In early December last year, famed auction house Christie’s was forced to cancel bidding on a large, flawless, pink diamond predicted to sell for as much as $35 million. The rock, the FBI told the auction house, had been stolen from a famous Middle East powerbroker by a Florida-based psychic in a shocking scheme involving a personal assistant, online spiritual counselling, FedEx, and almost $100 million in jewellery in need of an “aura cleanse.”
A few weeks earlier, on November 22, the FBI had arrested John Lee, a resident of Davenport, Florida and Paramus, New Jersey, on charges of mail and wire fraud as well as interstate transport of stolen goods after he was linked to the plot by a globe-spanning investigation.
By the time of his arrest – first reported by Court Watch based on the arrest warrant – Lee had been the subject of a months-long manhunt by both international law enforcement and teams of private detectives in Europe, the UK, the US and Persian Gulf, according to investigators, European law enforcement officials and multiple sources in the secretive diamond industry who spoke to VICE News. Almost everyone we spoke to for this story did so only on the condition of anonymity, because either they were not authorised to discuss the case or feared legal or financial reprisals.
Outside of public filings of an arrest warrant and a related civil lawsuit, and the withdrawal of the stolen gem by an embarrassed Christie’s, the case has received little media attention. That was by design, according to multiple people involved, because the victim of the jewellery theft was Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, the former prime minister of Qatar, and one of the Middle East’s richest and most politically-connected geopolitical insiders. Thani, with an estimated $2 billion fortune and a long list of powerful friends, has the money and influence to keep his name out of the case, according to a former FBI agent turned private investigator in New York.
“That’s when things got weird. As details became available, it got increasingly surreal.”
“Handling something in a low-key way isn’t necessarily unethical or illegal,” said the former agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of Thani’s standing and influence. “There are legitimate diplomatic reasons to keep someone like Thani’s name out of an indictment. But that [Thani’s name] hasn’t already leaked out tells me there’s an effort to draw as little attention as possible to the situation.”
Thani’s role as victim, which we are reporting for the first time, was established by detailed records and receipts for the stolen gems examined by VICE News and confirmed by multiple sources involved in the search.
“[Thani] has both the wealth and political…diplomatic influence to keep a situation like this very quiet,” said a Dubai-based private investigator who was briefed on the case.
In August of last year, corporate investigators from top firms in London and New York were retained by lawyers working for Thani, commonly referred to by his initials, HBJ, to recover 17 pieces of jewellery worth over $90 million stolen over the previous three months. The blinged out jewellery was unique and expensive enough – and in some cases so well-known in the trade – that investigators assumed openly fencing them would be too risky for the thief. Familiar with the markets for high-end gems, the investigators concluded the thieves would have the stones removed from settings and recut to disguise their origins. Antwerp, New York City and Dubai – with their large diamond markets – were where the investigators told HBJ’s representatives to look.
“That’s when things got weird,” said a third investigator briefed on the case. “As details became available, it got increasingly surreal.”
Thani wasn’t a surprising victim, according to multiple investigators who worked on the case, as he has billions in assets and a reputation for collecting extremely expensive jewellery.
“HBJ is a legend in the diamond industry,” said one Antwerp-based broker. “He’s considered a whale as a client, it’s well-known that he has an extremely valuable collection.”
But how he became the victim of one of the biggest jewellery heists in history left the investigators stunned.
Thani’s estimated net worth of about $2 billion actually downplays the extent of both his wealth and political power, according to a Gulf-based banker who has worked with both Thani and the $230 billion Qatar Sovereign Wealth Fund, which Thani managed until 2013.
“Lots of people are worth a couple billion but it’s usually tied up in shares and options… HBJ’s billions are liquid or extremely valuable assets,” said the banker, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He’s richer than a normal billionaire.”
Thani’s assets – and the list is far from complete – include shares or outright control in major London real-estate projects, including the Shard, Harrods and One Hyde Park, as well banking assets ranging from large stakes in Deutsche Bank to control of the largest financial institutions in Luxembourg. The UK press dubbed him, “the man who bought London,” because of his long tenure at the helm of the Qatari investment fund.
The sheikh famously likes nice things: His $179 million bid on Picasso’s Les Femmes d'Alger in 2015 set a then record for a painting at auction. And he holidays on a $300 million super yacht named Al Mirqab, according to the Panama Papers leak. His son has recently made multiple bids to buy Manchester United Football Club.
But beyond wealth, Thani spent 30 years as Qatar’s foreign minister from 1992 to 2013, as well as six years between 2007 and 2013 as prime minister collecting power. These roles – combined with his massive personal fortune – have long given him influence and access in the world’s most powerful circles.
“Few combine HBJ’s levels of rich and politically powerful. He can telephone Hezbollah as easily as he can Tony Blair and both will immediately answer.”
