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Watch Thieves Put the Arm on Wearers of Costly Rolex

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As he sat in the lounge of a West Los Angeles Cadillac dealership, working a crossword puzzle and waiting for his car to be fixed, Carroll Adams didn’t notice the smartly dressed gunman headed his way. But he heard with awful clarity the demand for his diamond-studded gold watch.

“No one gets my Rolex,” the retired school official replied. “I’m sorry.”

Seconds later, Adams was locked in a fierce struggle with the assailant. He wound up bleeding on the floor with three gunshot wounds--and without his $18,600 watch.

“I know I’m lucky,” said the 59-year-old Adams, who seven months later is still recovering from his wounds. “But if I had to do it again, I think I would act the same.”

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Throughout Southern California and across the nation, stealing Rolexes has become a dangerous and--for some robbers--lucrative practice. In addition to strong-arm robberies, police agencies in cities from Washington to Houston to Beverly Hills report a rash of Rolex-related crimes: “snatch and grab” thefts at jewelry stores; women who slip Mickeys to Rolex wearers; con artists who prey on people attempting to sell their Rolexes through newspaper ads.

While most victims survive, it can get deadly. Only a month before Adams’ violent encounter, another Rolex wearer was shot and killed outside his West Los Angeles home during an altercation with a gunman, police said. And last month, a man was fatally shot and robbed of his Rolex after being accosted in his newly purchased Beverly Hills home.

“Rolex used to mean only class and luxury and the fact that you were a success,” said Roger Grafstein, owner of Grafstein & Co., a Santa Ana jeweler whose own executive was recently robbed. “Unfortunately, one of the world’s most desirable status symbols now also can mean death and violence.”

There are no comprehensive nationwide statistics charting Rolex robberies, but over the last few years such thefts have been reported in New York, Chicago, Houston and other major cities, and in smaller cities like Louisville, Ky., and Scottsdale, Ariz., as well.

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In some of these cities, the robberies appear to be on the wane, according to police. In others--and especially in Los Angeles’ pricier neighborhoods--Rolex cases appear to be on the rise.

In the Los Angeles Police Department’s Wilshire Division, where a restaurant owner was fatally shot last year by killers believed to be Rolex-style bandits, detectives report two such robberies a month. Since last September, the West Los Angeles Division of the Los Angeles Police Department has handled 49 Rolex robberies, and Detective Ronald Phillips said as many as eight victims have been injured in the incidents.

“There’s no set pattern to the crimes,” Phillips said. “The victims may be riding in their cars or walking around a shopping mall, but there are criminals driving around just looking for people who wear a Rolex.”

In nearby Beverly Hills, where robberies have soared nearly 41% over the last year, Lt. Robert Curtis said his city has averaged more than one Rolex robbery a month. Most involve victims who were followed home, he said.

“I have heard that some people are now so worried,” Curtis said, “they are reluctant to wear their Rolexes. People should be cautious, but they don’t have to be paranoid.”

What feeds those fears, however, is a police blotter full of crimes committed largely by young men lured by the luxury watches:

* Last September, a manager in a fashionable West Los Angeles clothing store was dragged across the floor by an armed robber who held on to her $8,000 Rolex until he snapped the bracelet--then calmly walked out the door.

* Last January, a man entered a phone store in Westwood and was asked the time by a fellow shopper. After checking his Rolex, he found himself staring at a gun and quickly surrendered his $10,000 watch.

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* A day later, a 46-year-old man was robbed of his Rolex after being accosted in the parking lot of a West Hollywood hotel. That same month, outside the Westside Pavilion, a businessman was opening the door of his Rolls-Royce when a man put a gun to his head and announced: “It’s Rolex time.”

Such anecdotes are chillingly familiar to jewelers like Roger Grafstein, whose firm has offices in Orange County, Beverly Hills, New York and Belgium.

“Barely a week goes by that we don’t have a client calling us up and telling us that their Rolex was stolen,” he said, adding that some of his clients are concerned enough that they have sold their Rolexes for other--equally expensive but less identifiable--watches.

Other jewelers, however, insist that the stolen Rolex phenomenon is overblown and has not affected their business. Company officials also maintain that the theft problem is not limited to their brand of watches.

