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Gunmen Hit 5 O.C. Firms in 6 Months : Crooks Trying to Cash In on Costly Computer Chips

Times Staff Writer

Some computer chips are as good as gold, and that means they are attracting a new kind of professional to the computer industry--the armed robber.

In the past 6 months, gunmen have burst into at least five Orange County computer firms and stolen or attempted to steal bundles of the tiny but expensive chips that keep computers humming.

No one has been seriously injured in the late-night attacks, although one guard at AST Research Inc. in Irvine was roughed up, police and company officials said.

The holdups appear to be the latest--and perhaps the boldest--strategy by crooks to take and resell computer parts, especially dynamic random access memory chips and central processing unit chips.

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Both are major components in computer systems, which typically contain one CPU and 72 to 144 DRAMs. Retail prices for CPUs range from $80 to $500 apiece. The price of DRAMs has skyrocketed to as much as $200 apiece because of a worldwide shortage last year.

Before the rash of robberies, police in places like Irvine had arrested employees of high-technology firms and others for taking chips home in their pockets or purses or directing shipments of chips to friends’ homes. Burglars have also been caught trying to steal chips.

The average DRAM is about 1 inch square, and about 1,500 chips with a street value of $10 each can be stuffed into an ordinary grocery store bag, said John King, chairman of UC Irvine’s information and computer science department.

“According to some of the crooks we’ve caught, there’s a shortage of DRAMs, and the crooks have little difficulty in disposing of them,” Irvine Police Lt. Michael White said. “One crook put an ad in the Pennysaver and sold them all.”

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DRAMs actually have dropped in price in recent months and have become more available. But that hasn’t stopped the thefts, which increased last year and are still going strong, said Ken Rosenblatt, a Santa Clara County deputy district attorney specializing in high-tech crime.

But the armed robberies “seem to be a new phenomenon,” White said. Four of the five robberies occurred in Irvine; the other was in Stanton.

White said he is working with police in Stanton and other cities as well as with state and county agencies to come up with leads. None of the robberies have been solved.

The latest incident occurred about 10:30 p.m. Monday when four thugs armed with a .45-caliber handgun and an automatic weapon, believed to be a submachine gun, walked into Advanced Logic Research Inc. in Irvine.

“Some cleaning women were sitting on the stairs, and when they saw these people come in, they screamed and ran upstairs,” said David Kirkey, the company’s vice president for sales and marketing.

The women ran to another part of the company’s headquarters and plant, locked a door and called police, Kirkey said. The would-be robbers ran off without taking anything, he said.

Not So Lucky

Other Orange County firms haven’t been so lucky.

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On Jan. 30, two armed bandits forced an unarmed security guard at a Western Digital Corp. plant in Irvine to open an area where chips are stored. They bound the guard and fled with $105,000 worth of DRAMs. Retail prices for the chips range from $10 to $200 each, and the crooks “in all probability” will sell them at swap meets or on the street, said Gordon Graves, the company’s vice president for sales operations.

On Jan. 23, four robbers with rifles bound and blindfolded two unarmed guards at an AST Research facility, roughing up one of them in the process, and made off with six completed computer systems and three color monitors worth a total of $17,000. Police said the robbers were trying to get into a storage area where DRAMs are kept, but company spokesman Joel Don said AST isn’t sure whether the robbers were after the computer chips.

On Nov. 24, at least one armed robber bound and blindfolded an unarmed guard and, possibly with other bandits, stole $150,000 in specialized computer chips from W.G. Holt Inc., across the street from Advanced Logic. The chips look like DRAMs, but they were custom-made for Holt’s customers in high-voltage and heart pacemaker businesses. “The value to the robbers is almost nothing,” said Michael Garner, the firm’s chief financial officer.

‘Substantial Number’ Stolen

In September, at least one armed thug stole a “substantial number” of computer chips from a small computer business, said Orange County Sheriff’s Sgt. Richard Paddock. He refused to release any other details, including the company’s name or the type and value of the chips.

The four Irvine companies have taken additional security measures since the robberies, although executives will not discuss them. But the measures do not include arming security guards.

“We don’t need a shoot-out at the OK Corral,” said Advanced Logic’s Kirkey. “Nothing is more valuable than a human life.”

The robberies apparently were carried out by separate groups, said Lt. White of Irvine. The only possible connection, he said, is between the Holt and AST robberies because witnesses in both cases said the bandits appeared to be Vietnamese.

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Times staff writers David Olmos and Ken Yamada in Orange County and Carla Lazzareschi in Los Angeles contributed to this story.


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