They’re partners in crime. If you have brothers or sisters around your own age, I’ll bet your parents described you like that at some point. They were probably joking about the time you and your brother were caught feeding crayons to the dog, or nabbing a few extra sweets from the kitchen cupboard.
But there are plenty of siblings out there for whom the phrase is much more literal: actual partners in crime who work together in their criminal careers. [Although, to be honest, I wouldn’t trust my brother/sister to change a lightbulb, never mind back me up in a bank heist]. But if you both have a talent for crime, it makes sense to pair up. Your partner is much less likely to rat you in to the cops when you share a mum, who’ll give them a smack on the ear for their trouble.
So pop culture and world news alike are filled with tales of sibling crooks wreaking havoc and making their fortunes. And the most intriguing ones of all, are the most difficult cases to solve: those involving twins. Without saying too much too early, that’s the kind of story I have for you today.
And in a slight departure from our recent episodes on grisly murders and disappearances, today we’re going to look at a good old fashioned heist. It’s a story with enough Hollywood-worthy details to give all you screenwriters out there itchy fingers. Stylish entry: check. Multi-million euro haul: check. Final act twist: check. Get your notepads at the ready, because this is some Hollywood gold.
Without further ado, here’s the story of the 2009 heist of Kaufhaus des Westens.
For those of you whose GCSE German is a bit rusty, ‘kaufhaus’ translates to ‘department store’. And Kaufhaus des Westens — or KaDeWe for short — is one of the most prestigious in Europe. It’s located on the west side of Berlin, and has been an icon of luxury consumption since its construction in 1907.
After taking a battering during WW2, this symbol of Berlin wealth was reborn in the postwar era, right at the heart of West-of-the-wall consumer culture. The East Berliners must have gripped their Communist Manifestos in fury as they peered through binoculars and watched 50,000 daily visitors walk out with bags full of fur coats and diamonds. Look at them with their Walkmans and blue jeans — disgraceful!
Of course, KaDeWe needed a lot of room to accommodate that many decadent Western dogs and frivolous bourgeoisie goods. The 7-story neoclassical building was built with over 650,000 square feet of shop space, second in Europe only to Harrod’s in London. Nowadays it’s still going strong, selling everything from clothing, to homeware, to jewelry. Some pretty damn expensive jewelry, for that matter.
Which is exactly what 3 mysterious individuals were looking to get their hands on, as they scaled the outside of the building in the early hours of January 25th, 2009…
It was a Sunday morning, in the early hours before dawn. It would be a fair while yet before the KuDeWe opened its doors to the throngs of weekend shoppers, and the staff who would greet them were still mostly sound asleep in bed. The only workers on site were the overnight security guards, sat in a room with monitors cycling through the whole expanse of the massive store.
If they had been watching one particular camera feed in those early hours, they would have seen something strange: a knotted rope ladder descending down from the top of the screen. As it came to a rest dangling above the floor, the figure of a masked man came sliding down it, then another, then another.
The security cameras never picked up much audio, but we have to assume that least one of these low-tech Tom Cruises was humming the Mission Impossible theme. Even if it were Mr Cruise himself, it’d be impossible to tell: their faces were completely obscured by ski masks, and each man wore gloves to eliminate the risk of leaving fingerprints.
Now, at this point, the security guards hadn’t spotted the peculiar activity going on down in the jewelry department, but surely they would soon; the entire area was rigged with motion sensors, which were armed every night when the shop closed its doors. Surely only a highly-trained acrobat could slip through unnoticed.
Well, it seems not. Rather than backflipping over lasers and swinging from chandeliers, these three burly men just moved carefully; they picked their routes around the rows of display cabinets with extreme caution. It seemed like they knew exactly where the motion sensors were set up, and they already had the safe routes all mapped out in their heads. Touché robbers, touché.
These canny criminals found the spot they were looking for, a jewelry boutique named Christ. They went about prying open the display cases, and filling their swag bags with some of the most expensive gems and watches in the entire store. Again, they did this with enough care that no alarms were set off.
