Recommended Playlist: Camera Silens- Pour La Gloire, Camera Silens- Realite, Camera Silens- Squatt, Camera Silens- Suicide
The Punk Who Came In From The Cold
the crimes of Gilles Bertin
“Et il savait, et il savait, Qu'un
jour les rats boufferaient sa
(And he knew, and he knew,
that one day the rats would
eat his life)
Squatt by Camera Silens
Let's be honest, punk musicians don't really have a reputation as careful criminal masterminds. Most people associate punks with mindless violence or drunken shenanigans but Gilles Bertin, singer and bassist of the French band Camera Silens, was a different sort of punk rocker.
Camera Silens were pioneers in the French street punk movement. They started out in 1981 on the wrong side of Bordeaux and within a couple years had a made a name for themselves across France. The band was beloved by the punks and skins who went to the shows and read the zines, but had none of the rock star trappings of some of the American and British “punks”. There were no fancy hotels and champagne for Camera Silens whose members were more likely to be found living in squats and sharing needles. Gilles Bertin started committing robberies to pay for his junk and eventually got arrested trying to steal a stereo and did a little jail time.
By the late 80's things were getting desperate for the ragged gang of French punks. The squats were always getting busted, the venues were always getting shut down and their fellow junkies were starting to get sick and die. Bertin managed to get himself clean, just as AIDS began to ravage the French punk community, and traded the rush of heroin for the buzz of crime. "More than the money, it was the adrenaline I was after most," Bertin said in a 2016 interview. He and his friends spent the cash as quick as they could get it, often with nothing to show for their efforts. This got Gilles thinking on a grander scale. Maybe one big score could set them up... for however long they had left.
Bertin took time planning his first real heist and eventually recruited a dozen friends, including his bandmates, some revolutionary anarchists, and even an associate of the Basque ETA organization to help him with the scheme. They chose the target, the Brinks depot in Toulouse, carefully and spent months watching the movements of the trucks and the staff.
On the night of April 26, 1988 The gang put on fake police uniforms, hopped in a pair of stolen Renaults, and showed up at their meeting point looking like gendarmes. The crew split up, each group going to the home of a Brink's security guard. The fake cops then kidnapped the terrified guards and their wives and took them to a warehouse in Toulouse. When the
Bertin and Camera Silens in the early 80s
time was right they dragged one of the guards over to the Brinks depot and forced him to deactivate the security system. Now with access to the building the would be crooks rounded up the other employees and tied them together in a storeroom. Nobody tried to fight back and nobody got hurt. The gang of lowly street punks worked fast hauling bags of cash out to their waiting cars. When the next employees arrived for work at 8 am they were shocked to see their colleagues tied up, the vault doors hanging open and over 11.75 million francs (approximately $4 million Canadian today) missing.
The heist had gone off perfectly, without a shot being fired, and the gang celebrated their victory. Bertin even contacted a local newspaper to brag about their skill. The robbery had gone so smoothly that the police were initially convinced that it had to be the work of professional organized criminals but, of course, the truth was another thing entirely. The gang was so unprofessional and disorganized that they started partying, started talking, and were quickly rounded up. Within a few months the police had all of the major players under arrest, all except for Gilles Bertin.
The mastermind behind the robbery had also planned a way out for himself. He filled suitcases with as much of the money as he could carry and slipped across the border into Spain. Gilles Bertin would eventually find himself in Lisbon Portugal where he started a whole new life. He changed his name and, though he would never play in a band again, he kept a hand in the music world and bought himself a record store (paid for with stacks of French cash). It might sound like he had won, like he had managed to beat the system, but Berin never felt comfortable in his new life. When he went on the lam he had left his wife and young son behind, as well as all of his friends who were rotting in jail (and in many cases dying of AIDS). He had hoped to renite with his family in Spain but got nervous that the police were near and hit the road. In 1994 he got news that his wife had also succumbed to the AIDS epidemic leaving his son alone. He was always looking over his shoulder, and the paranoia was getting to him.
In 2004 a French court tried Gilles Bertin in absentia and sentenced him to 10 years for his part in the robbery. In 2010 the courts went a step further and declared him legally dead. Though Bertin wasn't dead, his life was starting to unravel. After years on the run he was now in Barcelona, running a bar with his new partner and suffering with his own health problems. His early hard living had caught up with him and he needed treatment for cirrhosis, Hepatitis, and AIDS. Eventually his medical complications caused him to lose an eye. By 2016 he had another young child, was feeling guilty and afraid he might not live much longer. Enough was enough. After almost 28 years he walked across the border, took a train to Toulouse, met his lawyer and turned himself in.
In June 2018 Gilles Bertin stood before a judge in the Toulouse Assizes courtroom. He was facing a possible 20 years in prison and had already pleaded guilty to all charges. He was worried about the outcome but was relieved that he had re-established a relationship with his family, including his now 31 year old son, and could finally be himself again. Much to his relief the court handed down a 5 year suspended sentence, after taking into account his health and family situation. “The facts were very serious. Thankfully they judged the man, not the facts,” Bertin said as he walked out into the street a free man.
Only 1 million francs of the money were ever recovered.
Gilles Bertin says he isn't a punk anymore... he only listens to soul music.
Gilles Bertin in 2018