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Police say Gerald Daniel Blanchard is Canada's most sophisticated bank robber and fraud artist, a man accused of leading a criminal group that baffled police, flaunted its wealth and lived a jet-set life funded by international heists.

Mr. Blanchard, about whom very little is known, was arrested in January after a three-year investigation and faces more than 40 charges of theft, fraud and participating in a criminal organization.

He was also charged this week with conspiring to hire a hit man to kidnap and murder his former girlfriend and co-accused, Lynette Tien, from his jail cell in Headingley, Man.

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It's a tale drawn straight from the pages of a pulp fiction thriller, and even police acknowledge they are staggered by its many twists. The most recent was the recovery of a missing piece of royal jewellery and new charges against Mr. Blanchard in connection with its disappearance nine years ago.

Officers displayed the precious gem, a priceless piece of jewellery worn by Elisabeth, the Empress of Austria, from 1854 to 1898, at a press conference yesterday. The piece was stolen from inside a secure glass case in Vienna's Schoenbrunn palace.

The Koechert diamond pearl, which the empress wore in her hair, was discovered in the comparatively modest environs of a home in suburban Winnipeg, and Mr. Blanchard now faces a further charge of possessing stolen property.

Empress Elisabeth, or Sisi as she was known, is revered in Austria as a tragic, Princess Diana-like figure, who lived through an unhappy marriage, struggled with anorexia and was killed by an assassin.

Police say the jewellery, also known as the Star of Empress Sisi, will eventually be returned to Austria.

In all, Mr. Blanchard faces 41 counts in connection with a crime wave that police say stretches across the country and around the globe. His co-accused include an 83-year-old Vancouver man, Carl Bales, the attractive, 21-year-old Ms. Tien, and an assortment of tough-looking characters from across Western Canada.

The exact nature of their roles isn't known, but Mr. Bales and Ms. Tien are accused of committing fraud over $5,000 and participating in a criminal organization.

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Mr. Blanchard is alleged to be the mastermind behind a $500,000 bank heist in Winnipeg in 2004. That robbery led police to similar thefts in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, and first alerted investigators to the gang's reach and sophistication. It occurred at a new CIBC mega-centre that was days away from opening in Winnipeg's west end. The thieves broke in and emptied the cash from eight ATMs by overriding security systems with techniques that police describe as very elaborate.

"I've done a lot of these types of investigations, but never have I seen something as sophisticated and technical as this," said Winnipeg police Superintendent Gord Schumacher.

"It is unique. I've spoken to chiefs of police and a number of our partners who participated in this [investigation]and quite frankly they're all a bit taken aback."

Not much is known about Mr. Blanchard, 35, save that he has a grandmother in Winnipeg, spent much of his early life in Omaha, Nebraska, and was living in Vancouver before his arrest in January. But police treat him as a formidable foe, and have done so ever since he executed a series of brazen escapes from custody as a 21-year-old in Omaha.

In April, 1993, he was detained after a high-speed chase. Mr. Blanchard hid behind a desk in the local police station, scaled a wall and crawled into the station's ceiling until he could slip out unnoticed. He took with him a police badge, gun, holster, coat and hat, and hitched a ride out of town on the back of a motorcycle, according to an account in the Omaha World-Herald. He was re-arrested the next day, and made another incredible getaway, this time slipping his handcuffs under his legs while seated in the back of the cruiser, waiting for the two officers escorting him to step out of the car, and then locking the doors on them and driving away.

He was eventually caught, convicted and deported to Canada. Police allege that he later graduated to debit-card fraud as his principal means of income.

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"Mr. Blanchard probably has the best working knowledge of electronics in the country," said Sergeant Mitch McCormick of the commercial crimes unit, adding that the technology and techniques employed in these crimes had never been seen by most police departments across Canada.

The group made millions , police said, and lived a flamboyant, playboy lifestyle, travelling the world to live it up on extended holidays.

And they left red herrings that sent investigators in entirely the wrong direction, something officers said they'd never seen before.

"They're very flamboyant. They're actually quite open about their offences, which was quite shocking to me. I didn't think a group that organized would be that open to our investigation," Sgt. McCormick said.

Mr. Blanchard remains behind bars, and only Ms. Tien has been released on bail. It's not known if she is co-operating with authorities.

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