The crooks cleared out case after case, scooping up handfuls of priceless jewelry into backpacks, giving each of them a haul big enough to turn their living room into Smaug’s cave. But one bag wasn’t enough — they had come this far, after all, so why not help themselves to seconds? Once each had filled his first, he climbed up the rope to stash his haul outside, then climbed back down for more.
With the second bags full, just as silently as they came, the three men were gone. They clambered back up the ladder, and disappeared from frame, disappearing into the first early morning crowds as the city roused itself from its sleep. It was a job well done. The same couldn’t be said for the security guards.
News reports from the day don’t state who finally noticed the rope ladder left hanging there, but let’s just assume it was one of the guards, who spat his coffee out over the monitor in panic, as he noticed enough empty jewelry cases to have him fired 20 times over. Really though, the security wasn’t exactly to blame — the sophisticated electronic systems which were meant to draw their attention to break-ins had been totally outwitted.
So they called the police, and they arrived later that morning. They entered the looted hall to find the ladder leading up to a second-story window. It seemed the perps had scaled the outside of the building up to a stone awning, and lowered themselves in after forcing a window lock open. When the losses were calculated, it was found that the three men had escaped with a total of around 6 million euros.
This was the sort of crime that mustachioed Euro-cops are born for — a diamond heist lifted straight out of Hollywood — but it likely wouldn’t be an easy one to solve. With no fingerprints left at the scene, and no distinguishing features shown on the cameras, the perps looked likely to disappear to some island paradise far away for a cushy retirement. (until they were called up for the sequel, of course)
Needless to say, when the papers got wind of the case later that day, it was front-page news, and no wonder. I mean, in an age of Russian hackers and ransomware, isn’t it a little nostalgic to see a good rendition of the classics? Just a plucky crew of thieves up against motion sensors and security cameras, with nothing but their wits and a rope to rappel in on.
It’s the sort of crime that’s easy to romanticize, which is one reason why it became a national media sensation. Public imagination was likewise captured by the handsome 100,000-euro reward offered up by the jewel shop owner, for any information which could lead to the recovery of his priceless stock. By the way, that offer is no longer on the table, in case you were thinking of going all Poirot.
All of this glamour and sensationalism cemented the 2009 KaDeWe heist as the most audacious and glitzy robbery in post-war German history. And also, as far as anyone could see, the perfect crime…
Well, maybe not the perfect crime. See, for all their criminal ingenuity, the three men had committed one fatal blunder. Remember how they had all been wearing gloves when they entered? Well, as it turned out, six gloves entered, and only five gloves left.
That’s right, one of the latex gloves lay at the bottom of the rope ladder: a Cinderella’s slipper left for the detectives, who promptly sent it off for analysis before probably treating themselves to a midday stien of wiessbier for another job well done. The robbers couldn’t claim as much. I bet when the missing glove was noticed, someone got a good slap.
Had one of the men taken it off before climbing the rope? Perhaps then it had fallen out of his pocket on the way. Or maybe it had ripped as he scrambled out through the window, and fluttered down to the floor. Whatever the reason, it was a pretty fatal mishap by an otherwise meticulous crew.
Looking to capitalize on the blunder, the police lab techs analyzed every inch of the glove, and were able to recover a sample of sweat from the inside. You might not know this, but even something as minor as a drop of sweat can be used to extract a DNA sample, which is just what they did.
This looked to become just another decidedly retro crime undone by modern investigation techniques. The age of the cat burglar is surely long gone when even one drop of sweat from their brow can directly implicate them in a crime. Well, maybe not.
See, when the police ran the DNA through their database, they didn’t get the results they were hoping for. That’s not to say they came up empty — in fact, they had twice as much as they had expected. Two individuals on file were an exact match: a pair of identical twins.
