Tamara Ecclestone was just one of the celebrity victims of the criminal gang which orchestrated the biggest set of home burglaries in British history. Ben Bryant has spent a year investigating a most audacious of heists
It was when the taser appeared next to the croissant that I began to wonder if we were out of our depth.
It looked like a gun at first. The man on the table next to us had dropped it carelessly the way you might throw down your phone and keys.
Under normal circumstances we might not have noticed. The four of us were in a pleasant enough cafe on the outskirts of Belgrade. But the cafe also happened to be opposite the home of a fugitive criminal mastermind. I paid in cash.
“Was that somebody trying to mess with our heads?” I asked our fixer, turning the keys in the ignition as the four of us jumped in the car and slammed the doors shut.
“I think it’s nothing,” he shrugged. “Everybody in Serbia has guns.”
Everybody in Serbia has guns. Just what you want to hear when you’re wondering whether to ring the doorbell of a man who is – in all probability – sitting on £25m of Tamara Ecclestone’s stolen jewellery. A fugitive who – along with two accomplices – has, it is believed, personally entered her private, secure vault, smashed the jewellery cabinets, thrown a fire extinguisher at the security guard, escaped through a window, run behind the Wendy house, vaulted the fence and fled one of the most secure streets in London – just a few doors down from the heavily armed Israeli embassy.
It is an improbable raid – and now it is officially the biggest home burglary in British legal history. Three burglars broke into Tamara Ecclestone’s home on 13 December 2019. But that’s not all. Police discovered that days before they also raided the home of Frank Lampard, stealing £60,000 of watches and cufflinks, as well as the home of the deceased former Leicester City football club chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, from who they took about £1m in cash, watches and jewellery. Tamara has newly offered a £6m reward for information leading to the return of her jewellery, as well as a £250,000 reward for the capture of the man behind the raid.
The thefts are the subject of a new documentary which airs Thursday at 9pm on BBC Three. As the Producer/Director, I’ve spent the past year interviewing the victims, the detectives and even the suspects in this extraordinary case.
We now know – thanks to information provided by the police – that as many as 15 London homes may have been targeted by this international gang of Romanian and Serbian criminals, who made their base in Italy.
But by far the most audacious raid was on the home of Jay Rutland and Tamara Ecclestone, who had just left the country for a Christmas holiday in Lapland. And it is Tamara, the daughter of British business magnate and Formula One Supremo Bernie, who has lost the most.
“Lots of things that were taken are basically irreplaceable to me because they have so much sentimental value,” Tamara says. “Bracelets that Jay had got me when I gave birth to Sofia – one of them had her name in diamonds on it – which he gave to me in the hospital the day that she was born. There were diamond earrings that were my mum’s that she gave to me when I was in my 20s.”
“It was a lifetime’s worth of jewellery,” says Jay. “It was every piece of jewellery and every watch that she’d ever acquired since she was a kid.”
In total around 450 different items were stolen – most of it from Tamara’s prismatic dressing room. Known as the vault, this contains cabinets of precious necklaces and bracelets arranged beautifully, and is normally secured with a six-inch reinforced steel door, which had not been properly locked.
Astonishingly, armed with nothing but screwdrivers and burner phones, the thieves had also managed to break into Jay’s mirror-lined dressing room, where they had unearthed a concealed safe and – most surprisingly of all – a secret compartment where Jay kept some of his most treasured belongings.
When we visited last year, Jay’s dressing room had not been touched since the burglary. Empty boxes – that had previously contained Patek Philippe watches – were still visible. The concealed safe – which had been successfully opened – lay discarded on the floor, belched from the innards of a black leather dressing island.
In Tamara Ecclestone’s dressing room, a beautiful floor-to-ceiling display of handbags along the wall, tiled like a Mondrian painting, contained one obvious omission: a precious Birkin in which the burglars had shovelled the loot to make their escape.
To get into the house the burglars had scrambled across the gardens of neighbouring homes before vaulting a fence. CCTV shows them hiding behind a Wendy house, watching the property. They are then thought to have squeezed through a tiny window that had been left open.
Their route through the maze-like 55-room mansion opposite Kensington palace took them past priceless artworks, which they ignored. Jay Rutland owns London’s prestigious Maddox galleries – dealers in contemporary and modern art – and the walls of his and Tamara’s home are covered in instantly recognisable works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Tracey Emin and Banksy.
It is also a home that is adorned by pictures of a very close-knit family, who are friendly and charming, and welcomed us warmly into their home, despite the visible unease it still sometimes arouses, two years after the burglary.
“Every time I get up from my bedroom to walk to the toilet, I walk through where they came into my dressing room and I think about it every single time,” says Tamara. “I just have flashbacks of the scene that night. I have all the photos of what I saw, the things that were gone, the glass that was smashed, the phones that were left.”
In 2016 Kim Kardashian was held at gunpoint in a hotel bathroom during a £7.4m raid.
/ Rex Features
The couple often think about what might have happened had they been home at the time of the burglary. In 2016 Kim Kardashian was held at gunpoint in a hotel bathroom during a £7.4m raid. The Rutland-Ecclestones have friends who have experienced such a fate.
“What if they’d come in the house, tied us up, put the boiling kettle over the head, which you know goes on,” says Jay. “I’ve got friends who that’s happened to, where they’ve had people come to their house dressed as a delivery man. And the moment they’ve opened the door, that’s it: they’ve been tied up, they’ve had a boiling kettle held over their head and been made to open their safes. What if we would have been in? What would they have done to us?”
It is a frightening scenario to consider – especially for a couple who now have two young children. Serena, who is almost two years old, had not been born at the time of the burglaries – but Sophia was six years old. The family has never told her what happened that night.
“Sophia loves this house so much she always talks about how this is her happy place. I don’t ever want her to know what happened that night. I really don’t,” says Tamara.
Following a police investigation, three of the four main suspects in the case were arrested and charged. Jugoslav Jovanovic, Alessandro Maltese and Alessandro Donati were jailed for between eight and nine years each for conspiracy to burgle.
But one suspect – the alleged mastermind who we were on the trail of in Serbia – sensationally remains at large. Our investigation found that he is a career criminal with 19 aliases. He is wanted in several different countries, and has a reputation of such notoriety that French police nicknamed him ‘Lupin’ – after the hero of the classic French fictional story about master of disguise Arsène Lupin. Tamara Ecclestone has now dramatically named him, saying a £250,000 reward would go to someone able to “deliver Daniel Vukovic to the police in London.”