A lottery millionaire with a love of street art was among eight men found guilty on Thursday of stealing a Banksy mural paying tribute to the victims of the Bataclan terror attack in Paris.
British street artist Banksy painted his “sad girl” stencil on the metal door of the Bataclan in memory of the 90 people killed there on November 13 2015 as part of a string of Islamist attacks on bars, restaurants and the Stade de France football stadium.
A white van with concealed number plates was seen stopping on January 26 2019 in an alleyway running alongside the central Paris music venue.
Many concertgoers fled via the same alley when the Bataclan became the focal point of France’s worst ever attacks since the Second World War, in which 130 people died in all.
On the morning of the theft, three masked men climbed out of the van, cut the hinges of the door with angle grinders powered by a generator and left within 10 minutes, in what an investigating judge called a “meticulously prepared” heist.
Investigators pieced together the door’s route across France and into Italy, where it was found in June 2020 on a farm in Sant’Omero, near the Adriatic coast.
During the trial, prosecutors accused one 41-year-old suspect, Mehdi Meftah, of being the “mastermind”. One of the three men who admitted to conducting the robbery had mentioned the lottery winner had “ordered” the theft for a potential sale in America.
Mr Meftah, who hid the door in his property in the Var, southern France on the day of the theft, won £4.7 million (€5.5 million) on the national lottery. He launched a luxury streetwear brand called BL1.D, which sells T-shirts that come with miniature 18-carat gold ingots attached for around £429 (€500) a piece.
He has also previously owned a Banksy screen print. Asked about this, he said: “I was raised in the street and street art became a fashionable thing. We were brought up with it.”
After winning the lottery, he said: “I saw he was in fashion, his message was interesting. I had the means to buy myself a Banksy.”
But he added that he went off the artist due to his “double discourse”.
Mr Meftah told the court that he had no idea about the theft of the mural – estimated to be worth up to €1 million – until two of the thieves turned up at his door with the artwork. He told them: “What do you want me to do with it?”
Unwilling to rat on his “friend”, he said he agreed to keep the door until they found a way of getting rid of it.
“Forty-eight hours later, I realised my stupid mistake,” he said. “I took it, put it in my lorry and got rid of it to remove the problem,” he said. His cousin and a friend ended up driving it to a hotel in Tortoreto, in the Abbruzzese in Italy.
Thieves ‘acted like vultures’
On Thursday, Mr Meftah was handed a three-year jail sentence for handling stolen goods, after judges found the main mastermind allegation unproven. His sentence will be served by wearing electronic tracking bracelets, rather than behind bars.
Three men aged in their 30s who admitted to the theft were given prison sentences, one of four years and two of three years. They too will serve the sentence with an electronic bracelet.
Three men involved in transporting the door were each jailed for 10 months, while a 58-year-old Italian man who owns a hotel where it was temporarily stored received a six-month suspended sentence.
Valerie Cadignan, the prosecutor, told the court earlier this month that the suspects had not actively sought to debase the memory of the attack victims, but “being aware of the priceless value of the door were looking to make a profit”.
However, she added that the thieves “acted like vultures, like people who steal objects without any respect for what they might represent”.
During the trial, Bataclan staff said the theft sparked “deep indignation”, adding that the painted door was a “symbol of remembrance that belongs to everyone, locals, Parisians, citizens of the world”.
Closing arguments in Paris attacks trial
The Banksy verdicts were handed out as lawyers in Paris were making their closing arguments in the Paris attacks trial.
In the dock is Salah Abdeslam, the only surviving member of the Islamist hit team.
Also on trial are 19 others accused of various degrees of assistance to the killers. The verdict is due on June 29.