These were Abbas and Hassan O, whose last name was abbreviated in all media reporting as per German criminal justice law. With a direct DNA link to the scene for not one but two known criminals, a neat conviction now seemed like a done deal. But the German police were about to discover the hard way that sometimes less is more…
Sweaty glove in hand, the police were able to get a warrant for the brothers’ arrests, and picked the both of them up on February 11th, 2009, a little over two weeks after they had plundered the store.
But, had they? I mean, the investigators knew that at least one of the men sitting in their holding cells was likely present at the robbery. But if so, then which one? If both, then how could they prove it?
As you can imagine, neither Abbas nor Hassan was interested in owning up, or pointing the blame at the other. This wasn’t their first rodeo, after all — the two had a history of criminal activity dating back to their teens. By this point they were both 27 years old, and well-versed shutting their mouths whenever the police came knocking.
The two were from a Kurdish-Lebanese family who had made their home in Lower Saxony, far to the west of Berlin, since the twins were just 1 year old. They had arrived seeking asylum, receiving a special kind of German-issued non-national passport, as the Lebanese government refused to issue them proper papers.
But Germany wasn’t quite the safe harbor the family had hoped for. In a strange little coincidence, precisely 20 years to the day before the heist occurred, the twins received the news that their request for asylum had been denied. By 2009, they had been extending their permission to stay over and over for a full two decades.
You might feel inclined to interpret the date of the heist as some symbolic middle finger to the German state for turning them down all those years ago, but there’s nothing to particularly suggest that was the case — there’s a solid chance the twins never even knew the potential significance of that day.
Still though, maybe they weren’t going out of their way to stick it to der Mann, but it can’t exactly be said that Abbas and Hassan were model citizens either. The two were believed to be affiliated with a criminal gang in Berlin with ties to prostitution, knife attacks, and drug dealing. That sort of stuff rarely features in the backstories of plucky movie heist artists…
And wait til you hear this. Alongside convictions for theft and fraud, it was also reported that one of the twins was known as an illicit dealer of… viagra. I guess that’ll either make him a more or less sympathetic figure in your eyes, depending on your opinion of the little blue pill.
Unfortunately the middle-aged men of Saxony would have to go [flaccid/without their fix] for a while, because as I mentioned before, their hook-up was now being held in a police cell. Hassan and Abbas were picked up by police at a gambling arcade in the town of Rotenburg (with one T, not to be confused with the city of RoTTenburg).
They were both charged with burglary, and faced a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. If the judge in their case set his sentences based on the monetary value of the crime, both brothers would likely get the whole shebang.
But I’ve already warned you, when twins are involved, things aren’t quite as straightforward as they seem. That’s because when you have a pair of monozygotic twins like these (that’s identical twins to you and me), they share almost the exact same DNA. I think you might be able to predict what’s coming next.
See, the way that DNA analysis works, is by honing in on specific parts of the genetic sequence which show the most variation among individuals. That way, they can easily match up a sample to an individual with overwhelming certainty in most cases. But unfortunately, the vast majority of this useful DNA code falls within the 99.99% shared by identical twins. That meant that, for all intents and purposes, the Hassan and Abbas were basically indistinguishable on the genetic level.
So, there was no way to know which of the twins the glove at the scene belonged to — a massive roadblock when you’re trying to implicate someone beyond any reasonable doubt. The twins’ silence meant that the best officers could do was surmise that one of them had been present for sure, but that’s as far as they could possibly go.
In the immortal words of Johnnie Cochran, if the glove don’t fit, you must acquit. Well, in a twist of fate, the glove found at KaDeWe did fit. It just fit two people, essentially rendering the one piece of evidence pretty much meaningless. All of that despite the fact that the CCTV footage showed that two of the burglars were an exact match for the height, weight, and build of the brothers.
The investigators were watching the tape, feeling totally sure that they had already caught 66.66% of the criminals shown on it, but unable to do a single thing about it. I’m imagining them shouting some pretty intense German expletives at this point — nobody does swearing quite like the Germans. Then they faced a further humiliation.
