TALLINN - Their charge sheet reads like a film script 's a gang of 33 Estonians accused of swiping six million euros worth of valuables from a string of Italian jewelry boutiques. But for the alleged thieves, the reality of their crimes bit hard this month when an Estonian court signed an order for their extradition to Italy.
By March 8, Estonian prosecutors expect to have finalized the extradition of 21 men who were arrested in a sting in mid-February.
A further 12 Estonian nationals have been arrested in other countries on Europol warrants, along with one Latvian man. The accused are all men aged in their late 20s and early 30s, most of them with prior criminal convictions.
While Italian police have identified their involvement in 14 robberies, Europol believes they may be responsible for as many as 200 armed hold-ups across Europe that netted as much as 40 million euros.
The effort to arrest the Estonian gang involved the cooperation of police forces across Europe. Europol, the European police coordination office, said it was the "biggest operation related to robberies which we have been involved in."
The gang was highly organized, according to the Italian Carabinieri investigators who tracked their hold-up spree.
On March 12, 2004, the gang pulled off their first robbery at the Milan boutique of Tiffany & Co. They went on to rob 13 more high profile jewelers in locations from Florence to Geneva until June 2006.
"We have never had such a thing like this in Italy, such a well organized group targeting so many jewelry stores," Carabinieri robbery squad investigator "Donnie" told The Baltic Times.
The group divided its tasks between several teams. Some would scope out a store ahead of a robbery. A smaller group of up to four members would return days later armed with guns.
The robberies were short and swift, lasting under a minute. Showcases were shattered with a hammer while staff members were kept at bay under the threat of violence.
The collected loot would be passed up the chain of command, and would be moved out of Italy to be resold in second hand shops and online. Some items have already been recovered from online auction sites such as E-Bay.
Police believe the profits from the robberies were reinvested in drug operations bringing cocaine and hashish from Spain into Nordic countries, while other funds were put into real estate purchases.
But the gang was undone by a detailed investigation by the Italian robbery squad, who use the codenames Spartaco, Chinico, Riccio, Otello and Donnie.
The officers checked the passenger lists of planes, ships, buses, car rental offices and hotels for people with criminal records.
They traced the mobile phone records of suspects and focused on those who made or received calls from near the robbery locations.
Finally, they asked for photographs from Estonian authorities. Checking the suspects' photos against in-store security footage was simple, as the robbers failed to conceal their faces.
"They spoke English, but some witnesses said they spoke with an eastern accent. Also, their complexions were described as being eastern," Donnie said.
The information was shared with other European police forces. Europol arrest warrants were issued in Estonia, Lithuania, Finland, Spain, France and Germany. Some of the accused were found to be already incarcerated, serving unrelated sentences.
Europol Director Max-Peter Ratzel said the operation was a major success for the group, and highlighted the need for European police cooperation.
"This criminal group committed more than 200 armed robberies all over Europe. Without our coordination, it is very unlikely that all the countries would have known that the group responsible was one and the same," Ratzel said.