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NBC Universal Anchors and Correspondents
By Keith Morrison Correspondent
Dateline NBC
updated 1/31/2010 5:47:34 PM ET 2010-01-31T22:47:34
transcript

This aired on Dateline NBC on Sunday, Jan. 31, 2010. The full show will not be available online, but you can watch related web-exclusive video here.

Something frightening was happening in the playgrounds of the rich and famous, crimes that looked as if they could have popped off a movie screen. But this -- this is real. These images actual security camera video. The criminals, daring, brutal, lightning quick. Their take, some of the most valuable gems on earth. What was going on in the world's most bejeweled cities? Was anyone safe?  Even the fortress of wealth? This is the principality of Monaco, per capita, quite possibly the richest, and the safest country on earth.  Here giant private yachts all but overwhelm the ancient Mediterranean harbor tucked into this tiny pocket carved from the south of France. Billionaires tool around in their Bentleys and Bugattis, and stores proffer every imaginable gem. Sun-and-money-drenched, immune, apparently, to the rest of the world's ills.  The most common offense here?  Scratches on those million dollar cars.

Andre Muhlberger is Monaco's police chief.

Police Chief Muhlberger: The crime rate's so low. But it's-- always so low.

Keith Morrison, Dateline NBC correspondent: And why is it?

Police Chief Muhlberger: It's a small territory.  We have a lot of police, we have CCTV all around.  And the population has no fear to call the police and tell them "I saw something that's not normal."

Here on Monaco’s casino square are the eye-popping treasures of some of the world's most exclusive jewelry shops, protected by a hovering army of security cameras, something like 400 of those things looking out over the glittering principality. And everywhere you look, there's a police presence. Here at the square, a police substation is right across the street from one of the most expensive jewelry shops. This is perhaps one of the best-protected square kilometers on the face of the globe. Safe, secure, a fortress. Unbeatable.

But then: It happened.  June 2007. A perfect day, as spring gave way to summer. It was high noon. The surveillance camera in the Ciribelli jewelry shop, 30 yards, no more, from the police substation.

A saleswoman divided her time between a customer, shopping with his child, and that man in the expensive suit, wandering around the store. Except...  He wasn't there to buy a thing.  Neither was his friend there. What they wanted they would steal. And there they go with no apparent concern for the terrified child - they brandished a gun, and looted the store. 

Police Chief Muhlberger: And they got away just during one minute and ten seconds.

Keith Morrison: A minute and ten seconds?

Police Chief Muhlberger: A minute and ten seconds, yeah.

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And they were not just gone from the jewelry shop.  Monaco, remember, is tiny.

Police Chief Muhlberger: In 30 seconds, you are out of the country.  So, we have one minute to catch them.

Keith Morrison: And that was it.  And how much were those watches worth?

Police Chief Muhlberger: Around-- 600,000 Euros.

Keith Morrison: That will make people sit up and take notice.

Close to a million U.S. dollars. And here's the thing.  That million-dollar heist was just one of many caught on tape in high-end, high-security jewelers all over Europe... All over the world. Copenhagen, Denmark. A fancy hotel, an exclusive little jewelry shop just off the lobby.  Security cameras here showed a well dressed man -- blue trench coat, white oxford -- buzzing the entrance. He entered.  Two other men rushed in behind him.  The first man pulled a gun.  The others smashed cases as the first kept watch at the door. And in forty seconds, they were out, flying across the busy lobby, and escaping through the bowels of the hotel, over a million dollars of merchandise along with them.

Zurich, Switzerland: A pretty little jewelry shop.  Three staff on duty. Security camera watching. A well dressed man came to the door, pulled a gun, forced the salesman on the floor, two accomplices joined him, they ransacked the displays,  and were out in twenty nine seconds.

Tokyo, Japan: The world-famous Ginza shopping district.  Camouflaged in pollution masks, and standard issue business suits, two men bicycled up to an exclusive jewelry store. Inside, as stores cameras rolled, they sprayed the staff with tear gas, swiftly pried open a display case, snatched a necklace and a two million dollar tiara, and just pedaled away. In and out in under thirty-two seconds. It all happened in broad daylight in front of surveillance cameras in the steel-trap secure capitals of the world's wealthiest people? Police all over the globe would find themselves up against something they'd never seen before -- though, for a long time, they didn't have any idea what it was.