During his years in power, Thani built a reputation for canny political insight, patient but demanding negotiations, and an ability to bring different rival factions together. As Qatar’s foreign minister and then prime minister, he helped broker ceasefires in Yemen and Lebanon during political crises and serves as a key interlocutor with US politics via his relationship with the famed Brookings Institute think tank. He played a key role in negotiating an end to the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and brokered border disputes between Sudan and Chad. He’s also been involved in countless hostage or prisoner negotiations, including efforts to obtain the release of Pakistan’s prime minister from prison on corruption charges, and freeing nurses taken hostage in Libya.
During the Syrian revolution, his office reportedly served as a key fundraising and logistical support hub for Syrian rebels, funnelling hundreds of millions in aid to Syria, as well as playing a key role in obtaining the release of foreign hostages in both Iraq and Syria.
“HBJ is politically semi-retired since the new emir took over in 2013 and focuses on his investments,” said a Middle East analyst, who agreed to freely discuss Thani’s political influence in exchange for not being named.
“But he spent more than 20 years as one of the region’s most important power brokers and fixers,” said the analyst. “And so his power and influence, while not what they were in the 2000s, remains impressive. His connections to regional players as well as key officials throughout the US, UK and France are strong and he is owed many favours in capitals around the world.”
These connections have occasionally courted controversy, with revelations in June 2022 that Thani had given Britain’s King Charles III – then Prince Charles – at least £3 million in three instalments of cash from 2011 to 2015. The payments, personally delivered in luxury bags, were later described as donations to the Prince’s charitable trusts. As foreign minister in 1997, it was revealed that at least £7 million was transferred to accounts controlled by Thani in the Jersey Islands as part of an alleged kickback scheme with the UK defence contractor BAE. Thani paid regulators £6 million but did not admit any wrongdoing.
Most recently, he oversaw Qatar’s successful bid to host the last World Cup, an effort widely criticised for allegations of vote-buying by the Qataris.
“Few combine HBJ’s levels of rich and politically powerful,” said the analyst. “He can telephone Hezbollah as easily as he can [former UK PM] Tony Blair and both will immediately answer.”
In 2008, Thani negotiated a ceasefire and political settlement between Hezbollah and rival Lebanese factions. In 2012, he paid Blair $1 million for a few hours' work to broker a settlement on the $50 billion merger between mining giants Glencore and Xstrata, according to UK newspaper the Guardian.
But this wealth and access to the corridors of power still couldn’t protect his jewels from an online grifter who’d spent years targeting Thani’s naive, but apparently honest, assistant.
In April 2019, Thani’s personal assistant – referred to as Victim 1 in the arrest warrant but identified by her first name “Magdalena” in documents given to investigators – had been using Purple Garden – a website for advice for all things connected to psychics, love and relationships – for about a year when she met a new adviser, “Giovanni.” This new adviser, prosecutors allege, was Lee, the Florida resident now indicted on multiple felony charges.
“Giovanni’s” now defunct Purple Garden bio described him as a life coach, psychic and relationship guru. He quickly became close to Magdelena, while providing psychic advice and protection from various “bad auras,” according to Lee’s charging documents, as well as a victim’s statement taken from Magdalena in August, the details of which were summarised to VICE News.
By June 2022, having conducted the mentoring relationship mostly via WhatsApp, Lee/Giovanni convinced Magdalena that her romantic and psychic problems lay with her personal jewellery, which he said contained bad auras, the charging documents say, backed up by information provided to VICE News by investigators prior to Lee’s arrest.
“As incredible as it sounds, he’d been priming her for nearly four years and she trusted him.”
To this point, according to investigators who read Magdalena’s statement provided to the FBI, Lee had been running a long-term scam, having collected at least $150,000 in fees from the assistant.
“It becomes clear that by June he’s decided to go for the big one and he convinces her to mail him her personal jewellery to have the ‘auras cleaned’,” said the third investigator briefed on the case. “We don’t know when it went from a scam to make money off a lonely person to setting up a jewellery heist.”
A few weeks later, according to both investigators and charging documents, Lee returned Magdalena’s aura-cleaned jewellery via FedEx. The cleansing had succeeded but Lee had bad news. Magdalena’s jewellery, according to Lee, had spread “bad spirits,” and infected her boss's jewels. These bad auras put the entire household at risk, Lee said. The only solution? Lee needed to spiritually clean Thani’s legendary jewellery collection before any misfortune struck the family.
By promptly returning her jewellery, Lee earned Magdalena’s trust and supplied a reason to hide the operation from Thani: convinced she had caused the aura problem, Magdalena wanted to fix it without alerting her boss. But according to her statement, Magdalena had a major concern: The jewellery collection – worth hundreds of millions of dollars – was kept in a vault in the Doha palace, protected by security cameras.
