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Cracking the Case of London’s Elusive, Acrobatic Rare-Book Thieves

How detectives from Scotland Yard, Romania, Germany, and Italy nabbed the so-called Mission: Impossible gang, which pulled off a string of daring warehouse heists.

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Illustration of three people in gas masks descending from a ceiling, dodging laser beams, and reaching for books on the ldoor

Illustrations by Shawn Martinbrough; Coloring by Christopher Sotomayor.

“Impossible,” said David Ward. The London Metropolitan Police constable looked up. Some 50 feet above him, he saw that someone had carved a gaping hole through a skylight. Standing in the Frontier Forwarding warehouse in Feltham, West London, he could hear the howl of jets from neighboring Heathrow Airport as they roared overhead.

At Ward’s feet lay three open trunks, heavy-duty steel cases. They were empty. A few books lay strewn about. Those trunks had previously been full of books. Not just any books. The missing ones, 240 in all, included early versions of some of the most significant printed works of European history.

Gone was Albert Einstein’s own 1621 copy of astronomer Johannes Kepler’s The Cosmic Mystery, in which he lays out his theory of planetary motion. Also missing was an important 1777 edition of Isaac Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, his book describing gravity and the laws of physics. Among other rarities stolen: a 1497 update of the first book written about women, Concerning Famous Women; a 1569 version of Dante’s Divine Comedy; and a sheath with 80 celebrated prints by Goya. The most valuable book in the haul was a 1566 Latin edition of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, by Copernicus, in which he posits his world-changing theory that Earth and the other planets revolve around the sun. That copy alone had a price tag of $293,000. All together, the missing books—stolen on the night of January 29, 2017, into early the next day—were valued at more than $3.4 million. Given their unique historical significance and the fact that many contained handwritten notes by past owners, most were irreplaceable.

Scotland Yard’s Ward was stunned. He couldn’t recall a burglary like this anywhere. The thieves, as if undertaking a special-ops raid, had climbed up the sheer face of the building. From there, they scaled its pitched metal roof on a cold, wet night, cut open a fiberglass skylight, and descended inside—without tripping alarms or getting picked up by cameras. “Dangerous work,” he says. “This is not something ordinary burglars try to accomplish.”

Then there was the loot. In a warehouse laden with valuables coming in and out of Heathrow for customs clearance, the thieves had taken their time in the darkness, more than five hours, to select from among hundreds of books—choosing the most precious ones. They made off with nothing else from the vast freight building except for some nearby tote bags—heavy satchels that they snatched from another shipping container. Ward tells me on a call from London, “You must have a lot of patience, strength, and ingenuity not to trigger the sensors and to get the books back through that hole in the roof.”

THIEVES IN THE NIGHT The bandits cut open a fiberglass skylight and descended inside. Illustrations by Shawn Martinbrough; Coloring by Christopher Sotomayor.

The items belonged to three respected rare book dealers, two in Italy and one in Germany. They had shipped their wares through Heathrow, bound for an antiquarian fair in California. Informed of the heist that day, Alessandro Bisello Bado, a dealer in Padua whose shipment had been pilfered, nearly fainted. He boarded the next flight to London. Walking inside the warehouse, he saw that nearly everything in the trunk was gone, more than $1.2 million worth. Michael Kühn, a Berlin-based dealer, couldn’t believe it at first. “I had never heard of so many books being stolen at once,” he says. Why these books? he wonders. “Insurance fraud? Somebody who wanted to harm one of us? A book lover who wanted to have one item and threw away the rest of the books to cover his intentions?” All he knew was that his losses might bankrupt him.

As Ward looked for answers, the thieves weren’t waiting. Over the next few days, they moved their bulky cache around the city. On February 5, a van pulled up at a London house. Soon the vehicle and the trove were on their way out of the country. Some of the burglars also left, by air. But new operatives flew in to replace them. That very night, the reconstituted team embarked on another brazen high-wire raid on a warehouse. Many more would follow—a dozen, in fact, mainly around London.

