It was a cold, blustery morning in November 2019 when the city of Dresden, in eastern Germany, woke up to a shock.
Overnight, robbers had stolen a hundred-million dollar royal jewelry collection from the city’s historic Green Vault, a set of basement suites in a castle that is now part of a museum.
The robbers left the vault floor covered with shards of broken glass and blanketed it with powder to throw forensic investigators off their scent.
On Tuesday, in a high-security Dresden courtroom, five men — all from the same notorious Berlin crime family — were convicted and sentenced for their role in the heist and the getaway. Prison time for Rabieh Remo, Wissam Remmo, Bashir Remmo and a set of twins, who were tried under youth guidelines because they were just 20 at the time of the heist and whose names are not publicized under German’s privacy rules, ranges from 4 years and 4 months to 6 years and 3 months. The sixth defendant was acquitted because he had an alibi.
The men are part of a family dubbed the “Remmo Clan” by German tabloids and its members have faced charges on crimes such as welfare fraud, extortion and robbery.
During the trial, which lasted 15 months, the six defendants sometimes seemed like the crew of “Ocean’s 11” and at other times like “Mr. Bean.” But it was not just the accused who at times appeared inept. The trial shed a light on a German justice system that failed — to an almost comical degree — when it came to stopping determined criminals.
Despite a colorful history of crimes, the men were free to plan and execute their biggest heist. Most jarring, two of the men on trial were previously found guilty for the theft of a giant golden coin worth $4 million from a Berlin museum. They were in court for that crime — but not in custody — when the crew carried out the Green Vault heist.
But for all its faults, the epic trial that ended Tuesday did bring to light the extraordinary story of how a small group of committed perpetrators was able to break into one of the most secure museums in Germany and make off with the biggest score in the country’s postwar history.
Nearly a week before the heist, one of the men broke into a service room for the city power supply at the foot of the Augustus Bridge in Dresden. The police investigated, but found no cause for alarm.
Around the same time, the robbers cut a neat triangle out of an old metal grate covering a corner window of the Green Vault treasure chamber. They chose a window out of the sight of a nearby surveillance camera and separated a roughly 1.5-foot section of thick wrought metal from the grille, then stuck it back in place.
The tool the thieves wielded — a pneumatic Jaws of Life used by rescue services to free people trapped in car wrecks — is not available on the open market. Three months earlier, Wissam Remmo had broken into a specialized tool factory and stolen the device.
Police arrested him, and he faced a judge on a burglary charge just two days after the Dresden heist. The court had no idea how the tool had been used when it sentenced Remmo to two and a half years for the theft. A higher court later commuted his sentence.
A little before 5 a.m. on the last Monday of November 2019, a homemade firebomb exploded in front of the electrical service room by the Augustus Bridge. That crude device, a cooking pot filled with a diesel gasoline mixture, knocked out streetlights in the immediate vicinity.
Two hundred yards away, two men entered the Green Vault through the pre-cut hole in the grate and began violently hacking away at cases displaying the jewels with hammers. The police later testified that the perpetrators hit the glass vitrines 56 times in just minutes.
Two private security guards watched the heist unfold on a closed-circuit video feed, but could do little but call the police because strict rules prohibited the unarmed men from confronting the thieves themselves. (The guards were initially suspected of playing some part in the robbery, but were quickly exonerated.)
Rabieh Remo, one of the two men in the Green Vault that morning, later testified that he was surprised how tough the nylon strings were that held the jewels in the cases. In his telling, this was the biggest obstacle the thieves faced.
They made off with 21 lavish pieces from late 18th and early 19th centuries that once belonged to local rulers, August the Strong and his son August III. The pieces they took included a ceremonial sword, brooches, pendants, headwear, necklaces, buttons and two diamond-encrusted epaulets. In total the jewelry held 4,300 diamonds and other valuable stones.
After the group loaded the loot into an Audi station wagon with stolen plates, they headed toward a parking garage on a residential street, several miles away. There, they jumped into a Mercedes and lit the Audi on fire. That fire spread to more than 60 cars in the garage, caused more than half a million euros in damage and endangered the life of a woman who was in the garage at the time.
The second getaway car went up in flames a month later.
The Investigation and Trial
It took months for a special police task force, named “Epaulet,” to come up with solid leads, which started emerging when officers linked DNA found at the crime scene and the two burned getaway cars to members of the Remmo family. Another significant breakthrough came when the police found and questioned a man who had sold a batch of telephone SIM cards that were used during the robbery.
About a year after the break-in, nearly 1,700 police officers swooped on apartments, garages, a cafe and several cars during a raid in Berlin, and arrested three members of the crew. The others were arrested in the following months.
Their trial had been ongoing for almost a year when Rabieh Remo (who uses a different spelling of the family’s last name) recanted previous testimony and told the court he had actually been in the vault during the robbery. His admission was part of a deal the defense had negotiated with the court: return the jewels and confess to the crimes, in return for capped prison sentences. Three others also admitted to their part in the crime; one of the men could prove he was in the emergency room on the night of the robbery, and another insisted until the very end that he was not part of the heist.
But the deal had some odd stipulations. While the defendants agreed to confess to their own crimes, they had secured the right not to incriminate any accomplices whom the police had not yet caught. They were also given time with their lawyers to prepare answers to prosecutors’ questions.
Although the men on trial admitted to burglarizing the museum, they refused to admit significant aspects of the crime — such as planning and leadership — blaming unknown accomplices instead.
But the plea deal had a major upside: Most of the loot was returned. However, some important parts of the collection — including a significant diamond, an elaborate brooch and an epaulet — are still missing and others are damaged or oxidized.
Besides the jail time, the state is seeking nearly €89 million in damages, for the missing treasure and for harm to the museum.
Members of the Remmo family originally came to West Berlin from Lebanon in the 1980s and 1990s.
They are just one of a dozen or so family crime syndicates in Germany. But thanks to German tabloids and television shows, the Remmos enjoy an unusual amount of fame. Even if they are not the most successful, violent or prolific organized crime organizations in the country, until this trial they were perceived as being largely untouchable.
Mahmoud Jaraba, an academic who studies criminal families like the Remmos, said that those networks were known for their loyalty and unwillingness to deal with authorities — which made the plea deal in the Green Vault case so striking. However, he added, because of a code of silence, it was very difficult for outsiders to know much about the real power structure within these families.
Because of the stipulations of the plea deal, however, the true story of who organized, coordinated and planned the heist might never come to light.
To Jaraba, however, one thing was clear: “I’m sure there were more people from inside the family involved.”