Lionel Cironneau, AP
Thieves stole a staggering $53 million worth of jewels and diamonds from the Carlton hotel in Cannes, France in May.
PARIS — Police stormed a villa in southeast France and arrested a member of the notorious Pink Panther gang of jewel thieves who had escaped from a Swiss prison earlier this year, officials said Wednesday.
During the dawn sweep Monday, nearly 20 well-armed police detained Zoran Tomovic, 47, as he tried to flee through a window in the home of an acquaintance in the Provence town of Bedarrides, the officials said. The special French search brigade was working on a tip from Swiss authorities.
"He tried to play his card, but because the house was surrounded, he wasn't able to get far," said Divisional Commissioner Pascal Gontier of the judicial police in southern Montpellier. The owner of the home was an old acquaintance of the suspect who "apparently did not know about his recent misadventures."
Southeast France has faced a spate of high-profile jewelry thefts in recent months. Last month, a lone gunman walked into a diamond jewelry show at a hotel in the Riviera resort of Cannes and made off with a breathtaking $136 million worth of valuables — the biggest jewelry heist in years, maybe ever. Two other jewelry heists took place during the Cannes Film Festival in May.
Authorities said there was no immediate evidence that pointed to any link between Tomovic and those robberies, suggesting that he appeared to be more concerned with staying out of sight than with plotting a new heist.
Tomovic is wanted for armed robbery, weapons and drug-trafficking charges in Switzerland, where he was one of five inmates who escaped May 14 from a detention facility in Lausanne, officials said. He is also being sought by authorities in Macedonia, where he was convicted in absentia to 20 years in prison in 1998 over the alleged murder of his former girlfriend — a charge that he has denied, officials said.
Born in Mitrovica, Montenegro, Tomovic was a former recruit in the French Foreign Legion. Officials were also trying to confirm whether he also had French citizenship. He was being held for a possible extradition process and was set to face a hearing by French prosecutors next week.
The Pink Panthers network has been credited with a series of spectacular thefts. According to Interpol, the crime group has targeted luxury watch and jewelry stores in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the United States, netting over 330 million euros ($436 million) since 1999.
Tomovic was one of three Pink Panther members who broke out of Swiss prisons this year. Another was Milan Poparic, a Bosnian serving a 6-year, 8-month sentence for robbing a jewelry store in the Swiss city of Neuchatel four years ago. He escaped from a prison in the western Swiss canton, or state, of Vaud, with an accomplice last month.
First published August 21 2013, 12:44 PM