“So Giovanni tells her that won’t be a problem because he will cast a spell that will make her invisible to cameras,” said a fourth investigator briefed on the case. “As incredible as it sounds, he’d been priming her for nearly four years and she trusted him.”
The spell didn’t work. On June 12, 2022, security cameras recorded Magdalena entering the vault for about 10 minutes, according to the arrest warrant. But it would still be months, three more trips to the vault, and a confession from Magdalena before Thani and his security team realised what had happened.
Documents provided to VICE News, including FedEx receipts and package tracking information, show that Magdalena paid 335 Qatari riyals ($92) to send a 0.5 kg package from Doha, Qatar to an address in Davenport, Florida that the FBI later determined to be one of Lee’s residences.
The envelope – sent without insurance or requiring a signature and addressed to Lee, according to the tracking data – held four of what would eventually be 17 pieces of high-end jewellery worth at least $90 million. Of the four shipments mailed over six weeks last summer, three were sent to an address in Davenport, Florida and one to an address in Paramus, New Jersey, which the FBI also linked directly to Lee.
On June 23, Magdalena made another visit to the vault, with a FedEx receipt and tracking number showing six more pieces were sent to Davenport. This take included a 41-carat Burmese sapphire ring. The ring, along with a 103-carat diamond necklace – sent to Lee on July 7, 2022 – cost $22,100,000 in 2008, according to a receipt addressed to Thani from Chatila, a high-end jewellery shop in Geneva, Switzerland.
Also sent in the third package on July 7, was a huge, internally flawless pink diamond ring that cost Thani $31 million in 2010, according to a receipt from Moussaieff, a London jeweller, also addressed to Thani.
The fourth and final package sent on July 17 to New Jersey held just a single necklace, set with 75 carats of intense yellow and white diamonds and worth $3,000,000.
Of the 17 pieces sent to Lee, receipts examined by VICE News for the purchase of ten of the stolen items indicate Thani had paid about $90 million in total for them. The other seven would be worth an additional tens of millions, according to a diamond broker who examined the receipts, and in the case of most of the pieces, certificates from the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), which authenticates diamonds and rare gems.
The broker authenticated the documentation but refused to be identified for professional reasons and fear of upsetting a rich, gem-loving sheikh.
Lee apparently succeeded in cleansing the 17 pieces of jewellery and, according to the arrest warrant, charged Magdalena far more than he had in the past. She’d paid either Purple Garden or Lee himself about $150,000 in fees for his services over the four years prior to the jewellery situation. But manipulating the auras of so many pieces of expensive jewels takes intensive effort, so Lee raised his rates to over $50,000 for each of the four packages of Thani’s gems that were sent over the six-week period. Magdalena diligently included checks in each of the four FedEx packages.
“Maybe he did it to better sell [the scam] to the assistant or maybe he just went for the extra $200,000 cash because he’s clearly very greedy,” said the former FBI agent turned private investigator in New York. “Probably both.”
The first red flag – according to the statement Magdalena gave Qatari investigators, a summary of which was characterised to VICE News – was Lee’s initial reluctance to return the jewels the same way he received them: in a FedEx package. A summary of the statement was characterised to VICE News as part of the indictment against Lee.
Magdalena later told investigators that Lee expressed concern the jewels would be seized by customs authorities if he sent them via FedEx. It’s unclear if Magdalena pointed out that’s how the gems had first arrived, but her concerns were assuaged somewhat by Lee’s promise to meet her in Cannes, France at the end of August, where she’d be accompanying Thani on a summer holiday.
When Lee didn’t show in Cannes, Magdalena WhatsApped him in a panic, according to her statement.
“Let’s just negotiate the movie rights, because you’re never going to find these diamonds.”
The FBI later retrieved the messages. After Magdalena asked Lee why he didn’t come to Cannes as planned and asked when he would return the jewels, Lee finally ended the charade with a brazen gaslighting.
“Please stop… I do not know what you were talking about… I don’t think you need a psychic… you need a psychiatrist… God bless you please stop harassing me,” Lee wrote, according to the arrest warrant.
Magdalena immediately realised her mistake and confessed to Thani, before providing a lengthy statement to Thani’s security team and returning to Doha on a private jet. Described as a victim in the arrest affidavit, Magdalena had not been directly interviewed by US law enforcement as of at least mid-December, according to the warrant. It’s unclear if she will face criminal charges in Doha, but multiple people associated with the case said that despite initial concerns, there’s no sign she was an accessory of Lee.
“Everyone who saw the file first assumed there must be a good chance of her involvement, it’s hard to swallow her story,” said the fourth investigator briefed on the case. “But… as eye-wateringly naive as it seems, consider that he groomed her for four years, established intimate trust and was provided with her most intimate details. And it appears she’s got an isolated life as a foreign guest worker, professionally devoted to a very rich and powerful man… A professional grifter like ‘Giovanni’ seeks out isolated, lonely, somewhat naive people like this.”
