A black Mercedes slows to a halt and the driver hurries to open the door for his celebrated passenger.
The tip of a walking stick appears first, then, as it finds the pavement, lean fingers decorated with jewelled rings can be seen gripping its handle.
After a few moments the stick is followed by its owner – a matriarchal old lady wrapped against the winter chill in a thick blue cardigan.
She pulls herself upright as children greet her with cries of delight and a young man obligingly takes her arm.
In this quiet residential district on the fringes of the Bulgarian city of Stara Zagora, 77-year-old Donka Panova is everyone’s favourite Roma grandmother and much revered.
But don’t be fooled by her congenial smile and, above all, don’t get too close . . . she is also Bulgaria’s grande dame of pickpocketing and proud of her sobriquet, Golden Hands.
Down the years Golden Hands has schooled hundreds of children, including her 30 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren, in the intricacies of her criminal art – and many of her graduates are now planning to travel to Britain in the New Year when restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian migrants are lifted.
Sitting in a cafe, her grandson Gospodin Panov, 26, emits a low whistle as he contemplates the rich pickings. ‘All those people in London packed on Underground trains with their arms in the air. It will be too easy!’
Gospodin has experience of England already. ‘I was in Portsmouth a few years ago and made £3,000 in one week pickpocketing,’ he says. His grandmother interjects: ‘I started in 1950, in the Communist era, when things were not so easy.
‘These days, I envy the way our young people can travel all over Europe to make money. But in my day I was the best. I was The Pickpocket.’
Even today, she still likes to keep her hand in, so to speak. ‘Only if I am at the market, though, and an opportunity presents itself.’
Not that she needs the money – her light fingers have made her wealthy. ‘I own five houses and don’t want for anything but it becomes a kind of addiction,’ she says.
In Bulgaria there are about 60 sub-groups of Roma, each with different outlooks and, in many cases, different ways of earning money.
Golden Hands and her family are members of the Kardarashi clan, which number 3,000 in the Stara Zagora region.
Other clans might run prostitution rackets, but the Kardarashi stick chiefly to pickpocketing. ‘We are the most skilled,’ boasts Gospodin. ‘And we rarely get caught.’
To gain access to their secret world, a Mail on Sunday team travelled to Stara Zagora posing as London criminals seeking to establish links with Roma groups ahead of January 1, when the UK border controls lapse.
After a series of meetings with underworld bosses, we were introduced to an English-speaking Kardarashi representative, who gave his name as Kamen.
The families Kamen introduced us to were all unashamed pickpockets but they seemed far removed from the migrants described by former Home Secretary David Blunkett as those who ‘don’t even live in areas where there are toilets or refuse collection facilities’.
The Kardarashi lead ordered, comfortable lives, and compared with other Roma groups they enjoy a high standard of living. They choose to live in the suburbs of Stara Zagora, rather than more ramshackle settlements in the city centre.
In many ways, they are the nearest thing to a Roma middle class and, for the other groups, keeping up with the Kardarashi isn’t always easy.
Even by Roma standards, the clan is particularly insular and conservative. Disputes are always settled internally by a strictly hierarchical leadership and there is little interaction with mainstream authority. The police simply leave them alone.
‘Yes, we train our children to pick pockets but we educate them properly too and want them to get good jobs. Pickpocketing is just part of our heritage.
‘I would settle in England only if I could get a proper job. I can’t speak for everyone but I wouldn’t rely on pickpocketing alone. And we aren’t the type of people described by this politician,’ says Gospodin, referring to Mr Blunkett.
Even so, many Kardarashi do little else but steal and most, including Gospodin, embark on what they call The Journey – a pickpocketing tour of EU countries that can last up to a year.
‘For some, what the new rules mean is that England will now be added to the list of countries we visit,’ he says.
At the same time, he has spoken to many in the clan who have made enquiries abut seeking permanent work in the UK. ‘And they are very tempted by the benefits and welfare system, the way people in England are treated generally. A lot will go in January, others will wait to see how things develop.’
Meanwhile, faced with growing concern over how many migrants from Bulgaria and Romania will come to Britain, David Cameron is determined not to make it too easy for them.
Last week he outlined a crackdown on benefits tourism, and Germany and France followed suit in what was seen as an open revolt over the EU’s policy of free movement.
Would the Kardarashi thieves ply their trade in Britain while working or claiming benefits at the same time? ‘Of course, that is the attraction,’ admits Gospodin.
Most of the clan’s pickpockets are female, renowned for their slender fingers. During our meeting with Golden Hands and Gospodin, a group of twentysomething women dressed in tracksuits stand nearby in a huddle, like a team of nervous Olympic gymnasts awaiting their turn.
