A woman who stole diamonds worth £4.2m by swapping them for pebbles – in an “audacious” heist likened to a Hollywood movie – has been jailed for five-and-a-half years.
It is believed to be the biggest ever theft of its kind in the UK.
A purse containing the diamonds – which have never been found – was swapped for a duplicate one in a matter of seconds.
When Lulu Lakatos, 60, entered luxury Mayfair jewellers Boodles in March 2016, she posed as gem expert “Anna”.
Wearing a long dark coat, brimmed hat and a scarf – which she quickly discarded afterwards – she said she was there to value the diamonds on behalf of apparently wealthy Russian buyers.
After she had examined them, they were to be placed in a padlocked purse and kept in the New Bond Street store’s vault until funds were supposedly transferred.
The boss of Boodles, Nicholas Wainwright, said he escorted Lakatos down a glass spiral staircase into a meeting room with the company’s diamonds expert, Emma Barton.
Lakatos proceeded to examine and weigh the precious items, before wrapping them individually in pre-cut tissue paper and placing them in opaque boxes.
Finally, they were put into a zipped purse that was padlocked shut.
Mr Wainwright said he had been watching Lakatos “like a hawk”.
The swap happened when he went upstairs to take a call from the apparent Russian buyer – “Alexander” – who he had met over lunch at Monaco’s Hotel Metropole.
Giving evidence at Southwark Crown Court, Ms Barton said: “She (Lakatos) watched Nicholas walk up the stairs and as soon as his back was turned on the spiral staircase, she grabbed the bag and stuck it in her handbag.
“I said: ‘No, no, no, you can’t do that. Please take the diamonds out of your handbag now. I have to be able to see the diamonds at all times.’ In English, she replied, ‘It’s OK, don’t worry, there’s nothing to worry about.'”
Ms Barton raised further suspicions but the gems – believed to have been concealed in a hidden compartment – were not found during a search of Lakatos’s handbag.
The dummy purse, deposited in Boodles’ safe, was opened the following day. Seven small garden pebbles were found inside.
When CCTV footage from the family firm’s basement was viewed, it showed the moment the genuine purse was put into Lakatos’s handbag, and the duplicate one withdrawn, using “sleight of hand”.
After leaving the store, Lakatos put the diamonds into the handbag of an unknown woman and she and five apparent accomplices fled for France in under three hours.
Romanian-born Lakatos, from Saint-Brieuc, Brittany, has three previous convictions for theft in France.
She also tried to claim her younger sister, Liliana Lakatos, was actually “Anna” – something rejected by the jury.
Liliana Lakatos, who died in a car crash aged 49 in Romania in October 2019, was wanted in Switzerland for an almost identical plot, in which an envelope containing 400,000 euros was switched for a duplicate filled with paper.
Referring to the Boodles raid, prosecutor Oliver Mosley said it was a “conspiracy of the highest sophistication”.
He added: “It is believed to be the highest value individual theft offence of this kind ever committed in this country.”
Lulu Lakatos sobbed in the dock after being found guilty.
Judge Emma Goodall QC said: “This was a highly sophisticated and audacious offence in terms of planning, risk and reward, an offence in respect of which you played an integral role.
“You spent almost an hour in the Boodles London showroom exploiting their trust, which allowed you to engage in a brazen deception and through sleight of hand you stole seven diamonds valued at £4.2m.”
Flying Squad Acting Detective Sergeant William Man said the investigation is ongoing to identify others involved in the heist.
He said: “This was an audacious theft, carried out in plain view of experienced and professional staff at a renowned jewellers.”