Ron Noble, INTERPOL Chief: Their profile is not far different from the al-Qaida terrorist profile.

So secretive that perhaps you could call them “commercial terrorists.'”

Swiss Detective Yann Glassey: They can find people in every country in Europe.

Vicious and precise...

Yann Glassey: The attack is so quick. The people are so surprised.

Ron Noble: Their robberies take less than a minute and a half.

They squeezed through the cracks in crumbling empires.

Captain Herve Conan: They cross the borders very easily.

They overwhelmed the defenses of some of the world's top jewelers. Video: Returning to the scene of a Pink Panthers crime

Jo Soussan: They told me, "Open the door, or I kill you.”

They toyed with police. They seemed to hunt their glittering prey at will. And yet, for years... No one realized that all these crimes were connected.

Ron Noble: One day it might be person A and person B.  The next day it'll be A and C.

We'll take you inside an international manhunt for what turned out to be the largest and most daring network of jewel thieves the world has ever seen -- from their unlikely origins to law enforcement's battle first to figure out who they were, and then how to stop them, to final showdowns on the streets of the world's great cities.

Just like the movies, only real.

The men you'll see in action are members of the most notorious gang of jewel thieves the world has ever known. So brazen, high-tech surveillance cameras didn't deter them. So secretive that back at the beginning, not a cop on the globe had a clue who they were. Where did the trail start? Not here. Not in Paris or Tokyo or Monaco or Dubai, but on the gritty streets of New York City.

The year: 1988.The crime, apparently isolated. A diamond wholesaler's vault ransacked. Taken for a million dollars worth of diamonds and fine jewelry.

Now fast forward five years: 1993. Basel, Switzerland. The European jewelry and watch fair. Three diamonds valued at over three and an half million dollars vanished.

1994” Around the globe in Tokyo, an upscale department store. Three watches.  Worth thousands upon thousands of dollars.

Months later: Honolulu. A place called the golden boutique. Four men said to be dressed to the nines.  A million worth of watches, gone. A pattern was emerging, if anyone knew to look for it.  But at the time, no one did.  Besides, as INTERPOL chief Ron Noble recalls, other problems seemed more pressing back then.

Ron Noble: In 1993, 1994, the U.S. had a crime epidemic-- robberies, rapes, murders, violent crime.  Also, in early 1993 is when the first World Trade Center bombing occurred.  So, the U.S.-- as many countries in the world were --focused on terrorism as well.

There was another reason, too.  Police in different countries did not routinely share information.

Ron Noble: Back in 1994, the standard operating procedure was you collect fingerprints, witness testimony, and you put it in a database, and you compare it against other information from your own country. You don't compare it internationally.

Of course, the Internet had barely begun, Google was just a funny word. E-mail? Only for nerds. Cell phones were still a luxury item. And connections among national police forces?  Rare. All in all, a great time to be an international jewel thief.

Ron Noble: they could fly into a country, commit a robbery, leave the country, and for the most part the investigation would be of nationals or residents in the country.

But then, one of the thieves made a mistake. He stayed in one country too long.

1995: New York City. The FBI arrested a guy named Aleksander Vukcevic for that Honolulu robbery. And then they checked the records, and then it turned out that the NYPD had arrested “Aco,” as he was known for short, back in ‘88, for boosting a bunch of diamonds from the diamond district right here. Aco was a Canadian citizen, spoke very little English. Turned out he was from Yugoslavia.  And finally, they put out the word internationally -- anybody know this guy? Well, in fact, yes-- Switzerland did. Aco was wanted in that ‘93 robbery in Basel, Switzerland. What's more, the expensive watch he was wearing when arrested was one of three stolen from that Tokyo store in 1994. Now police had linked one man to all those high-profile heists. By ‘96, Aco was marking time on a U.S. prison clock. And with this big fish in lock up, police logically thought they had cracked a busy but singular operation.  A one-man theft machine. But then, something strange. Those brazen robberies, with their distinctive signatures hadn't stopped. Far from it. And, all over the globe--

Ron Noble: it's classic armed robbery

Precious gems stolen.  The thefts all similar . Quick, smart, bold. Just ask Monaco's police chief.