Asked if they were trained by Golden Hands, they reply: ‘Yes, all of us.’
At present, however, the current king of the dippers is a 40-year-old man known as Quiet Steps because of his singularly stealthy technique.
Last year, he returned to Bulgaria with more than £200,000 after a 12-month excursion abroad. ‘All of it came from pickpocketing,’ explains a friend.
To the Kardarashi children Quiet Steps’ status is akin to that of a pop star or top footballer.
Children play an integral role in pickpocketing but the clan, unlike others, rarely allows them to operate alone. Golden Hands reached her own peak at 25.
‘That’s when all the experience comes together,’ she says. ‘After that you gradually become less quick.’
Still, it didn’t stop her visiting Austria with her grandson five years ago for what was effectively a last hurrah. ‘We made a good team,’ she admits. ‘He would walk me down the street and I would bump into someone and as they apologised I’d pick their pocket. We did well.’
Holding aloft her index and middle fingers, she announces: ‘These are the tools of the pickpocket.’ By way of demonstration, she uses them to drag a piece of paper across a table in one smooth dexterous movement. ‘Normally my hands are concealed by a silk scarf that I always carry.’
Before we leave, she adds: ‘If I had my time again I’d visit England. But I say good luck to those I have taught who visit your country.’
Kamen then took us to meet the Nicolov family who, over tea and cakes, were more than happy to discuss their life of crime.
They live just outside the city in a comfortable house and a gleaming BMW is parked on the drive.
Zlatko Nicolov, 38, is a builder and leaves the training of his children largely to his wife Stephanie, 40.
Training starts at the age of seven. ‘Before that they are unable to absorb instructions properly,’ says Zlatko. The couple have a married daughter and three well-behaved younger children: Ivan, ten, Nikita, seven, and two-year-old Elena.
The first lesson the children must learn is a variation of an old Romany folk tale. Zlatko calls it The Legend. In short, it is that before the Crucifixion, a gipsy child stole the golden nail that was meant for Jesus’s heart, thereby allowing the Resurrection.
In return, Jesus smiled down on him and ever after excused the Romany people from committing a sin if they stole. ‘So we have God’s blessing,’ smiles Zlatko.
He adds: ‘Before they do anything the children must spend a year on the streets with us simply watching and following people, but not pickpocketing. They are taught to look for patterns of behaviour in targets, to understand some of the psychology of what we do.
‘For instance, a target might appear distracted and therefore vulnerable. Do they look like they might have money? Are they attracted by expensive stores?
‘The children must learn when to strike. A target might put his arm in the air to point at something. There might only be a split second of opportunity but they must anticipate it.’
During their induction year, children are taught how to pick pockets at home. As we talk, seven-year-old Nikita happily demonstrates what she has learned so far. Her mother puts her handbag over her shoulder and Nikita creeps up before lowering her hand inside and pulling out a purse.
Her father takes in this spectacle admiringly. ‘Although she is taught mainly by her mother, when she goes out to pick her first pocket for real, I will be the one to accompany her. It is a father’s job,’ says Zlatko.
‘When we are working, my wife and I communicate with our eyes, and this is something else the children have to learn. For example, I might follow a group of people who end up sitting outside a cafe.
‘I will position myself where I can see both the targets and my wife. Then I make a decision on who we will hit. It might be the person who pays the bill or the one who looks like they are carrying the most money.
‘Although she is taught mainly by her mother, when she goes out to pick her first pocket for real, I will be the one to accompany her.’It is a father’s job’- Zlatko Nicolov
‘I run my eyes over all of them and then blink twice while looking directly at the target so that my wife knows who it is.’
Outside their home, the couple act out what might typically happen next. ‘I get right in front of the target, drop something like a banknote, and while I am still bending I ask the person if it belongs to them,’ says Zlatko.
‘They too will often bend over, on instinct, and that is when my wife moves in from behind, carefully prising a wallet out of a back pocket, for example.’
Both Zlatko and his wife have been on The Journey. Stephanie’s greatest pay day came when she spotted a bag through the open window of a car in Zurich. ‘I grabbed it and found that it contained €25,000 [£20,700],’ she says. ‘We lived well after that.’
Stephanie claims she picks about 12 pockets a day and has never been caught. But those who are caught face the shame of being labelled ‘fire engines’ – ‘We call them that because of the way they attract attention,’ says Stephanie.
Meanwhile her husband still hasn’t decided whether to move the family to the UK next year.
He is attracted by the ‘welfare system and the prospect of building work’, but adds, smiling: ‘The only thing that would put us off would be the weather.’
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