Scotland Yard raced to follow leads—and wondered where the burglars would strike next. The U.K. press, meanwhile, remained focused on the Frontier Forwarding break-in, dubbing it the “Mission: Impossible theft”—a tip of the hat to its similarities with the movie’s iconic scene in which Tom Cruise, as Ethan Hunt, suspended by a cable, breaks into a CIA vault.

Ward could see these weren’t random warehouse robberies. But why…books? Someone must have tipped them off. “They knew what they wanted,” he says. “There were plenty of other valuables nearby. They targeted the books deliberately.”

The Met Police assigned organized crime specialist Andy Durham to oversee the case while Ward and other detectives did what Durham calls the “grunt work.” But they had little to go on. They even checked to see if a circus had come to town, so acrobatic was the feat.

There are any number of reasons for someone to steal rare books. They are alluring and beautiful, with an aura that connects the present to the past. Connoisseurs will pay unfathomable sums for an iconic book. Last October, rare book collector and dealer Stephan Loewentheil spent just under $10 million for a first printing of Shakespeare’s plays, referred to as the First Folio. That was a bargain. In 2013, David Rubenstein, the billionaire cofounder of the private equity firm The Carlyle Group, paid the highest price ever for a printed volume, $14.2 million, for The Bay Psalm Book, one of 11 extant copies of America’s first known book.

Rare book thefts occur all the time. “We in the business hear nearly weekly that something has gone missing,” Kühn says. Some sticky-fingered collectors covet them simply to add luster to their shelves. Ed Maggs, fifth-generation co-owner of what was reputedly Queen Elizabeth’s favorite bookstore, London’s venerable Maggs Bros., tells me, “The problem of the connoisseur book thief is a real one.”

The most famous large-scale thefts almost always take place over the span of years. In 2012, more than 1,500 volumes—including centuries-old editions of Aristotle, Descartes, Galileo, and Machiavelli, worth many millions—were found to have been looted from the Baroque-era Girolamini Library in Naples by the library’s director. He and a large network of accomplices went to jail for stealing and auctioning off his pilfered books. Similarly, the rare book archivist at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh swiped 300-odd books valued at around $8 million—but it took him 25 years. He was convicted in January 2020.

But Kühn says of the pre-dawn warehouse heist, “Such a large number of books had never been stolen at one time before this. It was really unbelievable.”

For a while, the spectacular theft made global headlines. Then came an unexpected break from 1,500 miles away.

Alina Albu, Romania’s chief prosecutor for organized crime, was working one morning about three weeks after the break-in when the phone rang at her office in Bucharest. On the line was someone unknown to her. The caller, whose identity she won’t reveal, told her about a load of rare books that had been stolen from a London warehouse ending up in Romania.

“I thought he was joking,” she tells me. As they spoke, she did an online search; numerous articles popped up about the theft, which had somehow escaped her attention. She began to take the caller’s tip seriously when he spoke of three men he claimed were behind the raid. He used their nicknames. Two were new to her, “Tizu” and “Blondie.” The other, she says, “turned a flashlight on for me.” She hadn’t heard anything about “Cristi Huidumă”—Cristi the Bruiser—in 15 years but recalled his associations with a notorious organized crime case she’d worked. After investigating further, that afternoon she telephoned Tiberius Manea, head of organized crime investigations for the national police. He’d already gone home for the day. “Tiberius,” she said, “come back. We have a new case, a very big one.”

Manea immediately started to assemble a team that would work with Albu for the next three years. With a passion not unlike a collector in pursuit of a rare find, Albu tells me when we first meet via Zoom, “my goal was to recover the books. I became obsessed.”

Manea reached out to Ward at Scotland Yard. He had already begun to make some fitful progress in pulling the pieces together. Ward watched some 70 hours of video from the roadways around Feltham. He finally saw footage showing a blue Renault hatchback park at 9 p.m. on January 29 on the road outside the warehouse complex. Ward says, “Nobody would think they were up to no good.” Two men exited the car and cut holes in the perimeter fence. A third drove off; the two others entered the grounds, making their way along freight roadways to the Frontier Forwarding building. Ward speculates they climbed a drainpipe, but even now the police can’t be sure how the duo reached the roof. They cut through the skylight and, most likely using ropes or a folding ladder, made their way down.