Police Chief Muhlberger: First level of the robbery. They just....

Keith Morrison: Smash and grab.

Police Chief Muhlberger: Smash and grab, that's all.

The robbers danced in and out of country after country, the police plodding behind.  And when cops tried cooperation?  They were snarled in red tape.

Helene Dupif: It was laborious.  We had to fill out forms in five examples

Helene Dupif runs a division of the Paris police department called the B.R.B. - the brigade for the repression of banditry.

Helene Dupif: We had answers when we asked the Belgians or the English for information on such and such a person. They would answer us three months later!

The law was too slow. And the thieves too fast, Swiss detective Yann Glassey:

Yann Glassey: They was organized, like, small gangs. The attack is so quick and so, people are so surprised.

But how many gangs were there? Were they acting independently?  Or were they somehow related? Part of something bigger?  So many questions... Not many answers.

Ron Noble: one day it might be person A and person B.  The next day it'll be A and C.

And yet, very slowly, a dossier came together: a small gallery of suspects. And the cops couldn't help but notice their names were Yugoslavian, Serbian. It was something to go on... But not much. As the turn of the century approached, police everywhere knew the thieves were winning. The evidence was on camera, right before their eyes. And the stakes were about to get much higher.

2001: The dawn of a new century. Europe was flush - pre-crash, of course. Oil money flowed. Bling was everywhere. The world's capitals had taken on the brazen sparkle of new wealth. And a certain cluster of thieves was very busy. 

2001, the Boucheron flagship store here. Two men dressed in coveralls heated the windows with a portable torch.  They melted off the security coating, hammered through the windows, and made off with over one and an half million dollars worth of goods. Paris was a favorite, but it wasn't alone. Belgium, Germany, Lichtenstein, Switzerland.  All besieged in the early 2000's. Geneva detective Yann Glassey:

Yann Glassey: It was very, very active group at this time.

Yet even as police in each country scrutinized video tapes, they knew little about crimes in other countries. And, really-- only one thing about the perpetrators.

Yann Glassey: We just know that there were people coming from Montenegro or Serbia.

And then it was in London where life imitated art and the thieves got a name. 2003: The Graff flagship store. There were two of them, they worked fast: $14 million worth of gems, including several yellow diamonds and a rare blue diamond ring.  It was Britain's most costly robbery to that date. A security guard nabbed one of the thieves on the spot, a Serbian. But his accomplice got away, and with most of the jewels. He stashed some with a local fixer, and fled the U.K. Two months later, Scotland Yard got lucky – they found the fixer, also a Serbian, holed up in a London flat with his girlfriend who had. Hidden that blue diamond ring in a jar of cold cream. The tactic, as the tabloids screamed, came straight out of a movie, “Return Of The Pink Panther.”

Pink Panther.  Irresistible.  The name stuck. From then on, if a heist was committed by a Serbian-- and quite a few were --- the papers and the police called it a Pink Panther crime. 

Monaco's police chief Andre Muhlberger:

Police Chief Muhlberger: I think it's-- useful for us too because when we speak about Pink Panthers, all the police know what about we speak.

Others were not amused. Least of all Helen Dupif, the chief of Paris's brigade for the repression of banditry.

Keith Morrison: So what is your opinion of the name they were given Pink Panthers?

Helen Dupif: I find it ridiculous! It's very ridiculous! So ridiculous.I don't know who found it amusing.

Keith Morrison: So what would you call them?

Helen Dupif: They are thieves. That's all.

As for the thieves, there was evidence they liked their new moniker -- notice the color of their shirts in this video. And perhaps the name gave them motivation. Because after 2003-- as the videos showed -- their speed increased -- their boldness with it.   Biarritz, FranceL Pink Panthers painted a bench outside a jewelry shop, thus discouraging potential witnesses from sitting down as they robbed it.  2004, the Paris antiques fair, at the Louvre museum. Under bright lights and heavy  security,  displayed a $16 million diamond.  Then the prime minister's wife arrived, eyes were distracted, the diamond vanished.