Through Lee’s internet activity, as well as having at least $90 million in stolen jewels Fedex’d to his home under his real name, the FBI and private investigators quickly linked him to the theft. But beyond the effort to arrest him, a parallel effort was underway to recover the jewels themselves before they were reworked and cut into new stones by unethical diamond dealers.
“Let’s just negotiate the movie rights, because you’re never going to find these diamonds,” one expert on fraud in Antwerp’s diamond district told investigators last September.
Investigators focused on New York and Antwerp’s diamond districts to recover whatever stones they could find, or clues as to how Lee planned to fence the gems. With Lee’s close ties to nearby northern New Jersey, New York City’s large diamond industry was an obvious place to start. As was Antwerp, not only the world’s largest diamond bourse, but arguably the most notorious in terms of rock-based crime.
With the exception of a Rolex watch, the other 16 pieces stolen by Lee could easily be converted into new stones that might pass cursory inspection by less ethical diamond dealers.
“I wish [he] had just contacted me, The client just wanted his stuff back.”
“In New York and Antwerp, the famous dealers you see along the streets with signs, those aren’t going to touch a large, very expensive stone without GIA certificates,” said a retired Belgian police official, who specialised in diamond cases and continues to consult to the industry.
“It’s the small unmarked offices on the side streets that might get involved in something like this,” the ex-cop explained. “Finding the right people would be very difficult without connections to the industry – it’s not smart to ask strangers if they’d like to be involved in a multi-million dollar crime – but with the right connections finding someone to melt the settings and recut the stones and issue new GIA certificates wouldn't be that hard.”
Which is exactly what Lee did, according to the arrest warrant and a separate lawsuit filed by a diamond dealer who got sucked into the plot to sell the $31-million-dollar pink diamond.
Lee had begun to sell items to two diamond dealers in New Jersey and New York City, according to Lee’s arrest warrant. The pink diamond that Thani had paid $31 million for in 2010 was bought by a dealer the indictment calls Subject 2, who traded Lee about $8 million in watches and loose diamonds for the stone. Working with another dealer, Subject 1, the pair paid Lee about $4 million in cash for a 42-carat diamond ring as well as 150 loose diamonds, believed to have been pried from the 103-carat necklace that Thani bought from Chatila in 2008.
Instead of meeting Magdalena in France to return the “cleansed” jewels, according to the charging documents and investigators briefed on the case, Lee spent August in New York City and New Jersey attempting to sell items to various jewellery dealers, several of whom remain under investigation for their role.
“Someone comes in with a $31 million diamond without a setting and no GIA certificate?” said the Belgian ex-cop. “They accept $8 million in watches and other diamonds for it? It’s obviously illegal.”
In October, the two dealers had approached a diamond cutter for help turning the large pink stone into two stones: a smaller 3-carat diamond and a larger 13-carat diamond, according to the arrest warrant and a related lawsuit. The cutter enlisted Zaki Salame, another dealer who helped improve the colour of the two new diamonds, and eventually paid over $3 million to become a 1/8th partner on the eventual sale of the larger stone.
On Salame’s advice, and armed with new GIA certificates he’d provided, the dealers approached Christie’s for an auction of the larger stone in early November. After Christie’s received its own authentication from GIA to confirm the quality and value of the diamond, it was set to be auctioned – with an estimated $35 million price tag – in early December.
But although experts at Christie’s and Salame had so far failed to notice the pink diamond’s similarity to the famous stone owned by Thani, someone involved in the sale – described as “Confidential Witness 1” in Lee’s arrest warrant – did recognise the gem and called Thani, who confirmed the theft, with the FBI also being notified. Salame has since filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the original dealers in an effort to get his $3 million returned.
Christie’s had to pull the stone from auction and the FBI seized all the available related diamonds. It’s unclear from the arrest warrant if any of the other pieces – beyond the necklace and large pink diamond – have been recovered, but the arrest warrant implies at least some of the pieces were sold before law enforcement could recover them.
In a statement at the time, Christie’s said it was cooperating with law enforcement and would not comment further.
By November last year, Lee had been arrested as each person involved in the sales began to cooperate with the FBI, which seized all the cash and diamonds.
“I wish [he] had just contacted me,” said the fourth investigator briefed on the case. “The client just wanted his stuff back.”
VICE News made multiple attempts to contact Thani or his representatives over the course of two weeks, including emails and phone calls to his charitable foundation in Doha, as well as letters and phone calls to both the Embassy of Qatar in Washington DC and Qatar’s mission to the United Nations. There has been no response.
The last anyone heard, Magdalena remained in Qatar and has not been charged in connection with the case.