On March 18th, before any of this could be brought to trial, the case against the brothers was suspended, and they walked free. As the judge in charge of handing out the dismissal said: “From the evidence we have, we can deduce that at least one of the brothers took part in the crime, but it has not been possible to determine which one.” What do you think: was this a failure of the justice system or a reasonable bit of legal caution?
I mean, it makes sense that the legal system wasn’t willing to throw both in prison on what would essentially be a hunch, right? Imagine you have two identical twins, Klaus and Heimlich (because that’s the first two German names I could come up with). Klaus is an upstanding citizen — a small-town accountant — while his doppelgänger is a shotgun-wielding bank robber.
It wouldn’t be fair to send poor Klaus off to the slammer just because his DNA was found all over the scene of a robbery. And unfortunately it means you can’t send Heimlich down either, just in case Klaus really did just fancy trying his hand at crime that day. It’s unlikely, but even that little bit of doubt is enough to ruin a case.
Nowadays it would actually be possible to find genetic differentiation between the good and evil twin, but in 2008 the methods were still relatively expensive, imperfect, and invasive, and therefore admissible in German courts.
The only thing that could’ve helped the case along was the discovery of a good old-fashioned fingerprint. Those distinctive marks develop in response to the conditions in utero, meaning that even if two twins look exactly the same down the last follicle of hair, they’ll still have different fingerprints.
In lieu of that crucial piece of evidence, the whole thing fell apart. The investigators had to plough on trying to find another angle. Their last update on the case reported that they were actively pursuing a total of four suspects who were likely involved with the robbery, although no further evidence has been uncovered…
Jesus Christ, you’re thinking. I never knew that having a twin made you immune to prosecution, why aren’t we outlawing twins altogether? Well, calm down, calm down — despite what horror culture has taught us, not all pairs of twins are evil. But they are human after all, so yes, some of them are pretty morally questionable. And Germany isn’t the only place where they get a free pass on their nefarious doings.
For example, in 2011 a 19-year-old man named Sir Xavier Brooks was killed outside a nightclub in Arizona. Despite the “Sir” honorific I’m pretty sure he hadn’t really been knighted by old Lizzie, but regardless, he didn’t deserve to be shot. Twenty witnesses saw it happen, but they gave conflicting reports about who did it.
They described two identical twins who were at the club that night, distinguishable only by their clothing. Some pinned the blame on one, some on the other. The police were convinced that it was one of the brothers named Orlando Nembhard, so he spent about 4 months in jail awaiting trial. But in the end his $500,000 bail was reduced to $10,000, as there simply wasn’t enough certainty to justify keeping him behind bars any longer.
Likewise, in 2009, a man in Malaysia was acquitted because the prosecution couldn’t prove whether he or his twin brother was the owner of a huge amount of opium and marijuana found at a house in Kuala Lumpur which they had been staking out. Officers knew that one of them had the key, but they were unable to say beyond reasonable doubt which of the brothers its belonged to. The Super Hash Bros wept and hugged each other when the acquittal verdict was read out, fully aware that they one of them had just dodged the mandatory death penalty.
These cases were down to old-fashioned mistaken identity, but when it comes to actual DNA evidence there are plenty of examples of the twin problem too. Unfortunately, DNA evidence is a common fixture in sexual crime cases, so many of the examples come from this thoroughly depressing chapter of the crime and punishment textbooks.
There’s the 2005 rape case in Texas which saw the jury stuck in a deadlock because the DNA matched twin brothers who had both kidnapped the victim. Oh yeah, both were very clearly guilty of the kidnapping, but the same forensic technicality meant there was no way to prove both of them had participated in the sexual aspect, which was most likely the case.
That probably makes you angry, and quite right. But hold on a minute, because later we’re going to be looking into some ways in which these loopholes might soon be closed for good. In the meantime, all you parents of twins listening in: keep an eye on the little monsters, for all our sakes…
Now back to the story of Abbas and Hassan, which pretty much comes to a close where we left off. The final scene of our film sees them collecting the money from whoever they had hired to fence the loot, or maybe rolling open the shutter of a lock-up garage where six bags of jewels sit propped against the wall. We’ll never know.
