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5 men are sentenced to prison for their brazen $123 million jewel heist

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It was called the most spectacular jewel heist in German history. And today, five men were sentenced to several years in prison for their part in that brazen $123 million heist. NPR's Rob Schmitz has the story from Berlin.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: The Green Vault, a museum inside the Dresden Castle, founded in 1723 by Augustus the Strong of Poland and Saxony, holds the largest treasure collection in Europe. And that's what attracted a gang of thieves to break into it on November 25, 2019.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VOLKER LANGE: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: On the day of the heist, Volker Lange, Dresden's police chief, stood before reporters with a stern face, detailing how the thieves broke into the museum by sawing through metal grates and then breaking a window before smashing the glass cabinets that held the Green Vault's collection of historical jewelry - everything from a hat clasp decorated with 115 diamonds to goblets fashioned from gilded ostrich eggs. Police released footage showing two masked men using an axe to break the cabinets. A nearby electrical fire knocked out streetlights at around the time of the robbery. What they didn't find was one of the museum's most famous pieces - a 41-carat green diamond known as the Dresden Green. It was on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. But the thieves did make off with 21 other jewel-studded artifacts into the cold Dresden morning.

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MARION ACKERMANN: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: Director of Dresden state art collections, Marion Ackermann, said at the time that she was shocked at the brutality of the break-in and that the jewels the thieves made off with were of an incalculable historic and cultural value.

The five men convicted today confessed to using a hydraulic cutting machine to break into the museum before setting fire to a nearby circuit breaker panel that plunged surrounding streets into darkness. They're members of what's known as the Remmo Clan, a family crime network with Arab roots who've been responsible for bank robberies and department store raids in Germany in the past. In fact, one of the men convicted today, Ahmed Remmo, had been sentenced to four years in prison in a separate case for stealing a 220-pound gold coin worth $4 million from a museum in Berlin in 2017. While many of the items they stole from the Green Vault have been recovered and returned to the museum, several pieces, including a rare diamond called the White Stone of Saxony, are still missing.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID HOLMES SONG "$160 MILLION CHINESE MAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.