Once inside, the two men went straight for their quarry. They sorted through the books and picked the ones they wanted. They found a shipment of heavy-duty carrying bags, which were on their way to oil field workers in Africa. They packed 16 full of books. Five hours and 15 minutes later, “they came out the way they came in,” says Ward. The Renault sped away at 2:50 a.m. “An impressive day’s work,” Durham acknowledges.

Using license plate recognition cameras along the nearby roads, Ward was able to identify the vehicle. A few days later, the car turned up, abandoned in South London. Although its papers were falsified, they listed the owner as a Romanian national living in England, but, says Ward, “Our analysts didn’t have him in our databases.” He was happily surprised when Manea called.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, organized and often violent criminal gangs from the former communist bloc, including Romania, have branched out across Europe, developing large, profitable illicit enterprises—operating protection rackets and prostitution, drug, and burglary rings. Vast amounts of illegally gained money flowing back into Romania have also been a destabilizing force at home, thwarting government officials’ attempts to rein in the gangsters. Knowing they had their work cut out for them, detectives from Scotland Yard started to analyze the warehouse case with their Romanian counterparts. Ward and Durham first met with Manea and his associates at Europol’s headquarters in The Hague in late March 2017. They opened a probe that eventually encompassed police forces in four countries. The joint investigative team members would meet five more times in the Netherlands, Italy, the U.K., and Romania. Acting on the source’s tip, Manea’s crew began undercover surveillance of Cristi Huidumă, whose real name is Gavril Popinciuc (pop-in-chee-uk).

When Albu, Manea, and I spoke via Zoom, Albu, aged 47, sat side by side at her desk with Manea, 42. Both wore black COVID masks. The wall behind them was bare except for a whiteboard with multiple notes. Neither looked particularly hardened, but Albu and Manea have clashed many times with dangerous mobsters. Both speak fluent if broken English. Albu first heard of Popinciuc while tangling with his fearsome “godfather,” Ioan Clămparu. The crime boss was for several years Interpol’s most wanted fugitive, with a bounty of $4.6 million on his head. “He was a criminal star in Romania,” says Albu.

Clămparu goes by a variety of nicknames, among them, “Pig Head” (probably derived from his thick neck, broad face, and 250-pound girth) and, without irony, “Godfather.” (He had many other godsons beside Popinciuc, according to Albu.) Both Clămparu and Popinciuc come from northeastern Romania, a remote area dotted with ancient towns and small farms bordering the Republic of Moldova. It is among the poorest parts of Europe, and one of its sources of income derives from criminal activities abroad.

As a drunken teen, Clămparu punched and stomped a man to death for no apparent reason, for which he served 10 years in prison. After his release in 1999, he organized one of the largest human trafficking and prostitution networks ever assembled in Europe. Clămparu and his lieutenants lured poor girls, some as young as 15, from Romania and Moldova with the promise of jobs in Spain. Once in Madrid, they were forced to prostitute themselves in the alleys of the city’s sprawling Casa de Campo park. Albu contends that Clămparu’s pimps took 150 to 200 entrapped women on nightly rounds to the park to sell sexual services. On occasion, she says, Clămparu and his pimps tortured those who resisted. “It was really violent,” she adds. Clămparu personally pocketed tens of millions of euros.

In 2004, Romanian and Spanish police finally cracked “the Clămparu,” as his mob was known, thanks to a few women who escaped their handlers and alerted the police. After the authorities moved in, Clămparu went underground even as Albu indicted him, winning his conviction, in absentia, for human trafficking. The Clămparu sent her numerous death threats, forcing her to retain bodyguards. “I was very young,” she says. “I didn’t scare so easily.” Manea shrugs, “Such scares come with the territory.” In 2011, Spanish authorities tracked down Clămparu. Now 52, he’s serving a 30-year sentence in a Romanian prison. Albu wondered whether Popinciuc hadn’t revived the Clămparu.

