Shortly before 7.15pm on the evening of Sunday, December 1, 2019, a young man rang the doorbell of a West London townhouse.
The £12 million property belonged to the TV presenter Christine Lampard and her husband Frank, the former Chelsea and England footballer.
But the caller did not want to meet the Lampards. The opposite, in fact. He was checking they were out — the first step in a plan to target three homes belonging to three very rich, very famous individuals.
The second house on the burglars’ list was the Knightsbridge home of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha — the billionaire chairman of Leicester City football club, who the previous year had tragically died in a helicopter crash at Leicester’s stadium.
He made his fortune in duty-free retail in Thailand and his home had been left untouched following his death.
The third and final property to be hit was the jewel in the crown, so to speak — the £70 million, 55-room mansion near Kensington Palace belonging to Tamara Ecclestone, the daughter of the billionaire former Formula One supremo Bernie, and her husband Jay Rutland.
In a plot worthy of a hit heist movie, the gang managed to evade the tightest of security and plunder jewellery and cash worth £26 million — £25 million of which came from the Ecclestones’ property alone — before seemingly vanishing into thin air.
It is the highest value burglary in English criminal history — and most of the loot, believed to have been smuggled abroad, has never been recovered.
The third and final property to be hit was the jewel in the crown, so to speak — the £70 million, 55-room mansion near Kensington Palace belonging to Tamara Ecclestone, the daughter of the billionaire former Formula One supremo Bernie, and her husband Jay Rutland (pictured together)
The 37-year-old socialite is said to have been left terrified by the raid, with her daughter asking ever since if the burglars are ‘coming back’.
Flying Squad detectives analysed more than 2,000 hours of video footage and relentlessly pursued those responsible across the globe, eventually identifying four key suspects.
While one remains on the run, the other three — Alessandro Maltese, 45, Alessandro Donati, 44, and Jugoslav Jovanovic, 24 — were extradited from Italy to Britain to face the music.
Yesterday Jovanovic, who had been due to stand trial at Isleworth Crown Court, followed the other two in finally admitting his full part in the audacious raids and subsequent laundering of the loot.
He had previously admitted conspiracy to burgle and one count of attempting to convert criminal property, relating to a failed bid to buy two Louis Vuitton jackets from Harrods using stolen cash.
He initially denied laundering the proceeds of the three heists but yesterday changed his plea to guilty.
Following his plea, Detective Constable Andrew Payne, of Scotland Yard’s Flying Squad, said: ‘These defendants were part of a highly sophisticated plot which ultimately had just one aim — to steal as much as possible from these three homes and flee the United Kingdom with precious stones, including diamonds, and cash.
‘They were successful in executing the first stage of their plan . . . They no doubt thought they had got away with their crimes but little did they know how determined we were to identify them and bring them back to the UK to face justice.
‘The evidence against them was so overwhelming that they were left with no other option than to plead guilty.’
While all three men will be sentenced on November 15, Jovanovic’s admission means that the full, extraordinary story of the break-ins dubbed the ‘burglaries of the century’ can now be told for the first time.
Police explained that, having initially done reconnaissance on London mansions belonging to a number of celebrities, the gang had chosen their high-profile targets after a long period observing each home.
The Lampards, Ecclestones and Mr Srivaddhanaprabha were most likely chosen because of the high value of their items, plus accessibility.
According to prosecutors, the burglars were after two things: ‘fabulous jewellery’ and ‘cold hard cash’. Combined, the thieves would end up stealing about £26 million worth of property.
The break-in at the Lampards’ house would net the burglars items worth £60,000.
A court heard that 24-year-old Jovanovic and a second burglar — both of whom had flown in to London the previous day — broke into the house between 7.10pm and 8pm that evening.
Having first checked that no one was in, they made their way to a nearby street and gained entry to the back garden.
Once in, they stole watches including Mrs Lampard’s £36,000 Patek Philippe Nautilus rose gold ladies watch, a clock and a pair of cufflinks.
Nine days later, on December 10, they turned their attention to the property belonging to Mr Srivaddhanaprabha, which had been turned into a shrine by his family following his death in a helicopter crash in 2018.
