A man described by Canadian police as one of the most sophisticated criminal masterminds they've ever seen is grooming himself for a new career as a security consultant.
Freshly released from prison and now living at a Vancouver halfway house, Gerald Blanchard was the linchpin behind an international fraud and theft ring that stole millions from banks and financial institutions.
Facing more than 40 charges when police caught up with him in 2007, Blanchard pleaded guilty to 16 of those charges in a Winnipeg court. He was sentenced to eight years in prison in the case that involved global heists and unconfirmed links to Kurdish rebels. Blanchard admitted several capers were carried out on behalf of a mysterious figure known as "The Boss." The Canadian lived a jet-set lifestyle under several assumed identities, using elaborate disguises and high-tech surveillance equipment to empty cash machines from banks around the world.
In one audacious theft, he posed as a tourist in a Vienna castle before swiping the priceless Star of the Empress Sisi from an encased display — leaving a gift-shop replica in its place. The 19th-century diamond-and-pearl heirloom was later found stashed at the home of one of Blanchard's relatives in Winnipeg.
"I felt guilty to a certain extent, but my reasoning behind it at the time was I'm not hurting individuals, I'm hurting corporations," Blanchard told CBC News in an exclusive interview.
Aside from orchestrating robberies at financial institutions in Alberta, Manitoba, and B.C. — including the Alberta Treasury Branch — Blanchard's criminal organization made an overseas trip on behalf of a London-based man officials and court records describe only as "The Boss."
Heard on a police wiretap, Blanchard received a call from the United Kingdom, said Winnipeg police Det. Larry Levasseur.
"Basically the boss told him how quickly can you get your crew together? I have a job for you to do in Cairo," said Levasseur.
In Cairo, Blanchard's crew withdrew wads of cash using stolen bank cards. In just over a week they took more than $1 million. The funds were believed to have been used to finance Kurdish rebels.
Police described Blanchard as charming and uncommonly gifted at what he did.
He was eventually arrested by Winnipeg police who were investigating the brazen theft at a CIBC branch in which $500,000 was stolen from the bank the day before its grand opening.
Blanchard had stolen blueprints for the new bank, and defeated the security system on the ATMs by installing his own electronic surveillance equipment in the walkway behind them. With pinhole cameras and listening devices in the ATM room, he knew the coast was clear.
But he slipped up when another business owner noticed a rented van – hired in Blanchard's name – in the parking lot near the bank. Still, it took police three years to catch up with him.
While in Austria on a 1998 honeymoon he was introduced to the Sisi Star.
"The person who gave us the tour explained that this there's only two diamonds like this in the world and it was priceless," said Blanchard, who admits that it was his level of surveillance and patience that made him not simply a good thief but a great one.
"I just had the ability to look around me and realize where the flaws are in everything. That's why I was so good at walking into a bank, looking around and knowing exactly where the flaws are and taking advantage of it."
Winnipeg police Det. Mitch McMormack said after he arrested Blanchard he was amazed at the criminal's ability to assemble and disassemble the type of locks used by banks.
"So I took him during one of our conversations a bag of parts of this lock. It was all apart. And it was like watching a person with a Rubik's Cube that could actually solve it. In a matter of a couple of minutes he put springs and screws all back together, spun the dial on that thing, and charged it up. I've never seen anything like it."
No one is exactly sure just how much stolen money went through Blanchard's hands. But inspired by the sentencing judge at his trial, who said Blanchard might have made good money consulting for the banks he stole from, the long-time crook said he's now focused on the straight and narrow.
Discussions about legitimate security consulting are underway, but Blanchard said he can't provide details due to confidentiality agreements.