In fact, Popinciuc, who is only five years younger than his godfather, had purportedly formed his own mob and, to stay ahead of the police, studied the failings of the Clămparu. Popinciuc comes from the small northeastern city of Suceava, where a handsomely preserved medieval castle draws tourists. Pudgy, with the bemused look of a weary office clerk, he kept his criminal enterprises mobile to avoid capture. By 2009, he was a leader in a multinational counterfeit cigarette ring. The group moved its factories, warehouses, and tobacco stocks frequently, even among countries, but Romanian authorities smashed the operation. In 2015, Popinciuc received a suspended sentence for tax evasion. Wealthy from lucrative cigarette sales, Popinciuc, according to Albu, built several legitimate businesses. They include a large hotel, restaurant, and event hall complex in Suceava, though they reportedly now belong to his ex-wife. Albu says that Popinciuc is the one who put up the money that financed the warehouse raiders’ operations in England and built the crew that pulled off the heists.

In Albu’s view, Popinciuc teamed up with another Romanian, Cristian Ungureanu, 41, who acted as operations chief. The two men and their lieutenants masterminded a gang that sent small skilled teams to hit targets exclusively outside Romania, figuring that foreign detectives would never trace them back. To act as local operatives, Popinciuc brought on his younger brother Marian Albu (no relation to Alina Albu) and other Romanians living in England. Also joining in: Ungureanu’s younger brother, Ilie, living in Germany. “There were leaders and foot soldiers,” Manea explains. “Popinciuc was almost never in the field.” Most of the gang, says Albu, led “double lives,” living with their families, even maintaining accounts on social media, punctuated by quick “business trips” to carry out crimes outside Romania.

Albu and Manea soon understood how Popinciuc and Ungureanu ran the crime syndicate, but they didn’t know who the foot soldiers were. Then they got another lucky break. On March 28, 2017, regional Romanian police stopped a van driving through the northeastern part of the country. The driver, Narcis Popescu, had new laptops and smartphones with him. He claimed to have bought them in England. Asked to show a proof of purchase, Popescu needed to have an invoice sent to his phone from a retailer in the U.K. Popescu produced a receipt. But the police had already traced the items’ serial numbers back to a theft from an English warehouse just two weeks earlier.

This random roadway arrest helped shape the hunt for the gang members. Meanwhile, other evidence bubbled up. Ward and his analysts took DNA from a piece of metal, possibly a ladder rung, left in the Frontier Forwarding warehouse. Manea’s police used it to identify Daniel David. According to Albu, he turned out to be the one that her source called Tizu. Genetic findings from the abandoned Renault matched up with Popescu. The identity of the second of the two Frontier Forwarding raiders—Victor Opăriuc, a.k.a. Blondie—emerged from tracing the others’ movements. According to Albu, Opăriuc, 29, and David, 37, were particularly agile, strong, and adept at climbing in and out of warehouses.

Using cell phone tracking and airline flight data, Scotland Yard retraced the trio’s movements. On January 27, Opăriuc and David had flown from Iasi, Romania, to London’s Luton Airport. They drove in Popescu’s Renault to South London, where they remained until the evening of the 29th, the night of the break-in.

Cell records show that once inside the building, Opăriuc placed several calls to Cristian Ungureanu, who had flown to London the previous day. He, in turn, relayed information to Popinciuc and then called Marian Mamaliga, another gang member who was in Romania. Mamaliga then left in a van for England. On February 1, two days after the books were stolen, Ilie Ungureanu flew in from Germany, then four days after that, with Mamaliga, he drove the book-laden van through the Eurotunnel. A week after the robbery, the books had disappeared somewhere in Romania, but not before a fresh set of thieves had struck yet another warehouse, this time making off with around $37,000 in cash.

