when gang members committed their crimes unmasked. In 2005, three Pink Panthers were arrested in Belgrade. Two years later, the ringleader of the Comtesse de Vendome heist was sentenced to seven years in prison. In 2009, French police arrested three more members who’d been spotted loitering near jewelry shops in Monaco. The march of the arrested and prosecuted has continued, inspiring Interpol, the international police organization, to recently shutter its nine-year-old Project Pink Panthers, believing the gang to be weakened and splintered and no longer posing a threat to the glitterati.
Still, the Kardashian case bears a striking resemblance to the Pink Panthers’ signature modus operandi. Their calculated planning and efficient intelligence is the cornerstone of both their evasion and success. They’re multilingual. They regenerate quickly. They opt for disguises that defy the stereotypically tailored wardrobe of an international crime ring, choosing low-key get ups like touristy Hawaiian shirts and golf gear, police uniforms and construction dickies to blend in. Their operation is both smart and swift. Once, they slathered a bench with a fresh coat of paint to deter any would-be witnesses from sitting on it. That attention to detail comes with homework before execution.
Their audacity is as legendary as their crimes, making them something of a folkloric superpower in a geographical area hobbled by flagging industry and the aftermath of war. Dragan Ilic, a morning radio show host in Belgrade, told the Los Angeles Times, “They’ve become more than pure criminals, they’re heroes.” Even their name has a story behind it, bestowed in absentia by Scotland Yard after a blue diamond ring worth hundreds of thousands of dollars was unearthed from a jar of beauty cream, similar to a trick pulled in the original Pink Panther movie. And so they were legitimized, as most criminals are when their existence is stamped by public notoriety.
If they did commit the Kardashian heist, they could have easily done their research by studying her digs – i.e. her apartment in Hotel Pourtalès, favored by other elites like Madonna, Prince and Leonardo Di Caprio – and combing through her social media. Her life of opulence played out, post by post, could have made their research a little easier, Paris police spokeswoman Johanna Primevert told the Associated Press on Monday. The key calling card of the Pink Panthers: typically keeping violence to a minimum to avoid attracting the additional media attention and dogged police work that coincides with brutality. Luckily for Kim, whoever pulled off the robbery – whether or not it was the Pink Panthers themselves – stuck to that formula. And even the suggestion that they’re behind this very public heist adds another layer to the mystery that makes the Pink Panthers part criminal enterprise, part folkloric legend.