2005, Brussels.  In full view of jewelry store surveillance cameras, four thieves took axes to the display cases and made off with over five hundred thousand dollars worth of gems.

2006, Saint Tropez. Pink panthers wearing flowered tourist shorts hit a seaside store at the height of the afternoon rush hour.

Two million in jewels and watches, gone.  Police on the way. But the thieves were just diabolical, said detective Christophe Haget.

Keith Morrison: The roads were very crowded?

Christophe Haget: Oh, yes.

Keith Morrison: Rush hour. So the police in cars couldn't--

Christophe Haget: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.  It's very clever.  (laughs) They committed robbery and escaped-- by boat.  Incredible, incredible.

Then, in 2007, as we showed you earlier, two Pink Panthers hit sun-drenched, super-rich, Monaco.  But, that, it turned out-- was a critical mistake. Because, says INTERPOL chief Ron Noble, little Monaco knew exactly how to fight back. 

Ron Noble: They heard about other robberies, and encouraged Interpol to form a working group around the Pink Panthers.

INTERPOL is a global police organization -- tracking the world's criminals and crime syndicates. On multinational cases like the Pink Panthers, it can bring together investigators in different countries to form a powerful, united front.

Keith Morrison: Why did you think that-- INTERPOL was the right way to go?

Chief Muhlberger: It's still-- the only organization where we can share all the operational information about this. I asked INTERPOL to organize a meeting between all the countries who had to know robberies made by the Pink Panthers.

The Pink Panther film was classic comedy -- pitting INTERPOL and a bumbling Inspector Clouseau against an oh-so-clever cat burglar. But when the real cops got together, in July 2007, they were dead serious.   They made a deal to share information, and to allow cops from different countries to work as a team. A database that allowed police to see, for the first time, connections they couldn't see before.   For example, to this spectacular heist in Dubai, 2007: a luxury  mall, in the middle of the day. Startled shoppers clicked on their camera phones as two Audis crashed into a Graff boutique.  In under a minute, two men ransacked the store. On their way out, they got off a couple shots, then they drove off the way the way they came in. Afterward, Dubai investigators recovered cell phone numbers, DNA, fingerprints, and sent the information to INTERPOL.

Ron Noble: We put it in our database.  And the first hit we had, we matched it to a Pink Panther robbery in Lichtenstein.

And just like that, after nineteen years, nearly a hundred hold-ups, and almost as many separate investigations, a connection.  A breakthrough.

Ron Noble: Suddenly we said, "Wow, the Pink Panthers. They're actually engaging in robberies around the world.

Remember that robbery in Japan in 2007? There was another just like it in 2004, but now, detectives had the tools to tie them both to the Pink Panthers.

Ron Noble: And suddenly we found the links with Japan, Thailand, South America, US, extraordinary case/extraordinary break in the case.

Now the evidence seemed clear.  The Pink Panthers wasn't just a cute name.  Investigators believed it was a real group- a global conspiracy.

Ron Noble: This group has been responsible for over 350 million dollars worth of robberies for over 15 years in 26 different countries.

And as detectives compiled an ever growing list of suspects, a most remarkable story emerged.  A lesson in the law of unintended consequences.

November 9, 1989, Berlin. What a fine night it was, the night the wall came down. What an excellent new beginning. A long time ago, it sometimes seems. Such a party. Who knew that this might also be the origin of a criminal super group?  And yet, as detectives peeled back the mysteries of the Pink Panthers, that's exactly what they found. 

With new beginnings, came new opportunities - not all of them legal. Some who had lived so long behind the iron curtain, quickly headed west, to capitalist countries, seeking capitalist gemstones. Remember those early robberies in the nineties? All done by the first generation of Pink Panthers. But those crimes were just a foretaste of what was coming.  Back home, in the former Yugoslavia, a whole new generation of criminals was being shaped-- by fire. Here, centuries-old blood feuds boiled over again.  Yugoslavia splintered. Bosnians, Serbs, Montenegrins fought brutal ethnic wars.  Black market boomed. Chaos reigned. This, police learned, was the merciless world in which the pink panthers took form.