According to Albu, within a year she and Manea knew the identities of virtually all the members of the gang. But she says the police were hesitant to arrest them without definitive evidence. “It’s not what you know,” Manea says, “it’s what you can prove.” They were also worried that if they moved in too soon, the books might never turn up. Albu tells me that she feared that if the men expected their imminent arrest, “they might burn the books.”

As the months progressed, revolving teams shuttled through England, committing 12 sophisticated and precariously acrobatic warehouse burglaries. Typically, the raiders came through the roof, but for some thefts, they cut open neighboring buildings, leaving gaping holes in walls and ceilings to avoid alarmed doors, security guards, and camera detection. “They never attacked a building straight on,” Durham says.

Each heist, according to Albu, Manea, Durham, Ward, and court transcripts, went off like clockwork. Cristian Ungureanu was on hand to coordinate ops. Popinciuc monitored from afar. Popescu served as the gang’s travel agent, booking plane tickets and leasing housing for the revolving cast of accomplices. A van arrived, the loot was loaded, and the entire enterprise vanished. “Everybody had his part, each his role,” Durham tells me. For two and a half years, they got away with their disciplined, complex burglaries, like a Bucharest-based Ocean’s Eleven.

They stole books. They stole cash. They stole jewelry, laptops, tablets, smartphones, and clothes. Some got fenced in the U.K., some went to Romania and were sold, and other items were sold online. In total, the thieves raked in nearly $5 million worth of goods. They also left behind a trail of destruction, damaging warehouse structures and leaving businesses in disarray.

HOT TYPE The heavy-duty steel cases were empty, their literary treasures gone—240 in all. Illustrations by Shawn Martinbrough; Coloring by Christopher Sotomayor.

Finally, on June 25, 2019, almost two and a half years after the rare books were stolen, came what investigators dubbed Z-Day. Gathering at a high-tech command center inside Europol Headquarters were representatives from the joint investigative team as well as officials from Europol and Europe’s judicial coordinating body, Eurojust. Before dawn, more than 150 police and judicial officials fanned out simultaneously to search 45 houses and other sites in England, Italy, Germany, and Romania. By the end of the next day, Popinciuc, Opăriuc, David, Mamaliga, and Popescu, along with three other gang members, were led off in handcuffs in Romania; Ilie Ungureanu was arrested in Germany; Marian Albu and two other alleged associates were taken in England. Cristian Ungureanu went underground. He was finally arrested in Turin, Italy, in January 2020. The men were brought to England for trial. All pleaded innocent.

But the books still hadn’t been found.

The trial began on February 20, 2020, at the Kingston Crown Court, a short drive from the warehouse that brought the men such notoriety. Albu, Manea, and their team came to London. Ward and Manea were slated to be called to give evidence. None of the defendants was willing—or obligated—to testify.

In her opening presentation to the court, prosecutor Catherine Farrelly accused the defendants of stealing the rare books for profit. In a voice dripping with sarcasm, she asked about the Romanian defendants’ motives: “Were they going to pop back to the U.K., hungry for a spot of learning and have a dip into Sir Isaac Newton’s 17th-century work Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy or spend some time appreciating the Spanish painter Francisco Goya’s genius by flicking through some of his 19th-century etchings?”

Then suddenly, the proceedings crashed to a halt—due to the pandemic. With space needed for 13 defendants and about 25 attorneys, as well as interpreters, witnesses, prosecutors, judge, jury, guards, court staff, and press, a courtroom the size of an arena would have been necessary for the trial to continue safely. The men were sent to prison to await the time when they could return to court. There they languished. Attiq Malik, a prominent and pricey criminal defense solicitor—well known in the U.K. for his appearances on the hit British series 24 Hours in Police Custody—represents Popinciuc. “Even if we won the case,” he tells me, “they would have been in prison for another year.” All the men except one decided to plead guilty rather than sit in jail indefinitely.

