A gold coin as big as a wagon wheel. Four defendants, silent. Circumstantial evidence, but no witnesses. Before the verdict in the Berlin gold coin trial.
Weighing 100 kilos, worth 3.75 million euros: the gold coin when it was still on display in the museum Photo: dpa
In their gait alone, all three defendants show peculiarities: The hips of Wayci R. (25) sway, the knees of his brother Ahmed (22) flap and the bow-legged cousin Wissam (23) bends his left foot inward while walking.
But can the three of them be sufficiently identified as perpetrators? Bioinformatics experts from Mittweida University of Applied Sciences have at least tried. Their method of digital gait analysis is so new that it has not yet been certified. Nevertheless, they evaluated the surveillance videos from the cameras at the museum and at Berlin’s Hackescher Markt S-Bahn station. Beforehand, they had measured the body proportions of the suspects and created three-dimensional virtual figures from this information. They placed these in the likewise virtual replica of the filmed room.
They then superimposed the three-dimensional images on the two-dimensional ones to find out whether they could be brought into proportionate congruence. In doing so, they were not able to say with what high degree of probability the filmed persons were the three defendants. But they did find indications that they were the perpetrators.
A lot of effort in a circumstantial trial. This Thursday, the trial is scheduled to end with the verdicts. But the grand theft on the night of March 27, 2017 was so unusual and rewarding that it justifies this procedure. Between 3:20 and 3:50 a.m. that night, a superlative gold coin disappeared from Berlin’s Bode Museum: the "Big Maple Leaf" existed in a limited edition of five worldwide.
It had a weight of 100 kilograms and a diameter of 53 centimeters – roughly equivalent to a car tire. It was made of 99.999 percent gold, so-called 5-nine gold. And it was worth 3.75 million euros.
The coin has not been recovered to this day. It has probably long since been cut up, melted down and sold.
The defense speaks of "bogus evidence
The four defendants – three relatives and a 20-year-old friend – have remained silent since the beginning of the trial before the Juvenile Criminal Division of the Berlin Regional Court, i.e. for 13 months. Wissam R. said in a short closing statement only that he had "not stolen the coin". The defense lawyers spoke of "bogus evidence" gathered by the prosecution and demanded acquittals for their clients. The prosecutor took a different view: He demanded seven years’ imprisonment for two of the men. The other two should be put behind bars for six and five years. The talk was of clan criminality and a professional approach.
In fact, it was an ingenious coup: The oversized gold coin had been slumbering in a display case made of bulletproof glass in Berlin’s Bode Museum. The thieves destroyed it with an axe – just at the moment when the guard was on his inspection tour. They lifted the gold coin onto a rolling board and quickly and unerringly dragged it through the museum to a changing room.
There they heaved it out of the second-story window and threw it onto the light-rail track. The thieves climbed a ladder to get behind him. Using a waiting wheelbarrow, they maneuvered their treasure to a railing and threw it into Monbijou Park below. They themselves abseiled down and fled in a car.
No one had seen them, no one had been hurt. Only a security pane and a display case were broken. The loot was not so much of art-historical value as a prestige product of the Royal Canadian Mint. A crime so much in the tradition of the Captain of Kopenick and the department store extortionist Scrooge.
The police investigation
The police had been investigating for more than a year. One thing is certain: The thieves must have had inside information. They must have known that the alarm system of the window in the dressing room had been causing problems for years and had therefore been switched off. They were informed that the night watchman disarms the alarm throughout the museum during his patrol, not just the area he is checking. And they were able to orient themselves surprisingly well in the confusing museum.
Had they perhaps cooperated with the guard?
He had initially lied to the police when he described the course of his patrol. That was suspicious. His house and car were searched, his finances checked – without result. Rather, it turned out that the guard had made his rounds alone for the first time that night. For safety’s sake, he had even taken a map with him. In his lie, he was probably guided above all by the fear of having done something wrong.
Soon after, Denis W. became the focus of the investigators. The German Turk had been working as a supervisor at the exhibition since the beginning of March 2017. The colleagues talked a lot with each other, perhaps also about the weaknesses in the museum’s security concept? Three weeks before the crime, he had been caught screwing stolen license plates onto his car, then refueling it and not paying for it. The police officers who subsequently arrested him found a map of the Bode Museum in his car, as well as burglary tools. Something had been written on it. What exactly, the officers could no longer remember.
In mid-April 2017, police informants finally discovered that the thieves came from the R. family, an extended Arab family with over 500 members. Judicial authorities link the criminal part of the family to burglaries, robberies, aggravated assault and murder.
The tracks of the alleged perpetrators
Now it was said that relatives of this family apparently came into money recently: Wayci and cousin Wissam had offered gold to various traders. In fact, the investigation revealed that DNA traces of Wissam and another family member were found on a wedge that had been used to unlock one of four doors in the museum for the way back, as well as on the rope that the perpetrators had used to get to the getaway car. And it turned out that Denis W., employed at the museum, is a school friend of Ahmed, Wayci R.’s younger brother.
The suspects from the R. family were then wiretapped – without any tangible result. More fruitful were the intercepted phone calls of Denis W., who was engaged in the purchase of a car and various real estate, although he lived in a family that received social benefits.
In July 2017, 33 apartments and cars of the suspects were searched. At family R. The officers found 150,000 euros in cash, five sharp weapons and, in the spice cabinet, a piece of paper with Ahmed R.’s fingerprints on it, on which he had written four-digit gram numbers that added up to about 60 kilograms. Next to it were high euro prices. Was that the plan for how the R.’s share was to be divided up?
On Wissam’s cell phone, there were research papers about the investigations into coin theft, the cutting up and melting down of gold, screenshots with gold price calculations, and an app called "Goldpreis aktuell" ("Gold Price Update").
Denis W.’s cell phone contained pictures from the museum: four of them were of particular interest to the investigators because the suspect had taken pictures there in places that could have been significant for the escape route.
Denis W., who had since resigned, as well as Ahmed and his cousin Wissam R. were remanded in custody for some time, after which they were spared further detention.
The public prosecutor’s office made an unusually great effort in the investigation. Of course, the perpetrators had considered the surveillance cameras at the museum and at the Hackescher Markt S-Bahn station during their coup and carefully disguised themselves. They had bought the ladder, the axe, the rolling board and the wheelbarrow new – and without DNA traces.
Ernst Pernicka, a chemist, on the gold particles found on the defendants
"They are almost certainly identical to the gold in the coin".
They also knew that the gold coin had to be cut up before it could be sold. But they were inexperienced in handling high-purity gold. They had no idea that treacherous pure gold shavings would be retained on clothing, shoes, and in the transport vehicle when such a coin was cut up with a cutting grinder. Otherwise, the suspects probably would have burned their clothes and car.
But this is how this circumstantial evidence came into the hands of the investigators during the house searches.
A chemist extracted and analyzed the gold particles. At trial, he said, "They are almost certainly identical to the gold in the coin."
A textile engineer also found what she was looking for. When she examined the defendants’ clothing for individual characteristics, she noticed a lighter-colored lining on a black quilted jacket worn by Wissam R. that peeked out a little under the hem – just like the jacket worn by one of the hooded thieves in the surveillance pictures.
A witness for the prosecution even came forward: Ahmed R.’s former girlfriend testified before an investigating judge that the defendant had hidden tools and bags at her place. He had bought expensive watches and given her many gifts. It was nice to be a millionaire, he said, and bragged about the crime again and again. For the investigators, he had shown only contempt: "They are so stupid!"
But in court, the young woman retracted her statement, claiming that she had wanted to take revenge for insults and beatings.
The judges can believe that, but they don’t have to.