Ron Noble: They were involved in organized crime groups, involved in robberies, extortion-- attempted murders, other crimes of violence.

By 2000, the wars finally wound to their weary close, and the ragged army of Serbian paramilitary thugs and Blackmarketeers born in the bloody chaos had to look for new places to apply their skills. They found the going easy because of another great historical development of the 1990's: the European Union, relaxing borders, simplifying travel.  Perfect.

Ron Noble: With the borders coming down, organized crime groups that before operated only on a national level-- were able to operate much more internationally/.

As a new century was born, so was a new class of criminal -- trained in guerilla military tactics and afforded easy access to the world's wealth and technology. This was the second generation of Pink Panthers.  A goldmine in their grasp.

Herve Conan: Paris is one of the places they are always traveling....

Police like Paris' Captain Herve Conan soon found themselves contending with a new sort of thug.

KeithMorrison: Why Paris?  Why London, for example. Why do they pick these Western cities?

Herve Conan: ‘Cause the most beautiful jewelry are in London, in Paris and in Geneva. In this sort of city.

KeithMorrison: And there's no so much in Serbia or Montenegro?

Herve Conan: No. You will not find.

Jewel thieves in the Pink Panther movies are suave, champagne-sipping David Niven types. But not these guys.

Herve Conan: Some of them were in the army...they know the guns, they know how to, uh, to use, uh, a handgun or a machine gun.

Ron Noble: They've used guns to threaten people.  They've used tear gas.  And they use force, violence, threat of force.

And by 2005 cops started noticing something else...

Ron Noble: Their profile is not far different from the al-Qaida terrorist profile.

And by that he meant an apparently unconnected group of individuals with a powerful central loyalty, if only, in this case, to money. What's more, police came to believe, the Pink Panthers had to have local help. The thieves themselves were in and out in a few days, but they weren't acting alone.  Anonymous locals -- also Balkan expats-- were helping them.  A little like sleeper cells, As Geneva Detective Glassey discovered.

Yann Glassey: In Geneva, we have some people giving help that means that they can stole cars for them. They can give apartments. Everything what they need for the attack.

With their help, jobs were carefully plotted out well in advance.

Herve Conan: These men planned the robbery maybe one year before...

KeithMorrison: A year before?

Herve Conan: They are very professional. They are not here to make a small robbery. They want to make a robbery for millions of Euros.

There was often an ingenious plan for getting in.

Herve Conan: They use someone who looks like normal and like client. But what they do now, they put false hair, glasses and this sort of things. False beard, these sort of things.

KeithMorrison: Sunglasses--

Herve Conan: False beard, these sort of things.

And an even better plan for getting out.

Yann Glassey: They jump into...different cars with one cars opening the way and the other cars with the stuff inside...they run away with the cars to the apartment where they, perhaps, stay one or two days. Or back--back to Italy, back to Serbia.

KeithMorrison: Outside the border--

Yann Glassey: Outside the border to Serbia.  Outside the border.

And the border controls, or lack thereof, made it so simple:

Yann Glassey: It's the Swiss borders, is like cheese.

KeithMorrison: Cheese?

Yann Glassey: Like the gruyere. You know, the gruyere with the holes?

KeithMorrison: Yeah.

Yann Glassey: It's really easy to come in and to go out. Escape in the new, largely borderless Europe. A ten-minute fast ride from a fashionable street in Geneva, there's a stone like on any one of a hundred little country roads outside the city. On this side Switzerland and that side France, and there's nobody not to tell you not to go there.

And go they did -- out with the loot.   Plenty of it. The wars were long over, but in 2007 Europe's black market was flourishing -- lubricated by new oil and stock market money. In fact, some of the cops had a hunch that the robbers were actually commissioned... Were asked to take specific pieces out of selected stores - and there was good reason: the priciest watches were worth a million dollars or more. And there was never a shortage of buyers, even for hot ones.

