Hong Kong diamond heist by 12-year-old girl and gang linked to jewellery raids abroad
The audacious theft of a HK$36 million diamond necklace from a high-end Tsim Sha Shui shopping centre last week is just one of a series of similar crimes carried out across the region in which children serve as shoplifters, it has emerged.
Near-identical heists have taken place in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Macau in recent months and, according to a security expert, all were attributable to a mainland Chinese gang that pulled off a string of heists across Europe in the last few years.
In Hong Kong, a child who stole a 100-carat necklace from an Emperor Jewellery shop at the 1881 Heritage mall on Friday is still at large. The girl, thought to be aged between 12 and 14, was in the company of three adults, who kept shop staff busy while she helped herself to the jewellery. They were caught on CCTV cameras leaving the mall.
For Martin Winckel of International Jeweller Security, a Germany-based consultancy, clues point to a group of jewellery thieves training children for their heists.
"Descriptions of one of the thieves in Singapore bear a resemblance to [a man surnamed] Luo," Winckel said, referring to a Chinese man believed to be a member of a notorious syndicate previously active in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
In that heist, a young girl took a diamond ornament from a Bulgari store at the Marina Bay Sands resort on the evening of Christmas Day, local media reported.
The girl was accompanying a couple, who distracted the sales staff in much the same way as the Tsim Sha Tsui case. Staff at the store had declined to comment.
Adults in the company of a child also got away with high-priced jewellery in a previously unreported Macau heist in November, although details of the theft remain unknown.
And in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a woman and a young girl stole a 5.2 million ringgit (HK$11 million) ring at a MoneyMax pawnshop in January last year.
As in the Hong Kong robbery, the girl stole the high-priced item while adults distracted staff. The adults reportedly spoke with a mainland Chinese accent - those in Hong Kong spoke Putonghua.
Last year, Swiss police briefly questioned Luo along with Meng Jianguo, a man wanted by Interpol on suspicion of committing 14 robberies in Malaysia, Bahrain and seven European countries, Swiss media reported at the time.
Much to their embarrassment, the police then mistakenly released Luo.
Meng was arrested and faced possible extradition to Bahrain, but his current status is unclear as Swiss authorities have not replied to requests for comment.
"This is a new type of criminal we haven't seen before in Europe," Winckel said.
He said the two men could be part of a criminal organisation from mainland China that was spreading its reach globally.
"There has to be someone else who repolishes the diamonds and melts the gold. There has to be someone who has the means, the ability and the connections to resell the stolen goods. This is organised crime."
Police in Hong Kong declined to say whether they had contacted Interpol over the matter, but said investigations into the theft were ongoing.