Wired article about young criminal mastermind

(From left: Blanchard at age 8; with his then-wife and father-in-law in Vienna, 1998; Blanchard's girlfriend enjoying his proceeds in 2006. Photos: Courtesy of Gerald Blanchard)

Joshuah Bearman wrote a terrific article in the new issue of Wired called "Art of the Steal: On the Trail of World’s Most Ingenious Thief." Here's how he described it to me:

It's an epic tale about a cat burglar slash jewel thief slash all around criminal mastermind named Gerald Blanchard. By high school, the dude managed to become a local king-pin and escape from jail (twice!) and later went on to establish a wide-ranging criminal enterprise, fueled by a savant-like technological savvy that enabled him to, say, knock off banks in the night without leaving a trace. He once parachuted from a plane on to the roof of the castle and stole some beloved Habsburg jewels -- no joke! That's the kind of dude he is. And yet, Blanchard didn't quite look the part of a criminal mastermind, as you can tell by his pictures, some of which are in the piece, along with some extra photos on my blog.

Looking more like the student volunteer at the school computer center, Blanchard seems an unlikely guy to be at the center of a fifteen-year career of badass heists. And badass they were. For years, Blanchard dodged authorities while escalating the sophistication and scope of his crimes. Eventually, though, he made a mistake. And that mistake was exploited by Mitch McCormick and Larry Levasseur, two small town cops from Winnipeg, who picked up a cold case on a local burglary and wound up unraveling Blanchard's whole network. It's a crazy story, and I figure you'd like it. There's excitement, intrigue, parachuting in, and swapping the jewels from a weighted alarm, Indiana Jones-style. But that's not all! Jet-plane getaways, money stuffed beneath burqas, police impersonations, and yachting with the prince of Monaco.

Art of the Steal: On the Trail of World’s Most Ingenious Thief



  1. With all that money, why didn’t he buy his girlfriend a sandwich or something? The poor thing looks emaciated.

  2. Winnipeg may not be a hot cosmopolitan place, but it ain’t no “small town.” It is bigger than many state capitals, and is the largest centre in the US or Canada in its region.

    1. … When it comes to town size, it’s all relative. In Germany a “big city” is considered >100,000 people. In China a city of 4-5 million might be considered small. So Winnipeg would be big in Germany, small in China, and just the right size for Canada. ;-)

    2. it seems likely to me that when they say they were from winnipeg that they were from some small town just outside of it

  3. What’s funny is that I found the blueprint for the bank he nearly got caught at in Winnipeg in a dumpster years ago. It was on my bedroom wall for years.

  4. And just for the record, while I’m sure some “small town” cops have moved to Winnipeg. It is a city of 800,000+ and the capital of the province of Manitoba.

  5. He made some incredibly dumb mistakes for a criminal mastermind. Videotaping yourself committing crimes!? This makes me wonder how many criminals are out there doing this kind of thing that are focused on being successful criminals first and destroying all evidence and getting away with it.

    1. Watching “true crime” TV shows, one comes to the conclusion that most criminals are caught because:

      * They do not clear their browser cache after googling things like “how do I kill my wife and dispose of her dead body”
      * They keep a journal and emails about the crime.
      * They videotape the crime.
      * They keep shopping lists and receipts for their crime tools.
      * They keep the crime tools and/or body in their self-storage unit (rented in their name, no less)
      * They insert themselves into the police investigation, trying to mislead them but inevitably failing their lie detector test.
      * They are dumb.

  6. I read this article over the weekend and was astonished at what this guy got away with. I’d love to see it turned into a movie. Very “Thomas Crown” but with a nice modern twist.

  7. Wait, he parachuted onto a castle to steal a bunch of Habsburg jewels? He’s not just some sort of cat burglar, he’s Diabolik!

  8. This article reads like a movie pitch. It makes me wonder about some of the unlikely elements:

    1. Replaced the Sisi Star with a replica to fool the weight sensor.

    First, the replica is highly unlikely to weigh the same. Second, didn’t they debunk this on Mythbusters?

    2. Escaped police custody by slipping through the tiles into the ceiling.

    A standard element in films. Doesn’t work in real life. Debunked on Mythbusters.

    3. Used IR goggles to spot IR security beams.

    Debunked on Mythbusters. Sure, you can see the beam with them, /if/ you’re looking along it. Can’t see them from the angles that matter.

