The True Story Behind the Hulu Documentary The Jewel Thief

7 minute read

The Jewel Thief, a documentary out July 13 on Hulu, details the life of Gerald Blanchard, once called the “world’s most ingenious thief.” The film goes beyond the details of Blanchard’s notable crown jewel robbery, uncovering his complex, world-spanning decades of crimes and the story of the detectives who finally caught him.

Filmmaker Landon Van Soest first learned about Blanchard around 2007, when he made national headlines for returning an Austrian crown jewel known as the Sisi Star that he had stolen in 1998. In making the documentary, Van Soest aspired to dig deeper than what meets the eye about Blanchard and his crimes. “Delving into it I realized that that [the jewel] was just the tip of the iceberg and that there was a lifetime of criminal obsession and ambition for him,” he tells TIME. “He constantly graduated to these larger, more complex, more involved series of heists.”

Blanchard, who appears in the documentary, takes pride in his controversial rise. “My story is probably very fascinating because everyone wishes they could do the things I’ve done,” he says in the film. “When you’re a kid, people dream about robbing banks. I think it’s a fantasy that most people have but they actually never executed it like I did.”

The Jewel Thief
Gerald Blanchard shown in 'The Jewel Thief'Courtesy of Hulu

Who is Gerald Blanchard?

Blanchard, born in 1972, grew up in Canada before moving to Omaha, Nebraska with his mother and sister. According to his mother Carol Phegly, Blanchard was quiet as a child, often interested in taking apart electronics. “If he told me he’d be a mastermind international thief I would have blown it off,” she says in the film.

The Jewel Thief covers the events of Blanchard’s life by interspersing his recollections with those from people who have known him, revealing him to be an unreliable narrator with a tendency to exaggerate. In the film, he claims he stole milk from his neighbors growing up, jumped down from a parachute to escape a heist, and avoided a press frenzy when escaping another. These stories are refuted by others in the documentary, including Blanchard’s mother, who recall the same events in less fantastical detail.

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In the movie, Blanchard’s former teachers and close childhood friends share their memories, noting his obsession with attention and being in front of the camera. Blanchard documented most of his life on video cameras—including his criminal activities—which led, in part, to his eventual demise.

Van Soest says that while some details of Blanchard’s stories were misaligned, several parts of Blanchard’s most mind-boggling experiences rang true across the board from the film’s interviewees. “We really wanted to let him tell those stories and try to call bullsh-t where we could,” he says.

Blanchard developed a contentious relationship with banks in his younger days, when one attempted to foreclose the house he shared with his family in Nebraska. “I’ve always had this grudge against the banks,” he says in the documentary. He would go on to steal from banks, finding thrill in the challenge of executing sophisticated crimes—and becoming a recognizable figure.

The Jewel Thief
A still from 'The Jewel Thief'Courtesy of Hulu

A life of pickpocketing and bank robberies leads to a stolen Austrian jewel

Blanchard’s criminal life began first with forays into shoplifting and pickpocketing jewelry and merchandise as a teenager. He then moved on to stealing electronics and making fake receipts of his stolen goods, but found he was not fully satisfied. “I realized ‘Why am I doing these small returns for small money when I can actually take the cash from a bank?’”

After embarking on more elaborate schemes, Blanchard was arrested when he was 15-years-old and charged with grand theft. Released after three months, Blanchard continued to steal, and started taking in a substantial amount of money—according to the film, Blanchard had $100,000 stored in garbage bags and had bought a house at the age of 16.

Blanchard escaped arrest twice—once crawling through the ceiling at a police station and another time driving away in a police car—before being deported to Canada in 1997.

“I could have stopped a long time ago but you always need that thrill. It’s actually an addiction because I’ve had tens of millions of dollars throughout my life and I continued doing crimes,” he says in the documentary.

In 1998, Blanchard pulled off what is arguably his most notable heist, stealing a rare jewel that belonged to Empress Elisabeth of Austria from the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, and replacing it with a replica from a gift shop. Blanchard says in the film that stealing the jewel was part of a bigger plan—he would use it as a bargaining tool for future crimes in negotiations with authorities. “Plus it looked nice,” he adds.

In 2004, Blanchard successfully stole about $500,000 from the ATMs of a soon to open Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) in Winnipeg, Canada. At that point, it was just one of his many bank crimes, but it would be what led to his eventual downfall. That same night, a Walmart employee working next to the bank saw the vehicle Blanchard had driven. The car was rented under Blanchard’s name, which allowed detectives the access to wiretap his phone and track his every move.

In 2007, following a failed crime stint in Egypt and Europe and a continued investigation from Canadian detectives regarding the CIBC robbery, authorities caught and arrested Blanchard. His past partner, Angela James, cooperated with the police.

Leading up to his arrest Blanchard studied everything he executed intently, but his crimes would ultimately catch up to him. “It’s like playing a chess game. One mistake, your freedom is gone,” he said.

Where is Blanchard now?

After his arrest Blanchard cooperated with authorities, admitting to his crimes and explaining in finite details how he accomplished them. He turned over the coveted Sisi Star, which he was hiding in his grandmother’s Winnipeg home.

According to the documentary, Blanchard was indicted on 16 counts of theft and fraud, facing a maximum sentence of 164 years in prison. After detailing his crimes, surrendering the Sisi Star, and paying full restitution to the CIBC, his sentence was reduced to eight years in prison. As a condition of Blanchard’s guilty plea, none of his accomplices received prison sentences.

Blanchard was released on April 23, 2012, and would go on to build a public persona, recounting his outlandish crimes, alongside various books and videos about his life. “I won because it was my public persona and my image that they created that got me where I am today. So when I was in prison I was a super star,” he says.

Blanchard’s dealings with crime continued in later years. In 2017, he was arrested along with an accomplice, for stealing PlayStations from a Best Buy in Ontario. Similar to the CIBC heist, investigators identified Blanchard as a suspect because a car at the scene was rented in his name.

A detective who investigated the case that put Blanchard behind bars says in the film that it’s not a total surprise. “I think the need to conquer is probably still there,” he says.

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