In April 1988 a French punk band helped mastermind a robbery that netted millions. In time, all of the culprits were caught – except one. Then, 30 years later, a French lawyer received a call that finally revealed the fate of Gilles Bertin, lead singer of Camera Silens. But would he face justice for his crimes?
Born in the early 1960s in Paris, France, Bertin became an integral part of the country’s flourishing punk scene as the lead singer in Bordeaux band Camera Silens. Formed in 1981 the group encapsulated the attitude of a lost generation – anarchists and rebels disillusioned with society and searching for a way out.
Since the 1970s, punk music had been establishing itself in France, partly inspired by the popularity of the genre in America and the United Kingdom. In fact, some even drew parallels between Bertin’s on-stage persona and that of the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious, one of the era’s most recognizable icons.
But even though Camera Silens were popular on the music scene, their success did not translate into financial stability. And by the late 1980s, what little money they had was running out. Moreover, the band members were addicted to drugs, and some members of their social circle had contracted HIV after sharing needles.
Staring their own mortality in the face, Camera Silens and their friends decided to enjoy life while it lasted. And to that end, they began plotting an elaborate crime. Apparently, they spent more than a year hashing out the details of a daring robbery, centered around a depot belonging to the security firm Brink’s in Toulouse, France.
On April 26, 1988, Bertin and the others put their plan into action. Having acquired some uniforms at a local flea market, they were able to disguise themselves as police officers and catch three Brink’s workers unawares. Amazingly, they managed to kidnap the employees.
Early the next morning, the robbers launched their attack. After persuading one of the hostages to immobilize the alarm, the villains successfully broke into the depot and made off with almost 12 million francs – approximately $3.4 million in today’s money. Moreover, they did it without resorting to violence. Everyone escaped unharmed.
Of course, the musicians and their friends could not resist the temptation to brag about their success, even contacting the local media to tell them all about the heist. However, they were not professional criminals, and one by one the law caught up with them. Within 12 months all of the suspects had been apprehended – except one.
Much to the frustration of French law enforcement, Bertin disappeared without a trace. And even though the authorities began watching his partner Nathalie and the couple’s young son Loris, they could get no closer to locating the missing man. Eventually, in 2004, he was tried in absentia and given ten years behind bars.
After six years had gone by with no sign of Bertin, he was officially declared dead. And the other members of his amateur gang did not fare much better. While some of them died from complications relating to AIDS while incarcerated, others were eventually released and returned to mundane lives. Apparently, most of the money was never seen again.
Until recently, it seemed as if the story of the Brink’s robbers was at its end. However, in November 2017 lawyer Christian Etelin received a phone call that would shock him to the core. On the other end was Bertin, and he was far from dead. In fact, he had been living a secret life in hiding for the past 30 years.
Apparently, after the robbery, Bertin had fled across the border to Spain. Hiding in Barcelona, he had tried to smuggle Nathalie and Loris into the city. However, the police surveillance on the pair had been too intense, and the singer was forced to leave his family behind. Tragically, Nathalie died in 1994, having never reunited with the father of her son.
By this time, Bertin was living in Portugal. Having arrived in the country with bags full of banknotes, he set up a record store business and paid for it in cash. And even though the occasional visiting fan claimed to recognize him, he had always denied his true identity. However, after ten years, he feared the authorities were getting close.
Going by the name Didier Ballet, Bertin fled once more, this time back to Barcelona with his girlfriend Cecelia, who was the only person who knew anything about his secret past. Her parents had a cafe in the city, and the fugitive found work tending the bar. In time, Cecelia gave birth to a child, Bertin’s second son.
But then something changed. Desperately sick with hepatitis – a disease that also caused him to lose his left eye – Bertin found himself in a Barcelona hospital without long to live. Despite his lack of official documents, staff treated him and ultimately saved his life. Feeling indebted to society, he decided that it was time to pay his dues.
So, Bertin picked up the telephone and called Etelin, a criminal law specialist based in Toulouse. “I realized I had to tell the truth and come clean about my past,” the fugitive told the BBC in June 2018. And after revealing his true identity to Etelin, he packed his bags and traveled back over the border to France – even though he knew that returning could mean up to 20 years behind bars.
In Toulouse, Bertin handed himself over to police. But despite his expectations, he was not immediately arrested. While awaiting trial, then, he was able to reconnect with some important figures from his old life. These included his sister, his surviving bandmates and his son, now an adult himself.
Before the trial, Bertin told BBC journalist Chris Bockman that his attitude has changed over the years. “Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s I was an angry young man, a nihilist, an anarchist on a destructive path and in revolt against society,” he explained. “I made mistakes but I’m not that same person now.”
The judge seemed to agree, and on June 6, 2018, Bertin was handed a suspended sentence of five years for his role in the 1988 robbery. And even though the prosecution had tried to secure a prison term, claiming that the fugitive should still pay for his crimes, the verdict was greeted with applause from a number of well-wishers.
Bertin is now free to return to Barcelona and continue his life with his partner and child – finally able to tell the truth about his past. Today, he is under no illusions about the true nature of his years on the run. “There was nothing romantic about what I did,” he confessed. And as for the millions his gang escaped with? Apparently, they are long gone.