The Inside Story
Keys duplicated remotely, based on indentations, scratches on blank keys

In a crime that surprised even the police, a gang duplicated locker keys to carry out a diamond heist worth over Rs. 4 crore. “This is the first time, at least in Mumbai, that a gang has used this modus operandi,” Mumbai Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime), Himanshu Roy, said in a press conference here on Wednesday.

He did not deny the possibility of there occurring similar thefts in other banks in the city.

The gang of four, which systematically stole diamonds from the high-security vaults of the Bank of India's Opera House branch here, has been arrested and remanded to police custody till January 25.

In light of the heist, the police plan to advise the Reserve Bank of India and other banks to take precautions.

The arrested accused are: Shamsuddin Azmi (47), a real-estate dealer; Farid Hashmi (47), a master locksmith and key-maker; and diamond merchants Ajay Mehta (48) and Chandrasen Berde (49).

The police said that Hashmi, an expert craftsman, managed to duplicate the custodian key as well as the customer keys. “The gang had been operational for the past three years, stealing diamonds from eight of the 14 lockers they opened with the help of duplicate keys,” Mr Roy said. “Ajay Mehta is the kingpin in this gang.” He said that the gang targeted this branch because the safety vaults in the branch were used mainly by diamond traders.

“Mehta hatched the plan along with family friend Shamsuddin. It was Shamsuddin who recommended Farid as an expert craftsman in duplicating keys. Berde joined in as a watcher to give warning to the gang members if he saw any other customer coming towards the safety vaults area,” he said. Both Shamsuddin and Berde rented a locker in the branch.

Mr. Roy said that the police started investigating the case on the basis of a complaint made in April 2010. “The Crime Branch analysed more than 36,000 entries to the bank locker room in the past three years to find a pattern. They found that Shamsuddin, Ajay and Berde landed up in the locker room at the same time and took quite a long time inside ,” he said.

“Investigations have revealed that Farid duplicated the keys on the basis of the scratches and indentations which appeared on the blank keys when they were inserted and moved in different lockers,” he said.

Mr. Roy said that the work involved extreme craftsmanship, expertise and patience. “It took Farid three months to duplicate the custodian key,” he said. Farid never went to the bank. The other team members took the indented keys to Farid, who never went to the bank him.

The police have recovered diamonds worth Rs.4.40 crore. “Of these, diamonds worth Rs.1.65 crore belong to the complainant,” he said.

He also said that the police would investigate why the seven others whose diamonds were stolen from their lockers did not register a formal complaint with the police. He denied any possibility of the involvement of bank staff in the heist.

“This is for the first time in our careers that have seen this modus operandi,” Mr. Roy added.

“Even the lock-making companies were surprised after they came to know about this as they had claimed it was not possible for any key-maker to duplicate the locker key sitting at a remote location. They had said that the key-maker had to be present in the locker room for at least 48 hours to do that,” he said.

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