On November 30th, 2012, six masked gunmen wearing blacked-out uniforms with the word “Police” across the back stormed a small fishing boat on the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao. Harboured at the main docks – Willemstad port – the “Summer Bliss” was boarded in the early hours of the morning. Under cover of darkness, the raiders gun-butted the boat’s captain in the head and threatened the rest of the crew, before making off with the 70 gold bullion bars that were being stored onboard. The gold thieves dumped the loot, which weighs roughly 216kg in total, into the boot of a getaway car and sped off into the night. That’s £7.1 million worth of gold stolen in around five minutes, which isn't a bad little haul, all things considered.
Curaçao police spokesman Reggie Huggins told the press the next day that the Summer Bliss had been on its way to the island on a transhipment from Guyana (it later transpired that the boat had actually set off from neighbouring Suriname), to effectively refuel and move on.
Because there was gold involved – and because gold is shiny and expensive – there were immediately conflicting reports and curious circumstances announced surrounding the disappearance of the bullion. Conspiracy or not, you have to ask yourself why a rusty, battered wreck of a fishing boat was travelling unarmed across the Caribbean Sea with 216kg of gold bullion locked away in its cargo hold? And how did the thieves know it was there?
Four days before the ambush in Curaçao, the Summer Bliss was leaving port in Suriname, a country that exports a reported £570 million worth of smuggled Guyanese gold from its coast every year.
In September, just two months before the heist, Suriname and Guyana (who share borders with each other) became the first two Caribbean countries to join the “Container Control Programme”, which, ironically, works to improve port security and stop smuggling. Guyana holds the enviable title of officially being the most corrupt English speaking country in the Caribbean, so with its history of customs corruption, a new border control deal and the fact that the gold’s origins are being investigated by Guyanese authorities, there seems a strong possibility that the majority of the stolen gold originated in Guyana and was smuggled across the border into Suriname, where it was then loaded onto the Summer Bliss and set to sail for Curaçao.
The Summer Bliss is even registered to a Guyanese owner (who can't be located, but is believed to be a man named Deosarran Shivpaul, who was deported from the US several years ago). The boat’s registered address is “Canal # 2” – a Guyanese bay space that turned out to be an empty lot when checked by officials. The boat, formally known as "Captain Glenn" and "Miss Nicole", couldn’t be tracked on Marine Traffic.
So, for whom was the boat of gold destined?
Summer Bliss crew member Raymond Emmanuel told the press that they were “delivering the gold to a company in Curaçao”, but said he didn’t know the name of the business. He also said that nobody was harmed in the heist. This contradicts Reggie Huggins' first statement (made on the same day) that the boat was just stopping by and that the captain was pistol-whipped. It’s unlikely his first statement about the transhipment is inaccurate, as Huggins even said that “authorities knew of the shipment because the official procedure was followed”.
I had a look at Willemstad’s port records to see if the authorities knew about the Summer Bliss sailing into any docks or wharfs that night. The only large boat that was recorded as coming in on November 30th, the date of the heist, was Adventure of the Seas. This doesn’t mean that the Summer Bliss wasn’t arranged to dock beforehand, but it does mean that somebody could have failed to put it on the records (or the ones that are available online, at least).
So with the Summer Bliss bobbing up and down in Willemstad bay, the story goes that the gold thieves strolled straight past port security, fooling them with the “police” jackets. Which is kind of weird, considering they speak Dutch in Curaçao, meaning the word should have been spelt “Polis” – something I'd imagine any vigilant port security guard would notice.
The real police in Guyana have remained tight-lipped about the whole fiasco, but did arrest seven men in connection with the heist on December 6th, 2012 and recovered some of the bars from a local jewellery store. Two of the suspects are from Venezuela, one from Bonaire and the rest from Curaçao.
The next day, Guyana swooped in, sending a team to the Dutch Caribbean island to determine if the gold was theirs or not.
The man who ordered this investigation is Clement Rohee, a Guyanese PPP home affairs politician. Rohee is currently looking at some grim charges back home in Guyana for allegedly allowing his police force to shoot dead three defenceless protesters on July 8th, 2012. Rohee also has an alleged history of organised crime, specifically smuggling. So clearly the perfect man to recover stolen gold for a country already renowned for its political corruption.
The Guyana Geology and Mines Commission flew into Curaçao in search of answers, but instead were met with silence when the Curaçao cops refused to cooperate.
I spoke to Colin Sparman, the executive secretary of the Guyana Gold and Diamond Miners Association, who's currently involved in the investigations taking place into the gold heist. I asked him if he thinks the six men arrested may be released eventually, as reports emerged the same day suggesting that Curaçao police may hold the suspects for 56 days before charges are taken further – something that’s legal on the island.
“Curaçao is a free-port, and news of smuggling or piracy would make a rather poor impression,” he said. “Curaçao’s economy is not known for gold production, so I suppose the faster this issue disappears from the news the better it is for that island.”
Sparman didn't share much, but he did tell me that there’s no evidence whatsoever to suggest that the gold is from Guyana. I mentioned the fact that the crew and the boat were from Guyana and that the Summer Bliss is registered to a Guyanese owner, which is surely evidence to some extent?
“The boat and crew are Guyanese, yes, but they left from Suriname,” he responded.
A few days after I spoke to Sparman, 11 gold bars turned up in Puerto Rico. They were found by US border patrol authorities at an airport on January 8th, 2013. Norman Serphos, PR for the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Curaçao, told the Curaçao Chronicle that the gold bars did “indeed originate from Curaçao, but it's not clear if they are from the gold heist”.
I'm gonna go out on a limb here, but I think it’s safe to say that they probably are related to the heist, unless someone in Puerto Rico suddenly decided that millions of pounds worth of gold wasn't worth holding on to. But that doesn't get us any closer to working out where the bars were headed.
One of the most bizarre (but predictable) theories is that Scientologists are somehow involved. Folks at Why We Protest are suggesting that members of the religion shipped in blood gold from Guyana to feed David Miscavige’s (the "leader" of Scientology) alleged gold ingot collection, which ex-Scientologist Jesse Prince claims he keeps stashed in a safe.
Strange as it sounds, the Scientologists do have a large branch of their church based in Curaçao – the International Association of Scientologists (IAS). According to some, the IAS was set up to launder money for L. Ron Hubbard before he died. The idea being, I guess, that anyone doing so could hide earnings from the taxman in America.
The Scientologists also have a large cruise ship called “Freewinds” that sails Sea Org members around the Curaçao area. The home of the ship is usually Willemstad port.
Just in case the route through the rabbit hole was a possible reality, I sent the Freewinds' tracking number to Demitris Memos at Marine Traffic. He told me that the Freewinds was in Colombia on the night of the heist – too far away to keep track of any wayward gold shipments they may have had coming in.
I spoke to Mike Rinder, the former executive director of the Church of Scientology International, about the Scientologist gold heist theory.
“The Church of Scientology collects millions of dollars a week by legitimately robbing their members. They don't need to steal gold bars,” he said. “And a theft of £7 million isn’t a big enough upside for the potential downside – they take £7 million in a good week.
“Yes, the Church had investments in gold for many years – they probably still have them – but they're stored in a bank vault in Switzerland or Luxembourg.”
From the mouth of a once highly powerful Scientologist, it seems that the Church has nothing to do with this.
The true recipient of the gold bars and the plan that almost helped them reach their ultimate destination may never be fully revealed. Given the witness discrepancies, conflicting reports, history of local government corruption and dubious police cooperation, there could well be a impenetrable web of intrigue behind this one. For now, the curious case of the Curaçao gold heist remains unsolved.
Follow Jake on Twitter: @OiJake