Blockbuster crime spree

IT was a crime spree that could have been inspired by Hollywood, containing all the suspense and daring seen in such blockbuster films as Ocean's 11, The Thomas Crown Affair and The Italian Job.
On Friday, Winnipeg police said crimes allegedly carried out by one-time Winnipeg resident Gerald Danny Blanchard and accomplices over the past eight years were among the most sophisticated and complex that investigators in Canada and Europe had ever encountered.

"I've been involved in a lot of investigations involving robbery and fraud, but I have never seen this level of sophistication before," said Supt. Gordon Schumacher, who headed up the investigation -- dubbed Operation Kite -- that began in 2004.

The take, he said, totalled "millions and millions" of dollars over the past eight years.

If the plot lacked any international legitimacy, it was sealed when Winnipeg police recovered a priceless jewel-encrusted brooch -- the Koechert Pearl Diamond -- that once belonged to Queen Elisabeth, the Empress of Austria, during the 19th Century.

It was stolen from a castle in Vienna during a daylight robbery in 1998 and found last week in a St. James home.
Earlier Friday, Winnipeg police released some of the details behind the robbery and fraud. Eight individuals the police claim to be members of the dubbed "Blanchard gang" were arrested in January and all but Blanchard's one-time girlfriend, Lynette Tien, remain in custody.

Winnipeg police headed up what became an international investigation because they saw a link between the sophisticated robbery of a CIBC bank in May 2004 -- three days before its grand opening -- with similar robberies in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.

The investigation led police to London, Cairo, Austria, Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, and Omaha, Neb.

Schumacher said Winnipeg police worked closely with investigators in Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, Austria and Vienna, the Ontario Provincial Police and with several branches of the RCMP.

There are more than 100 charges against the eight individuals, with Blanchard facing 41 charges for such crimes as fraud, break, enter and theft, trafficking in credit card data, trafficking ammunition and participating in a criminal organization.

Blanchard was also charged this week with conspiracy to kidnap and murder his one-time girlfriend, Tien, who had been released on bail. Blanchard grew up in Nebraska but his grandmother lives in Winnipeg.

The individuals were arrested in January -- two in Winnipeg, three in Vancouver, two in Edmonton, and one in Toronto. The others were flown to Winnipeg, where, with the exception of Tien, they remain in custody. Police claim the gang has been operating since 1999.

The following people have been charged with numerous offences: Blanchard, 35; Tien, 21; 83-year-old Carl Bales of Vancouver; Balume Kashongwe, 33, of unknown origin; Dale Fedoruk, 35, of Winnipeg; Lance Ulmer, 38, of Edmonton; Angela James, 21, of Edmonton; and Aaron Syberg, 26, of Winnipeg.
The recovered Koechert Pearl Diamond.
The suspects are presumed innocent and have not been tried.