Yann Glassey: The watches is the easiest things to buy. They can have 40 percent of the real price of the watches. That means if the watches is 100,000 franc in the shop. In Russia, that guy is going to pay 4,000---

KeithMorrison: 35,000, 40,000--

Yann Glassey: About 40,000 francs. 40,000 francs

KeithMorrison: -francs.

Yann Glassey: About 40,000 francs.

The Swiss franc and the dollar, by the way, are about at par. The Pink Panthers didn't always get away with it, of course, but even the ones who got caught didn't spend much time in prison.

Ron Noble: It's fair to say that the sentences-- in Europe for armed robbery are not severe enough.  Because if you think about the ability to commit a robbery of millions of dollars worth of jewelry.  To get arrested and convicted and only spend a couple of years in jail.  That's not really much of a deterrent.

Some Pink Panthers refused to serve even those short sentences.  In Lyon, France, where one Panther was imprisoned, other gang members peppered the guard tower with machine gun fire, and busted him out.

KeithMorrison: A commando raid on a jail?

Christophe Haget: Yeah.

KeithMorrison: And he's still at large.

Christophe Haget: Yeah.  Yeah. It's a famous one.

And where would this escapee go?  Where could any Pink Panther hide out safely? A place where, as you'll see, the Pink Panthers have a slightly different reputation than they do in the rest of the world.

Whenever and wherever the Pink Panthers struck, they were daring, brutal, and quick. They were also known for their carefully planned escapes. But where did they go?  Detectives all over the world dearly wanted to know. And, by 2007, investigators tracked quite a lot of the Panthers here, to what looked for all the world like a village in France: old, picturesque, idyllic. Its cafes even had French names. But its name is Cetinje -- a former capital of Montenegro. It's a favorite hangout of the Pink Panthers. Here, for example, courtesy of a French film crew equipped with hidden cameras, is the owner of a local grocery store. His name?  Milan Jovetic. And of course his business isn't just groceries. Milan, was the original Pink Panther -- the one whose girlfriend back in 2003 hid the blue diamond ring in the jar of cold cream. He was arrested then-- but only served five  years in prison.  Milan wasn't exactly pleased to be interviewed. But he did answer the interviewer's questions, and as much as admitted he was indeed the guy.

Milan Jovetic: Scotland Yard, because they found something - they say I copied some movie I don't know ... there's no fims, there's no nothing and that made Pink Panther -- and now everybody is a Pink Panther. Everybody's connected with everybody... and I don't know anyone, trust me. And these people that were arrested - and I don't care about none of them. I finished my stuff and that's it, I'm done.

Interviewer: Do you have regrets?

Milan Jovetic: Of course I regret, what I can do? It's past, finished. What I can do?

The documentary crew who shot this video probably understood that their lives were at some risk. And the jewel thief turned grocer was probably aware of the same thing. The Geneva Detective Yann Glassey says that Pink Panthers who talk risk an untimely end.

Yann Glassey: If the bad guys know that one people has talked, he's dead. This guy was uh, killed with two uh two bullets in the head.

Keith Morrison: A stool pigeon who talked--

Yann Glassey: They burned his car and he was in the car.

Keith Morrison: They don't fool around--

Yann Glassey: They could be really, really, very violent.

A code of silence that seems to cover the whole town.

French documentary:

Interviewer: Have you heard of the Pink Panthers?

Man: I don't know, I don't pay attention to other people, I live my own life. I'm a bar man by profession.

But it's more than the threat of death that makes people here loath to talk about the Pink Panthers.  The thieves inspire loyalty as well as fear. They've given generously to local charities, sponsored school events. Some web sites hail them as mythic heroes.

Herve Conan: The newspapers and the public consider that they are like stars. But they are robbers, they are not French stars.

Although among a few of these cops committed to catching them, one could detect what occasionally –well - sounded like a certain grudging respect.

Keith Morrison: Do you admire them in some way?

Herve Conan: Well, in some way, yes of course. They are on the other side. They are on the - we say, we say-

Keith Morrison: They're your worthy opponents.

Herve Conan: They are on the dark, on the dark side. They have created a new style, a new way to make robberies. They are very creative. They have created a new style. A new way to-- to make robberies.  They are creative. You know?