The statute of limitations for robbery lasts only ten years in Germany, meaning that whoever was involved with the crime has been enjoying guaranteed freedom from prosecution since it expired in 2019. Throughout that whole ten year period, the arrest warrants on the brothers were suspended. This meant that police couldn’t even track their bank accounts or phone communications.
Unless the crooks had physically led the investigators back to the bags of jewelry, there was little which could be done. Understandably, this didn’t sit too well with the German tabloids, who accused the brothers of laughing in the face of justice. Do you blame them? I mean to be fair, it is a bit funny, after all. Not for the jeweler, and not for the police, and not for the abstract concept of justice itself… but, objectively, you know?
Eventually a photo of the twins was unearthed. They didn’t quite have the Clooney-esque good looks we’ve come to demand from our master thieves, but reality rarely has quite the same polish as fiction. The pic shows one brother (I can’t tell which one, which is precisely the problem with this whole affair) sitting with a slight smile on his face. He’s resting his arm on the back of his twin, who’s sticking his tongue out at the camera.
Rather than leave some journalistic hacks to whip up a fire-and-brimstone caption to go along with their self-satisfied expressions, the twins gave them one ready-made. In a statement released to the papers through a family member, the two said that they were “proud of the German constitutional state” and very grateful to its legal system. That’s about as sarcastic a middle finger as they could possibly have given…
The New Genetic Method
There’s one last thing to cover today before we wrap up. We’re taking a short detour into the world of forensic criminology. Consider this part a warning for all of you twins, triplets, and quintuplets out there who are considering embarking on a life of crime. Before you go investing in balaclavas and revolvers, you should know that modern science has been hard at work plugging the gaps which Hassan and Abbas slipped through back in 2009.
As I mentioned before, the science was there back in those days, but it wasn’t quite so refined as it is now, and the courts of Deutschland hadn’t integrated the most complex tests into its systems. Back then it would have meant analyzing the entire genome of each individual to see if there were any differences caused by random mutations. However, this takes a hell of a long time, not to mention a fair bit of cash.
German law was also quite cautious of allowing such extensive DNA testing, seeing as it’s kind of a privacy and human rights nightmare. One forensics expert described it as a virtual dissection, which is not the sort of thing free countries allow, and modern Deutschland is no authoritarian state — they tried that once, it… didn’t really work out.
But around five years ago, a researcher at the University of Huddersfield named Graham Williams devised a simpler and more elegant solution. See, even though we inherit our genetic material from our parents, it doesn’t all stay completely stable throughout our lives. This is due in part to damage and mutations, but also something called epigenetics.
I won’t go into too much detail, because… well… I can’t. But all we need to know for now is that epigenetics is the study of the expression of DNA within cells, and by that I basically mean all of the things which essentially switch the various genes on or off. If DNA is the computer code, then epigenetics is the OS’ way of reading it, and loading the specific parts it needs. That’s why all cells contain all of our DNA, but we have so many different types of cell in the body.
A liver cell is different from a skin cell because the body’s OS loaded that particular part of the code. And not only that, these epigenetic changes are influenced by your lifestyle too: everything from the way you exercise, to your sleep patterns, which alcohol you prefer, and even which STDs you’ve contracted can cause changes in the way epigenetic chemicals attach to your DNA and alter its expression.
Now, before I lose all of you non-chemistry-geeks entirely, I’ll get to the point. The way that this is used to detect differences between twins is surprisingly simple-sounding: you melt the DNA. Graham Williams and his team were able to treat samples of DNA with a chemical which would react differently depending on the “switch chemicals” (the methyl group chemicals) which had attached to the genes.
Long story short, the resulting combinations had melting points which differed depending on the methyl groups attached to the DNA — which as I said, differ depending on lifestyle and disease history. Essentially this means that even when the actual underlying code is identical, different lifestyles will yield different melting temperatures when the DNA material is treated in this way.