    4. Stupid mistakes that got him caught, only to get an exceedingly light sentence, fame, possible high dollar consultant work, and who knows, maybe even an eventual movie deal. Seems fishy to me.

    1. Some elements of the story may be sketchy, I won’t disagree with that. But I don’t think using mythbusters as the primary source to support your argument is a good idea. Sometimes their scientific method is spotty (the primary reason for the show’s existence is, after all, entertainment).

    2. It is sketchy. I’ve tinkered with IR sensors. How would “lead film bag” fool the sensors? It’ll trigger the alarm.

      Air conditioning ductwork for getting into banks? What? Really? Banks are silly enough to have large ducts that’s enough for a human body to go through?

      1. I can only comment on the air-conditioning ductwork.

        Return air systems and exhausts are often large enough to gain access into a building, but only go a short way into the building, usually just as far as the air handler, or mechanical room.

        I have specified secure (intrusion resistant) grilles (louvers) for such things when designing secure buildings. All but the most expensive grilles would be easily compromised by a motivated criminal. Older buildings especially, or a space that was remodeled would likely not have such security measures.

        The supply air ducts into individual rooms are usually no larger than 12 inches and are usually around 6 or 8 inches. In most office installations they are also constructed of “flex”-duct which is largely unsupported. There is no way a human use those to gain egress in or out of secure rooms.

        Inside the building return air grilles are usually just openings to the ceiling plenum (open space). Where the air just finds its way back to the air-handling system. Aside from fire-separation barriers within the plenum, an individual might be able to travel along structure within the ceiling space, assuming the structure were suitable. Architects usually make sure that it barely has room for the required services, electrical, sprinkler and drainage piping much less a full grown human.


      2. In our building, which I will grant does not have a bank in it, some of the return air ducts are enormous. One in particular is over 5 feet wide by 2.5 feet high. It wouldn’t just be possible, it would almost be comfortable, to crawl through that.

        There are also fire dampers when the duct passes through a fire rated wall, and those fire dampers require an access panel to service them or reset them in case they are triggered. The access panels would be a little tight, but a small person like Blanchard could fit through them.

        I don’t doubt that the guy’s story might be inflated. But it could also be a mixup between the story teller and the reporter. I.e., on the lead film bag thing, maybe he meant he fooled IR motion sensors using a lead film bag? I’d guess that if you put it in front of the motion sensor that it wouldn’t pick up motion. But yeah, putting it in front of an IR beam sensor would just break the beam and set off the alarm.

        Now, as far as crawling above a dropped ceiling, I have actually done that myself. I laid a board across the grid structure, close to the support wires, and crawled out to service a piece of electrical equipment. I was younger and smaller then, maybe around 135 pounds. I do not believe you could support yourself by the grid alone, it would bend. Perhaps he was hanging on pipes above the ceiling? Those are usually supported by anchors and unistrut, so they’re attached pretty well.

    3. > 3. Used IR goggles to spot IR security beams.
      > Debunked on Mythbusters. Sure, you can see the beam with them, /if/ you’re looking along it. Can’t see them from the angles that matter.

      You can if you scatter part of the beam with e.g. chalk dust. It works with visible light lasers, and I don’t see why it wouldn’t work with IR lasers + IR goggles.

      At least those goggles actually do something ;=]

  9. Don’t they usually wait until April (1st) for articles like this? Beyond what zarathud pointed out, you’d think the daring heist of a priceless display gem would have generated at least one internet commentary. But try Googling “Sisi stone”. Doesn’t seem to exist.

  10. For me, the most unbelievable part of the story was:
    that he and Angela James (girl in photo) were “just friends”.

    You telling me he trots all over the globe with her, committing crime after crime, and living large on the proceeds, and they are not “involved”?

    Now thats something I’d like to see tested on Mythbusters. (Jamie, Adam: call me. I have some ideas I’d like to pitch.)

  11. “Small town cops from Winnipeg” could mean “cops from the small town of Winnipeg” as some of you took it, but it also could mean, “Winnipeg-born cops working in a small town” and “cops from a small Winnipeg suburb.”

    1. It could also mean “cops from the town of Winnipeg, who happen to be small of stature.”

  12. Blanchard at age 8; with his then-wife and father-in-law in Vienna, 1998;

    He looks mighty grown-up for an eight year old. Early marriage does that to a boy.

  13. The title of the article, “Art of the Steal: On the Trail of World’s Most Ingenious Thief” is a misnomer.

    The world’s most ingenious thief hasn’t been caught yet.

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