On the previous day, they had been joined by two other gang members, Donati and Maltese, who had flown in from Italy.
Having checked that no one was in, they broke in to the house through the patio windows and managed to gain entry to one of the safes inside.
They left with £1 million-worth of property, including more Patek Philippe watches and £360,000 in euros.
The final burglary took place on the evening of December 13. According to evidence given in court, CCTV footage from the scene showed Donati, Maltese and a third burglar entering the rear of the address via the back garden while Jovanovic stood watch at the end of the street.
They would escape with a haul valued at £25 million — this included £145,000 in cash and 450 items of jewellery stolen from heavily fortified cabinets in Ms Ecclestone’s boutique-style jewellery rooms for her Hermes and Chanel goods.
Rings, earrings and an £80,000 Cartier bangle wedding gift were taken.
During court proceedings it was claimed that the series of raids were like something from the Tom Cruise film Mission: Impossible.
But details that subsequently emerged suggested that the raiders were lucky not to have been caught on a number of occasions.
Jovanovic carried out the £25million heist at Ms Ecclestone’s Kensington property (pictured) with expert jewel thieves Alessandro Maltese, 45, nicknamed the ‘Pink Panther’, and 44-year-old Alessandro Donati
During the raid on the Lampards’ house, the two burglars activated an alarm and had to flee out of the back door as police arrived at the front.
As they scaled a wall at the rear, one of them cut themselves on glass embedded on top, leaving vital DNA clues behind.
At Mr Srivaddhanaprabha’s house they attempted to gain entry to four safes but, despite arming themselves with a cutting torch, ended up only getting in to one of them — with a hammer.
On the day after the raid they were caught on CCTV celebrating with a £760 lunch including bottles of Chateaux Ruinart rose champagne at the Zuma Japanese restaurant on Raphael Street, Knightsbridge — a stone’s throw from the house they had broken into.
The raid on the Ecclestones was not only the most audacious of the lot but also raised the most eyebrows.
For starters, the property is located in a road whose other security-obsessed inhabitants include the Israeli and Russian embassies and a home belonging to Roman Abramovich.
On the day of the raid, Ms Ecclestone had travelled to Lapland with her husband and daughter for a holiday.
It is claimed that on hearing news of the raid at the ‘impregnable’ property, she immediately believed it must have been an ‘inside job’.
But security staff quizzed in court claimed the burglars had just been ‘very lucky’.
Not only was the alarm temporarily turned off but the guards on duty did not notice they had broken in to the rear.
Their entry also happened to coincide with one of the guards heading to Tesco to refuel his Land Rover and to get a side dish of vegetables for his dinner.
During the raid on the Lampards’ house, the two burglars activated an alarm and had to flee out of the back door as police arrived at the front (Pictured: Christine and Frank Lampard)
He was called by phone by the remaining guard after he noticed the intruders on CCTV, dropping the groceries and racing back.
Although the burglars were disturbed, they were able to escape the way they got in. Detectives told how they then fled the scene, not in a getaway car but in black cabs — paying in cash and swapping cars multiple times during their journey — that took them back to a short-let apartment in Orpington, Kent.
However, they left two of their burner phones behind at the property.
Police were convinced that the four-strong team of burglars did not act alone.
And the first arrests they made were of four Romanians whom detectives claimed were responsible for planning accommodation, transport and communications for the main gang.
They were Alexandru Stan, 49, Maria Mester, 48, Sorin Marcovici, 53 and Emil Bogdan Savastru, 30.
It was claimed that Stan assisted with logistics for the Lampard burglary, even lending a pair of trousers to one of the burglars who was bloodied after the raid.
Mester then arrived in the country when, it was alleged, she assumed the role of ‘matriarch’, aided by her son and childhood friend Marcovici.
The four faced a number of charges including conspiracy to burgle, with their case going to trial at Isleworth Crown Court last November.
There, the jury heard that when Mester was arrested six weeks after the burglaries she was wearing a pair of rose gold diamond drop earrings belonging to Ms Ecclestone.
She had also posted a photo on Facebook of herself at a New Year party wearing a stolen necklace —one of only 15 made — that had been purchased for the socialite by her husband.
