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A MISSION IMPOSSIBLE BOOK HEIST

WHAT WITH GLOBAL complexities, the Internet, lawyer highjinks, and business school finesses, malefactors now have enhanced opportunities to evade punishment. On the other hand, malefinders (my new word, with obvious meaning: those who identify malefactors) have these same tools. 

Here are tidbits on a Mission Impossible heist involving antiquarian books. 

The Heist. Full details are provided by Mark Wortman in “Cracking the Case of London’s Elusive Acrobatic Rare-Book Thieves,” Vanity Fair, March 25, 2021. 

On the night of January 29, 2017, thieves employing complex tactics broke into the Frontier Forwarding warehouse near London’s Heathrow Airport. Not a quick heist, they spent 5 1/2 hours poring over and selecting the finest of rare books that were being shipped to a Los Angeles antiquarian book fair.

Heist Complexities. Vanity Fair author Wortman writes, “The thieves, as if undertaking a special-ops raid, had climbed up the sheer face of the building. From there, they scaled its pitched metal roof on a cold, wet night, cut open a fiberglass skylight, and descended inside—without tripping alarms or getting picked up by cameras.” 

The two thieves likely climbed a drainpipe up the sheer wall, but even now police are unsure how they scaled the roof. Cutting through the skylight may seem straightforward, but then came acrobatic work of making one’s way down and back. Ropes or a folding ladder? 

This and the following image by Shawn Martinbrough; coloring by Christopher Sotomayor; from Vanity Fair, March 25, 2021.

The Goods. The acrobatic heisters were discerning indeed. Among the volumes selected was Albert Einstein’s copy of astronomer Johannes Kepler’s The Cosmic History, 1621. Another was a 1777 edition of Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. A third, and most valuable, Wortman notes, was “a 1566 Latin edition of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, by Copernicus, in which he posits his world-changing theory that Earth and the other planets revolve around the sun. That copy alone had a price tag of $293,000.” 

Getting the books out was no mean feat: The thieves snatched heavy tote bags from another shipping container.  The heist yielded a total of 240 books valued at more than $3.4 million.

The Books’ Destination. “On February 5,” Wortman says, “a van pulled up at a London house. Soon the vehicle and trove were on their way out of the country.”

The Eurotunnel led to the Continent and, eventually, to Romania.

The Nab. Wortman describes a phone tip leading to uncovering a complex tale of Romanian mobsters with names like Cristi Huidumă (Cristi the Bruiser), Pig Head, Tizu, and Blondie: “Finally, on June 25, 2019, almost two and a half years after the rare books were stolen, came what investigators dubbed Z-Day.”

Wortman continues, “Gathering at a high-tech command center inside Europol Headquarters were representatives from the joint investigative team as well as officials from Europol and Europe’s judicial coordinating body, Eurojust. Before dawn, more than 150 police and judicial officials fanned out simultaneously to search 45 houses and other sites in England, Italy, Germany, and Romania.”

By the end of the day, Cristi the Bruiser, his co-planner Cristian Undureanu, and six accomplices were in cuffs. However, the books still hadn’t been found. 

The Trial. Wortman writes, “The trial began on February 20, 2020, at the Kingston Crown Court, a short drive from the warehouse that brought the men such notoriety.”

Wortman says, “In her opening presentation to the court, prosecutor Catherine Farrelly accused the defendants of stealing the rare books for profit. In a voice dripping with sarcasm, she asked about the Romanian defendants’ motives: ‘Were they going to pop back to the U.K., hungry for a spot of learning and have a dip into Sir Isaac Newton’s 17th-century work Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy or spend some time appreciating the Spanish painter Francisco Goya’s genius by flicking through some of his 19th-century etchings?’ ”

And then came the pandemic. Wortman writes, “The men were sent to prison to await the time when they could return to court. There they languished…. All the men except one decided to plead guilty rather than sit in jail indefinitely.”

In copping the plea, the perps got off light: Gavril Popincius (Cristi the Bruiser’s real name) got five years and eight months. Cristian Undureanu, the outfit’s other “brain,” five years and a month. Foot soldiers received three years and seven months to four years. 

A Happy Ending. Undureanu and his brother were suspected of having hidden the stash. On September 16, 2020, Romanian police searched a new home that the Undureanu brothers had built next to their parent’s home in the northeastern Romanian countryside.

 Under a six-inch slab of the garage floor was a bunker. It contained books packed into recycling bins, with others still in the purloined bags. All but four of the heist were recovered. One worth $34,000 is still missing. 

Wortman writes, “That evening, the book dealers, the entire Romanian investigative squad, and the English team members on hand celebrated over dinner at a Bucharest restaurant. ‘Tonight,’ an elated Bisello Bado [a Padua book dealer] told the gathering, ‘we drink like lions!’ ”

Noroc!,” as they say in Romanian. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021 

5 comments on “A MISSION IMPOSSIBLE BOOK HEIST

  1. Tom Austin
    April 6, 2021

    Dennis, a wonderful column and a tale well told. I avoid sending this type of praise too often but just a reminder, once in a while, of work well appreciated.

    • simanaitissays
      April 6, 2021

      Thanks, Tom, for your kind words. Of course, Mark Wortman did the hard work. I enjoyed his writing and wanted to share it.-Dennis

  2. Pingback: A MISSION IMPOSSIBLE BOOK HEIST – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

  3. Jack Albrecht
    April 11, 2021

    As someone who travels the continent (well, not in the last year) including 2-4 trips to Romania per year, I really liked this one!

    • simanaitissays
      April 11, 2021

      Thanks, Jack, for your kind words. They’re much appreciated.

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