As a scam, it had worked pretty well, netting thieves several million dollars' worth of jewelry over the last five years or so.
But this time, Los Angeles police used a scam of their own, and that worked pretty well too, netting the officers nine suspects and serving notice that lawmen are out to break up the sophisticated gang of more than 100 Latin American nationals that has been operating in the downtown area for more than a decade.
Lt. Howard Hughie, head of a special section of the Police Department's burglary squad, said Thursday that the gang, which uses clever diversions rather than force, has upgraded its former pickpocket trade and now preys on unsuspecting salesmen who frequent the Los Angeles Jewelry Mart at 6th and Hope streets, one of the largest jewelry centers in the world.
"They can spot a salesman by the distinctive attache case he usually carries," Hughie said. "When the guy goes back to his car, they follow him and, when he isn't looking, they slash or puncture a tire--just enough to cause it to leak. . . .
"When he drives off, they follow him with one or two carloads of suspects. When he realizes he has a flat and stops and gets out to fix it, they approach him. They use some sort of distraction--offering help, asking directions, maybe using a pretty girl--and when he isn't looking, they skillfully remove the case and they're gone."
Hughie said the continuing thefts by the gang members--known to police by their methods of operation, by their ties to the local Colombian community and in many cases by their mug shots on booking slips--prompted his officers to try a new tactic in recent days.
On Wednesday night, he said, an undercover detective played the role of a jewelry salesman, driving to a parking lot near the mart in a large, expensive automobile and then wandering though several shops with an attache case stuffed with $6,000 in decoy gems. Other detectives--on foot and in unmarked cars--kept him under surveillance.
"When he walked back to his car, the suspects followed him," Hughie said. "When he drove off--his tire slashed--he was followed by three cars, carrying 14 of them. . . .
"When his tire went flat in the 1300 block of South Hill, he stopped, got out, and opened the trunk, where the spare and the attache case were. . . . He was approached by several suspects, who asked him for directions. When one of them grabbed the attache case, we grabbed them."
Hughie said five of the suspects managed to escape, but six men and three women were arrested and booked on suspicion of conspiracy to commit grand theft.
The lieutenant said the whole operation went better than last week, when detectives fell in behind a group of suspects tailing a real jewelry salesman.
"The suspects got caught in heavy traffic," Hughie said. "When (the salesman) went straight, they turned left and lost him."
The suspects were stopped and arrested--on counts ranging from slashing tires to being wanted on an out-of-state fugitive warrant.
The salesman kept on driving--blissfully unaware of what was happening until officers caught up with him to tell him he was driving on a flat tire.