In the fall of 2020, the men returned to court via remote hookups from prison to receive their sentences. Judge Jonathan Davies said, “Each [of you] joined and played a part in a criminal enterprise carried out with skill and determination…. [You] took risks with [your] eyes open.” He added that this “was a carefully planned operation, often carried out with Mission: Impossible skill.” With a reduction for pandemic conditions, he then meted out the lightest sentences to the “foot soldiers”: three years and seven months for David and Opăriuc, four years for Mamaliga. The stiffest terms went to the “brains” behind the heists. Cristian Ungureanu received five years and one month; Popinciuc, the financial “muscle” and boss, got five years and eight months. All the men face confiscation of assets as well. Throughout the ordeal, the gang has stayed mum about how and why they chose their targets.

The police remain uncertain about whether an insider had helped them on the Frontier Forwarding job. “The books,” Ward says, “were only supposed to be in the warehouse for less than 24 hours. That’s too much of a coincidence that they attacked this warehouse.” Adds Albu, “We think they had intelligence about the value of goods. They expected to find jewelry or something else of great value, but they found the books instead”—simply stumbling upon a cultural treasure chest. She believes “it was a surprise for them.”

One of the defendants held out, determined to go to court and prove his innocence. Albu speculates that someone, perhaps a shipping industry insider, may have hacked freight insurance databases that clued the burglary teams in to the presence of lucrative targets.

Still, the question remains: Why books? Booksellers can be a pessimistic lot, often expressing a view that the last word on their business may soon be written. “As a rare book dealer myself,” laments Rebecca Romney, whom TV viewers know from the History channel program Pawn Stars, “I’m aware of the unfortunate truth that rare books, while of immense cultural value, are much more difficult to sell than laptops.” Ed Maggs, the London bookseller, agrees. “This,” he tells me, “was the smartest and the dumbest robbery ever. Smart because of all the Mission: Impossible business with ropes, and dumb because there are few objects of value that are less fungible than rare books.”

Cops seem to have a rosier outlook on prospects for the illicit rare book trade. “There is,” says Ward, “always a market for items of curiosity.” (Indeed, in recent months there has been a rash of thefts from London rare book dealers.) Durham speculates that the Heathrow-area heist might have been “ordered by the top of this organized crime group,” because he or someone he knew wanted the rare treasures. Or the books might have been intended to serve as collateral or as a sort of criminal insurance policy. Some syndicates, Durham says, “want to have possession of culturally important valuables to offer up to assist in getting a lesser sentence” should they get caught for other crimes.

And what about the stolen books? Just as happens in the best books, our story has a happy ending.

Once the roles of the Ungureanu brothers came to light, Albu and Manea suspected, and Scotland Yard confirmed, that they were the ones who might have stashed the lot. On September 16, 2020, with the defendants’ sentencing just days away, Manea led his team on a search of a large new house the brothers had constructed next to their parents’ home in the northeastern Romanian countryside. The other officers watched while a jackhammer broke apart a six-inch slab laid over the garage floor. Manea shoveled away the debris and lifted a board. “It was very tense,” he recalls. “I was really worried about damaging the books. We had worked so long and hard to arrive at that moment.”

And there they were. He climbed into a bunker dug about six feet underground to lift out the books. Most were packed into recycling bins; others had been left in the bags. The following day the booksellers flew to Bucharest to recover their belongings, which were moved to the National Library. Most of the books remained in sterling condition. Some had suffered moisture damage or had broken spines or stains, though nearly all were reparable. Only four books were still missing, one worth $34,000, though none was among the most valuable.

Bisello Bado, arriving from Padua, walked into the National Library where each of his books was laid out on shelves in a climate-controlled room. “I had given up hope,” he says. “When I saw them, I felt like the youngest book dealer in the world. They were fantastic books.”

That evening, the book dealers, the entire Romanian investigative squad, and the English team members on hand celebrated over dinner at a Bucharest restaurant. “Tonight,” an elated Bisello Bado told the gathering, “we drink like lions!”

Seeing the dealers’ joy at regaining their treasured books “was our reward,” says Manea. Even through her mask, I can see Albu smile when she recalls, “I never stopped believing we would bring them back their books. Never.”

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This post originally appeared on Vanity Fair and was published March 25, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.

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