Let’s go back to Klaus and Heimlich for a moment. Say good-guy Klaus is completely straight-edge: he doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and always goes out for a 2-hour jog before work. Heimlich, on the other hand, sleeps until noon every day, eats greasy kebabs for every meal, and loves nothing more than a nice refreshing bit of crystal meth.
If you melted down the identical DNA of these two twin brothers, there would be more than enough variation in the epigenetics to yield conclusive results, and exonerate lovely Klaus of any involvement in the Great Shotgun Robbery of Deutschbank Dusseldorf. All in all, it would only take a few hours to do once you had samples from both brothers in hand, compared to a whole month for the old-school invasive methods.
Hassan and Abbas O would likewise face similar incriminating results, meaning whichever klutz dropped his robbery glove would have faced some difficult questions. The DNA in that glove could have been melted down and compared with a swab from each twin’s cheek. If the viagra dealer had been tucking into his own supply, for example, the epigenetic implications would ultimately be his undoing.
So what I’m saying to all you twins out there is: if you’re planning on making your money from crime, just make sure that you live the exact same lifestyle as each other, and you’ll still have that get-out-of-jail free card tucked in your back pocket. As for Hassan and Abbas O, they were likely one of the last few pairs of twins to ever stride out of prison simply because they were roommates in the womb.
So here you have it: a mix of old-school heist charm and modern CSI magic. Hassan and Abbas O may have been able to slip through this loophole in the German legal system, but it looks like any would-be copycat criminals should probably think twice before planning their big score. Or maybe that’s not the lesson you learned here, because there’s actually a much simpler one too: just don’t drop your gloves, guys.
Now, one year on from the expiration of the statute of limitations, our pair of plucky thieves are free to enjoy their spoils without any fear of repercussions. So where are they now? Well, it’s kind of hard to tell without a last name to track them down by, but we do know a little about what they went on to do.
Back in 2009, just two weeks after the heist and six days before the arrest, Hassan applied for permanent residency in Germany. Was that hint that maybe there was something a little symbolic about the whole affair? Make of it what you will. Abbas on the other hand, received an expulsion order. We don’t know if he ever attempted to appeal it, or if he’s off living somewhere else. With millions of euros to his name, the world is his oyster.
As for the crime itself, it’s funny how we’re much more likely to sympathize with the perpetrator when their methods match our Hollywood-tinged expectations. Sure, a carjacker might’ve taken off in someone’s 100 grand Porsche, but the moment he clears a sick jump over a rising bridge he has our full support.
Keep in mind though that Ocean’s 11 this aint. The murderous gang these two belonged to likely reinvented much of their ill-gotten gains into the sort of enterprises which don’t make for such a feel-good film. Trafficking and attempted murder, to be precise.
At any rate, there’s a much bigger problem which we all need to worry about. In 2007, it was reported that a total of 21,600 pairs of twins were born in Germany. By my reckoning, they’ll mature to heist age within the next five years… Lock your doors Germany, and god help us all.
1. If you’re struggling to shift the sympathetic image of these two heist-masters, here’s an example of a violent tragedy which one of their tribe was involved in. In 2008, a 19-year-old stole a BMW in Berlin and ended up crashing it into an elderly person at Postdamer Platz, who died at the scene. The thief was a relative of Hassan and Abbas.
2. Given how lucrative the 2009 heist was, it’s little wonder that others have targeted KaDeWe over the years. In fact, it experiences an attempted heist about once a decade or so. The 2014 one was a far less slick affair than ours: a group of thugs welding machetes, hammers, and tear gas stormed into the Rolex section and smashed open the cabinets, before taking off in a stolen car. Eleven onlookers were treated for tear gas injuries.
3. After the story broke about the genetic technicality in the case of Hassan and Abbas O, a friend of the pair revealed that this wasn’t the first time they had taken advantage of having an indistinguishable lookalike. In fact, the two had shared community service hours in their youth, and if one had their driving license suspended, they would simply use the other’s instead. Even with all of our modern criminological developments, the system is still no match for the ol’ switcheroo.