Before dawn on Monday, March 27, a group of thieves broke into the neo-baroque Bode Museum on Berlin’s Museum Island to pinch a coin. Their target was an item on display in the coin collection, “The Big Maple Leaf,” a 100 kilogram (220 pound) gold coin issued by the Royal Canadian Mint worth €3.75 million ($4.28 million).
The heist made headlines around the world, in part because of the relatively rudimentary methods the thieves used to bag such a spectacular loot: a ladder to get in through a window, an ax to break the bulletproof glass encasing the coin, and a wheelbarrow to transport it to a getaway car. The coin was made of such extraordinarily high-quality gold that it was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records for its purity.
On Wednesday, nearly four months later, police commandos in balaclavas carried out a series of raids in Berlin’s Neukölln district, arresting four people in connection with the robbery. Three of the arrested men belong to a notorious Lebanese organized crime family well known among police in Berlin, referred to only as the “R. family” in the press in adherence with German privacy laws.
The revelation that the R. family is suspected of carrying out the heist is certain to spark a public debate about whether the German state is doing enough to tackle organized crime often perpetrated by families with connections abroad.
During searches of apartments and stores in connection with the investigation, police found four guns in addition to tools possibly used in the break in. In one building searched on Wednesday, a detective stepped out of the doorway with what she believed could potentially be a very relevant piece of evidence: a large crowbar. “We just found it in the cellar,” she said to one of her colleagues.
Investigators also searched a jewelry shop on Neukölln’s Sonnenallee, a highly trafficked street heavily populated by immigrants from the Middle East. Police believe the jewelry store may have helped the thieves sell the coin or break it down into fragments. The coin was badly damaged, according to investigators, since the thieves dropped it several times during the robbery.
“We assume that it was sold in pieces or in its entirety,” said Carsten Pfohl, an investigator with Berlin’s criminal police office. The chances that the coin will be found, he said, are “unfortunately relatively slight.” Martina Lamb, a senior public prosecutor, said the suspects appear to have connections with “Arab clans.” Nine additional men, also believed to me members of the same criminal family, are also being investigated.
A major breakthrough in the investigation came as a result of a clue the police obtained even before the gold coin heist took place. On March 8, police pulled over a car with stolen license plates after its driver, a young man identified as Dennis W., allegedly stole gasoline. Police found tools in the car that could be used in a break in. They also noticed a brochure for the Bode Museum. Later, they passed that information along to investigators working on the coin robbery case.
It turned out that Dennis W. had just gotten a job at the Bode Museum as a guard. Investigators believe he mentioned the gold coin to members of the R. family, and they then devised a plan to steal it. The four men are all young, and although the German legal system is lenient in comparison to the U.S. system when it comes to young adults, the suspects nevertheless face the prospect of prison time for breaking and entering. For the R. family, though, prison may just be seen as a rite of passage. A mother who married into the R. family and bore 15 children once summed up this attitude in a conversation with a Neukölln district official: “Prison makes men.”
The R. family has been known in Germany since the early 1990s. In addition to committing acts of violence and dealing in drugs, family members have repeatedly been convicted of robbery and trade in stolen goods. The family has also removed precious metals from cemeteries and public parks, cutting it up and melting it down to be sold. Members of the R. family were also previously implicated in the robbery of valuable porcelain vases.
“Prison makes men.”
When the prosecutor Ms. Lamb spoke of “Arab clans” — a term prosecutors typically don’t use in an official context — she was referring to a milieu that has existed in Berlin for almost three decades. There are 10 large families with connections to organized crime known to live in Berlin, and according to some estimates total 1,000 to 10,000 people. While certainly not all the male family members engage in criminal activity, some are repeat offenders. Critics say the state has shown itself to be helpless in combating the phenomenon.
During the 1980s, the elder members of the R. family fled the Lebanese civil war and arrived in Berlin and the western cities of Bremen and Essen. Some of these family members were Palestinians living in Beirut as refugees, and were therefore considered stateless. The R. family and others began establishing themselves in entire apartment buildings, or even on entire city blocks. Because of their unclear immigration status, many were not allowed to work, which contributed to the need to find illegal sources of income.
The interior ministers of the various German states have tried to deport clan members designated as serial criminals to Lebanon. In practice, however, such deportations are almost impossible to carry out, often because the offenders are stateless or have no papers. A few years ago, a juvenile magistrate named Kirsten Heisig wrote a bestselling book on the subject of criminal families called “The End of Patience” in which she advocated swifter court appearances for young offenders and sentences involving community service. Heisig, who committed suicide after writing the book, was criticized particularly by the political left for focusing attention on the cultural backgrounds of the juvenile offenders, but her model of swift justice has been adopted across Berlin.
Still, problems with repeated offenders remain. In the neighborhood where R. family members were arrested earlier this week, a local shop owner didn’t express any surprise at the presence of detectives and commandos. “The police have come here repeatedly,” he said.
This article first appeared in Tagesspiegel, a Berlin daily newspaper that is part of the Handelsblatt Group.