Savastru, meanwhile, was caught with Ecclestone’s Louis Vuitton bag and Frank Lampard’s Tag Heuer smartwatch, worth a total of £2,500, as he attempted to leave the country.
But Mester told jurors she had merely been invited to London by one of the burglars to provide sex for him, believing he was a legitimate property developer.
She described him as a ‘fat goose’ who paid her £5,000 a week and said that the jewellery had been given to her as a gift for her escort services. Lawyers for the defendants claimed they were unaware of the burglaries.
Following a two-month trial, the four were cleared of conspiring to burgle the homes. Savastru was convicted of one count of attempting to conceal criminal property in relation to the bag and watch.
Jailed for six months he was released having served the sentence on remand.
His mother was sentenced to ten months in jail for refusing to hand police her phone PIN number.
She declined to do so, she said, to protect her clients. Having also already served time on remand, she too walked straight out of the court and into a Rolls-Royce.
Rings, earrings and an £80,000 Cartier bangle wedding gift (pictured) were taken during the raid on the Eccelestones’ home
Following the break-ins, a team of Scotland Yard detectives worked around the clock to track the burglars.
Hundreds of hours of CCTV footage were analysed as were phone records. It would take months before the major players were identified and brought to face justice. Maltese was the first to be arrested in Italy in July of last year.
Soon after, Donati was also held.
Dr Francesco Giustolisi, head of the Milan Flying Squad, told the Daily Mail they were identified by Italian police after Scotland Yard provided them with phone numbers and with CCTV images of unidentified suspects.
Maltese had previous for theft. He added that Donati had also previously been arrested for burglaries, and caught with the sort of skeleton keys used for break-ins, and also matched photographs sent from England.
Having been extradited to the UK, they appeared in court separately in April, with both pleading guilty to conspiracy to burgle.
‘My client has admitted his responsibilities, but not that he is the leader of the gang,’ Angelo Pariani, Donati’s lawyer, told the Italian media.
He said that any jail sentence would be served in Italy, as per the extradition agreement.
Yesterday, Jovanovic, the third gang member, sensationally admitted his part in laundering the proceeds of the heists moments before his trial was due to begin.
He had previously admitted conspiracy to burgle and a separate money laundering charge at an earlier hearing.
He was arrested in October, with reports in the Italian press claiming that, despite his young age, he was believed to have been the mastermind of the raid.
He is said to have flown home to Italy following the theft and vanished.
Italian police put the gang under surveillance and discovered they had a base at a rented villa in Santa Marinella, a beach resort near Rome. Noticing that every day a man delivered cappuccino and croissants to the property, they reasoned that another person was hiding there.
On December 10, the gang hit the Knightsbridge home of Mr Srivaddhanaprabha (pictured) in Walton Place. The raid took place more than a year after he was killed in a helicopter accident after a Leicester City game
Alerted by police in Milan that one of the gang was wanted in the UK, armed officers raided the villa.
According to a police source, when arrested Jovanovic was ‘ultra cool’ and told officers: ‘Bravo, my compliments.’
He then refused to answer any further questions.
A fourth alleged member of the gang, Jovanovic’s uncle Daniel Vukovic, is believed to have fled to Serbia where he is fighting extradition to the UK.
The captured trio will be sentenced on November 15.
And what about the loot?
According to evidence heard in the first trial, hardly any of the stolen goods have been recovered.
‘Virtually all the property has never been seen again,’ said Timothy Cray QC. ‘It was successfully laundered — concealed and disguised.’
While some of the cash was spent in the UK — the gang made a number of lavish purchases in Harrods — it is believed the jewellery left the country soon after the raids.
A number of the gang members are said to have links to a notorious Roma gypsy camp near Milan called Monte Bisbino.
And it is there, the Italian press has speculated, in one of the camp’s notorious ‘factories’, that the gold items stolen in London could have been smelted down, making them impossible to trace.
Whatever the truth, the burglars will face confiscation orders, used by the British courts to force criminals to hand over the proceeds of their crimes.
Failure to do so can result in an extended prison sentence with interest added to the sum owing. Which, from a £26 million starting point, could result in a very large figure indeed