A notion which did not amuse the head of the brigade for the repression of banditry.

Keith Morrison: Some of the detectives we've talked to, said they almost respect some of these Pink Panthers. Does it bother you, does it worry you?

Helene Dupif: On no! I understood what you are saying. You are saying that some police officers, investigators have a kind of respect, a consideration for these Pink Panthers.

And the Serbian and Montenegrin government, at least, seems to agree.  Since 2007 when INTERPOL's anti-Pink Panther unit formed, the government here has cracked down a bit -- arresting one, trying three others. But even that progress has its limits. For one thing, Serbia and Montenegro won't extradite alleged Pink Panthers to most of the countries where they are wanted. For another, when a Pink Panther occasionally did go to prison, he was likely to find it an opportunity to network and recruit:

Yann Glassey: The Montenegrin guys was arrested, people from Serbia were, was arrested. People from Croatia was arrested. And they was, served, in same jails. The Montenegrin guys was arrested.  People from Serbia was arrested.  People from Croatia.  And they was in this same jails.

Keith Morrison: Ah, yes.

Yann Glassey: And they knew each other and now we began to have a lot of mixed groups. And the Pink Panthers are changing a little bit in these last years.

Such adaptable, creative thieves.  But now the cops.. With all their new interpol links, were getting creative too:

Christophe Haget: It's a game.

Keith Morrison: A game?

Christophe Haget: Yeah, in-- in a certain way, they know the rules.

Of course all games have to end.  And finally after 20 years, the cops were determined to end this one.   Now, a showdown.  But who will win?

By 2008, INTERPOL's Pink Panther unit was running at full speed. Police across Europe -- across the globe -- talked daily, emailed and shared photos, fingerprints, DNA. And their shared obsession began to pay off. May 2008: the Swiss detective was over the border in France on another case. Inside this hotel.

Yann Glassey: I was there at the table with my French colleagues and my Swiss colleagues.

And down the stairs walked a man he just h=knew. Had to be a Pink Panther.  Two other Pink Panthers following him.

Yann Glassey: I see big guy.

What happened next was straight out of an action movie.  One of the Panthers "made" the cops-- and took off on foot. The detective in hot pursuit.

Yann Glassey: He run and he dropped.

The Pink Panther ran toward a school yard.  Got caught on a gate. 

Yann Glassey: And I catch him at this moment. And we fight three, 4 minutes, approximately.

Keith Morrison: He's a big guy.

Yann Glassey: Yeah, but he was lying on this barrier and I was trying to keep him...and I was speaking to him, You can give up, you can give up. Stop, Stop.

Keith Morrison: Give up-- give up.

But he didn't. Instead, the Pink Panther tore free and ran-- cut and bleeding now-- across the schoolyard.

Yann Glassey: It was-- like in the movies.  The-- the-- the scene with children in the school.  A guy-- a big, tall guy m-- running like that. We jump over the fe-- the fence.  At this moment come a farmer. 

Keith Morrison: A farmer??

A farmer, with his scythe, offered to join the chase. But the detective knew he needed much more help than that.

Yann Glassey: It's one of the most-wanted guy...we need now helicopters.  We need the-- a dog.  He's here-- he's here.                

In the end-- a police dog sniffed the Pink Panther out.

Yann Glassey: The dog find him hiding under the bushes.

And even the elusive suspect seemed impressed.

Yann Glassey: He just said “Good job.”

The other bandits were arrested before they could leave the hotel. Three big Pinks down, many more to go. Next stop, Monaco: The little country whose police chief got INTERPOL involved. And was running a war of his own against the pink panthers. 

Police Chief Muhlberger: Every day you have to look what is going well and what is going wrong.  And you have to correct what is going wrong. Now Monaco was ready. Its network of security cameras backed up by its uniformed officers and its plain clothes spotters. And in every jewelry shop a rouges gallery of known members of the Pink Panthers supplied by INTERPOL. Surely, they wouldn't try something under these conditions. Would they?

