There is a certain romanticism that surrounds the idea of living fast and dying young. The idea is that, if you live with reckless abandon, you’ll have a better life packing all the excitement you can into a few short years than playing it safe and living a long, typical life.
But things don’t always go according to plan. Sometimes, people will live fast then… keep on living. When that happened to one former rock star, he would have to deal with the consequences of the poor choices he made in his youth…
Thinking Of Retirement
In November of 2017, Christian Etelin, one of France’s most well known criminal lawyers, was sitting at his desk late one night, considering retiring. After a long and accomplished career, the 74-year-old didn’t have much left in law that interested him.
That’s when he got a phone call offering him a chance to represent a client in a case he just couldn’t pass up. Any thoughts of retirement went out the window when he found out who he was talking to…
On the other end of the phone was Gilles, the famous former singer of a punk rock group called Camera Silens that had a significant following in the ‘80s. Camera Silens was to France what the Sex Pistols were to Britain.
Dead Man Calling
Etelin’s interest in the client wasn’t due to being starstruck, however. The first thing that intrigued him was that Gilles had been declared dead nearly a decade ago and the second was why he wanted legal representation — for a robbery that had taken place nearly 30 years ago…
In the late ‘80s, Camera Silens was an iconic band with a considerable following but, despite their success, the members of the group were all destitute, addicted to heroin, and several of them had become infected with HIV through the use of contaminated needles. Needless to say, they didn’t have an optimistic view of the future.
Out With A Bang
Figuring they didn’t have much longer to live, they decided that they wanted to go out with a bang by mounting a massive armed robbery, then to blow all the cash before they died. So for over a year, Gilles and the members of his band meticulously planned a heist…
In order to gain access to their target, a Brink’s depot in Toulouse, the first step was passing themselves off as policemen. “For disguises, we bought two old uniforms at the Saint-Ouen flea market [near Paris] and we painted them blue,” Gilles Bertin said. With those disguises, they were able to kidnap 3 of the Brink’s employees.
Without A Hitch
The next day, they forced one of the employees to disable the security system, then made off with nearly 12 million francs (worth roughly $3.5 million today) without anyone being injured. The heist was so well executed that police thought they were dealing with a gang of hardened professionals — that is until the punk rockers called the local newspaper to brag about their coup…
Within a year, everyone involved in the heist was caught with the exception of Gilles Bertin. Hardly any of the money was retrieved and some of the robbers, already deteriorating from AIDS-related symptoms passed away. The rest spent some years behind bars, then returned to relative obscurity, working ordinary jobs.
On The Lam
But Bertin, on the other hand, had made for the border almost immediately after the heist, hoping to bring his girlfriend and young son with him. But the police were too close on his tail so, literally carrying bags of cash, he fled to Portugal, where he used his ill-gotten money to open a record store…
Living under the name Didier Ballet, he spent the next few years running the store and looking over his shoulder for the police, always nervous when he saw a French license plate or heard someone speaking his native tongue. But after 10 years, he thought the authorities were on his tail so he moved to Barcelona with his Spanish girlfriend.
Without A Past
He worked there for years in the bar that her family ran and the two of them had a son together. Only his girlfriend knew about his background and, to everyone else, he was just a man without a past…
Not Like The Movies
Bertin said that there was nothing romantic about the robbery or living on the lam. He was unable to keep in contact with anyone from his past, including his sister and his former girlfriend and his first son. “In hiding, unable to talk about yourself or to people from your past […] constantly on the lookout in case the authorities find you – and on top of that I was seriously ill,” he said.
Near Death Experience
Bertin was suffering from hepatitis — which had left him blind in one eye — as a result of his former drug use. He chanced going to the hospital one day where his life was saved by the hospital staff in Barcelona. They charged him nothing and asked him no questions because he had no documents. After his life was saved, he decided he needed to pay back society for the wrong he’d done…
“I realized I had to tell the truth and come clean about my past,” Bertin said. That’s how he came to be on the phone with Christian Etelin, working out how he could come back to France and face justice.
Shortly after that call, he took the train to Toulouse and, with his lawyer, turned himself in at police headquarters. He hadn’t packed much because he expected to be thrown in jail immediately but, to his surprise, he was able to remain free until his trial, where he intended to plead guilty to the robbery that took place 28 years prior…
He Didn’t Have To
During his trial, Etelin said that Bertin could have “calmly waited for his case to pass the statute of limitations (in 2024)” since he’d already been declared dead and no one was looking for him anymore. “But to lie about his story had become unbearable for him. He came to forget his past and find a future.”
Still A Criminal
But regardless of the person he’d become since, the fact of the matter was that Bertin had committed a serious crime. The prosecutor called for a 5-year sentence, saying that he was “astonished to hear that the seriousness of the charges should be washed away by time or the redemption of the accused.”…
The judge had a different opinion on the matter. He did hand Bertin a 5-year sentence, but a suspended one, meaning he was guilty but could walk free to continue the life he’d built, this time without fear. The verdict was met by applause from supporters of the former rock star.
A Different Man
Now, Gilles Bertin was able to reunite with his sister and his 31-year-old son, though both his parents had died while he was on the run. “I made mistakes but I am not that same person now,” he said, looking back. “At 57, I am more mature and have nothing to do with that period in my life. Hopefully, I will be able to explain to my son the choices that I made back then.” He said.