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How Italy's Most Famous Thief Built His Career on Accidentally Robbing Prince Charles

Renato Rinino was a child prodigy when it came to stealing and later made his name as a sort of Italian Robin Hood – a criminal with a heart of gold.

by Niccolò Carradori
07 December 2016, 9:00am

Renato Rinino, top left. All images courtesy of Valerio Burli

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy

Some time in the early 1990s, renowned Italian thief Renato Rinino arrived at his father's funeral late, accompanied by about 20 police officers. By that time, Rinino had been in prison for several years for robbery and he had just kicked his heroin addiction. He asked the officers if he could maybe say goodbye to his father without his handcuffs on, but they didn't allow it. He was handcuffed for the duration of the funeral. He later said in interviews: "At my father's grave, I swore that I would never do any drugs again but also that I would never stop stealing. I kept those promises."

Valerio Burli's 2015 documentary Lupen – Romanzo di un Ladro Reale ("Lupin – Story of a Royal Thief") reconstructs Rinino's life through media snippets and stories from his friends and family. Rinino was a child prodigy when it came to stealing and later made his name as a sort of Robin Hood – a criminal with a heart of gold.

However, he gained international notoriety when he accidentally robbed Prince Charles in 1994. During this time, he picked up the nickname "the Lupin of the Ligurian Riviera" (after the fictional "gentleman thief" Arsène Lupin) and showed up countless times on Italian television. But his story was largely forgotten after his death in 2003.

The trailer for Lupen – only available in Italian, sadly. There is no distribution deal for the documentary yet.

Film school graduate Valerio Burli came across Rinino's story while finishing his degree at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Aquila. He was looking for a subject for his graduation documentary, when a bit of random googling led him to Rinino's Wikipedia page. "Reading it, I thought there was so much to his tale that it almost had to be fake, a hoax," Valerio Burli told me. "Hours after I pitched the project to my teachers, I left for his hometown, Savona." In Savona, Burli realised that the memory of Rinino was very much alive among the people who had known him.

Rinino was born in 1962, and showed an impressive talent for stealing from a very young age. According to the documentary, it all began with a toy trumpet he sneakily stole from one of his classmates. But his tendencies quickly got out of control. "When he was a toddler, he stole all of his classmates' toys and snacks," his sister recounts in the film. "When the break came, no one could eat because he had secretly put everyone's snacks in his own bag." When his family decided to send him to a summer camp a few years later, Renato took all the money the other kids in his dorm had brought, to pay for an early trip back home for himself.


Renato Rinino, third row, first from left, during his stay at summer camp.

When he was 11, social services sent him to the Garaventa after a number of offences. The Garaventa was a reformatory ship anchored in the port of Genoa, where delinquent minors were drilled and prepared for a naval career, as a means of getting them on the straight and narrow. Rinino's time there had the opposite effect – the ship was packed with petty criminals like him, and so his craft was perfected.

After leaving the Garaventa, he started breaking into apartments, which led to a few years of checking in and out of jail. In the documentary, his sister recalls having seen every jail in the area from the inside, thanks to her visits to him. Rinino tried to give up stealing more than once, but always resorted back to it when he couldn't find a legitimate job.

In local media he began to be known as a gentleman thief – someone with intelligence, charm and good manners, who never uses physical force to steal. One reason Rinino was well liked, was that he made a point not to steal from people who weren't well off to begin with. In 1989, when he realised through a local newspaper report that he had robbed a poor elderly lady, he immediately returned the stolen goods and gave her some extra cash for the inconvenience.

"In a scene I cut from the documentary, I interviewed a police officer about Rinino. He spoke about him with so much affection," Burli told me. But as Rinino developed a heroin addiction, his crimes became motivated by desperation. At 32, he had spent a total of 16 years of his life in prison.


Renato Rinino's tools. Still from the documentary

That year, in 1994, he committed a crime that would briefly give him notoriety around the world. Rinino had just moved to London for a fresh start but old habits die hard. One day, while passing St. James's Palace, he noticed that some scaffolding to the wall of the building had been left unattended. Completely oblivious to whom or what St. James's Palace housed, Rinino climbed onto the scaffolding, forced a window and went in. He happened to have climbed right into Prince Charles' private residence, so he stole the jewellery he found there – cufflinks, gold broaches, watches, some silver boxes and some documents. He subsequently managed to get out without being noticed by the guards.

Rinino wasn't aware of who his famous victim was, until he read reports on it in the newspapers the next day. Police were alerted to the fact that the thief might be Italian by a dealer, who Rinino had tried to sell his loot to hours after the fact. Still, Italy's thief managed to leave the country and get back to his homeland. The case remained unsolved for another three years.

Once these three years had passed, the statute of limitations on the robbery expired. Having realised immediately after the crime what an enormous media opportunity the scandal could be for him, Rinino turned himself in, in 1997 – right when he couldn't be persecuted for it anymore. He announced to Italian media that he would be happy to return the stolen goods – in exchange for a personal meeting with Prince Charles.

At first, Italian media didn't take Rinino seriously at all but that changed when he took on a lawyer, who insisted he had seen some of Prince Charles's stolen possessions. Rinino started looking into commercially exploiting the story by having cameras follow him in his pursuit of a meeting with Prince of Wales.

That was in the late nineties, a time when Italy's obsession with reality television had just started to blossom. Rinino wanted to take advantage of his 15 minutes, and the Italian media were more than happy to help him in that endeavour. TV shows began to consistently use him as a guest or host – one programme even sent him to London to watch a royal family parade. As for the stolen royal jewellery, Rinino returned these some time later, after months of trying and failing to personally meet Prince Charles.


Renato Rinino in a television interview. Still from the documentary

Italian media weren't just chronicling Rinino's quest for a private moment with a certain member of the British royal family – Burli's documentary also includes countless bits of TV items showing Rinino trying to rebuild his life, and questioning whether his criminal tendencies will come back to tempt him. He even received a few proposals for the rights to turn his life story in a biopic.

That never happened. Rinino was shot in the head by one of his neighbours, and died on the 12th of October 2003, aged 41.

"The media always depicted him with a sense of mystery, so when he died, there were a lot of conspiracy theories about who or what could be behind it. One such story suggested it had been former employees of St. James's Palace, who had lost their jobs over the theft and were out for revenge," Burli told me. "But in reality, it was just his neighbour, who shot him out of spite. Rinino had this over the top personality and he could really get in people's faces." A little after his death, the public interest moved on.

A big part of Rinino's story is the cliché of the mischievous charmer/thief. Burli's documentary shows that that's how he wanted to be known, and it shows how Italian media constructed that narrative to make him the most famous Italian thief of all time. But that's not what Burli wanted to do with his own film. "In the final part of the documentary, I tried to show the human side of Rinino. I saw what's true about the man by listening to his best friends."

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