Yes, they would.  October, 2008: A car ran over a tourist's foot.  At first the man resisted medical attention, but eventually the pain was too great. The policeman taking the accident report thought the man and his companion looked somehow familiar.

Officer: I came to the realization that I recognized two people who were part of a search bulletin that was posted on the wall here.

An INTERPOL search bulletin. The men were alleged Pink Panthers -- they'd come, it seemed, to rob a jewelry store.  Instead, police arrested them.  Two more down. On to Paris.  May 2009. The detective here got a tip from the Swiss: Two Pink Panthers were in town, planning something.

Herve Conan: We worked during two or three days to find the place where they were living.We work during two or three days to find the place where they were living. 

Here...on a narrow street, a modest hotel-

Keith Morrison: So you s-- you had people

-stationed around the hotel then--

Herve Conan: Everywhere, everywhere. And we have stayed all the night until the morning.

He set himself up at a cafe on the corner.  Waited.  And? Even Pink Panthers need their morning coffee.

Keith Morrison: What was it like to see him walk in?

Herve Conan: It was a big surprise. A big surprise.

Keith Morrison: I bet. You let him finish his coffee?

Herve Conan: No. He didn't have the time. Well, he had his coffee but he didn't have the time to, to drink it.

The Paris cops arrested the other thief back at the hotel. Two more Pink Panthers behind bars. Now back to Monaco. A sunny day in June 2009. A phone call from a shopkeeper about an odd customer. 

Christophe Haget: It's like-- in French you say, "Cheval du Troy."  "Troy."

Keith Morrison: Trojan horse?

Christophe Haget: Yes.

Keith Morrison: So it was a Pink Panther he saw in the shop.

Christophe Haget: Wearing a high value-- value watch.  Audemars Piquet, it's about €130,000.

Keith Morrison: Two-hundred-thousand-dollar watch?

Christophe Haget: Yeah.  Yeah, yeah. It's incredible, incredible.

The Pink Panthers were casing the place, clearly planning a robbery. There they are.  One in white, one in pink. Monaco plainclothes cops were on the case, keeping a careful, discreet watch.

Christophe Haget: Exactly five days. We were behind them.

Keith Morrison: Watching them.

The Pink Panthers showed up again in front of the jewelry store. They were moving towards the door. And right there the cops made their move. The two men were arrested.

Keith Morrison: Were they surprised to see you?

Christophe Haget: Yes, of course.  of course.

In the end, police around rounded up nearly a dozen worldwide. Including Zoran Kostic, widely thought to be one of the bosses of the Pink Panther syndicate. Police say that's him, robbing a Monaco jewelry shop back in 2007.  He's serving time in prison. Also arrested-- Milan Lgepoja, one of the most wanted men in the world, a suspect in the 2007 Dubai smash-and-grab with cars. And Vinko Osmakcic -- one of the oldest and most persistent pink panthers around -- he'd robbed Hawaii and Basel in the 1990s, even the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas in 2002.  It was Vinko who was nabbed outside the jewelry store in Monaco. Was the tide finally turning? Video: 700,000 Euros? Window-shopping in Monaco's Casino Square

Herve Conan: It's beginning of the end for them. I'm very optimistic about that.

Police had taken down key players -- they had to be damaging the Pink Panthers organization at its core. And yet, they were still out there. Vinko, for example, was picked up before he could rob that store in Monaco, and so was held on lesser charges. And in a few months, he was out again. And even as the arrests piled up, so did more robberies in France, said insurance broker Virginie Benezat.

Virginie Benezat: In 2009, the numbers of thefts and holdups in France has increased dramatically

In Switzerland...

Yann Glassey: I think you have between 10 or 15 robberies just this year...all made by the Pink Panthers.

Even the most determined police have to wonder: If one Pink Panther goes down, will another just step in to replace him?

Keith Morrison: Are we close to end with the Pink Panthers?

Herve Conan: Well, I think a new generation will arrive in the next, in the next years.

A new generation of Pink Panthers, the criminal gang with a name from the movies. How many sequels can they make?

Keith Morrison: And do you expect to see them back here again?

Christophe Haget: Why not? (laughter)  No-- why not?  Why not?  Why not?

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive. Reprints

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