“We’re concerned about the rise in crime in general; I don’t think we’ve felt that Rolex has been targeted,” said Brian Brokate, a partner with the law firm of Gibney, Anthony & Flaherty, general counsel for Rolex Watch, U.S.A. Inc.

Calling the thefts “isolated incidents,” Brokate said the company is assisting law enforcement in investigating the robberies when asked but has not taken any special steps to combat the problem.

“We provide intelligence to various police departments as to the sources of watches, and the backgrounds to certain watches,” he said. “And we keep a list of all stolen watches that are reported to us.”

LAPD Detective Dan Andrews agreed that the company name perhaps has been unfairly battered by the publicity. “Frankly, I think Rolex is getting a bad rap because there are other expensive watches that people would like to have,” Andrews said. “It’s the money behind the watch that’s the target.”

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The robbery rampage is reminiscent of past crime waves when luxury items such as Mercedes hood ornaments and Blaupunkt car stereos were the rage among thieves. But the Rolex carries a much loftier price tag.

“From America to Afghanistan to Zaire, on any street corner, if you can prove that your Rolex is real, there’s a buyer for it,” said jeweler Grafstein.

Easily distinguishable and relatively easy to resell, the Rolex name--originally coined by founder Hans Wildorf because it was short enough to fit on the watch face and could translate to other languages--has become the equivalent of a blue-chip stock on the streets.

Said Diana Pristoop of the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington: “A Rolex has become a status symbol, even among the drug dealers. And if you steal one, you can make a lot of money selling it. The name commands money.”

While some thieves may only make a few hundred dollars with their black market Rolex, others can net 10 times as much.

Sheriff’s Deputy Richard Garcia, a member of the West Regional Burglary Team based in the South Bay, said that one recent investigation led to the arrest of two young Gardena men for a string of Rolex robberies.

“The watches were easy to get rid of, and it was less risky than robbing a liquor store,” Garcia recalled. “One guy claimed they made from $20,000 to $30,000 off Rolexes since January. There are bank robbers who don’t get that much money.”

As word of the arrests spread, Garcia said, task force members received more than 100 calls from theft victims anxious to recover their watches. But Garcia, like other law enforcement officials, said only a fraction of stolen Rolexes are ever found. One pawnshop owner, who asked not to be identified, said most robbers already have a fence or jeweler who will buy the stolen watch.

The popularity of Rolexes among criminals almost rivals their acceptance among the well-to-do who are attracted to their enduring mystique and status. Rolex users include athletes, corporate executives, rock stars and heads of state--a clientele drawn to its image as an expensive but rugged instrument, symbolizing a sense of accomplishment.

Sir Edmund Hillary wore one climbing Mt. Everest. Company officials say Mikhail Gorbachev and Pope John Paul II wear Rolexes. Ballerina Cynthia Gregory and golfer Arnold Palmer are Rolex owners. And so was the suave fictional spy James Bond.

The President Model--Lyndon B. Johnson wore one--sells for $11,700 but customers can pay from $1,000 for the simplest, stainless steel Rolex Oyster to as much as $165,000 for a jeweled Rolex featuring diamonds and emeralds.

For some owners, however, the spate of robberies has tempered their satisfaction of wearing one of the world’s classic timepieces.

“I don’t wear it as much as I used to, and now only with a long-sleeved shirt,” said one lawyer, who asked not to be identified. “I used to feel good when someone noticed the watch because it stood for success, but now I find myself wondering if the wrong person saw it.”

Dennis Levine, a restaurant owner who was robbed of his Rolex several months ago, said the incident traumatized him. “I won’t wear any jewelry at all now,” he said. “I wear a cheap watch. (The robbery) changed my own life. When you’re looking at a gun staring at you, it changes things.”

Asking for the time or merely shadowing a Rolex owner is a well-worn ploy, but some Rolex robbers have resorted to other tactics.

In Washington, where jewelers can require customers to produce a driver’s license for identification, Detective Pristoop said robbers have used a fake license to gain access to local jewelry stores, ask to look at Rolexes and then grab the watches.

In Houston and other cities, detectives have responded to reports of women who have targeted Rolex wearers in bars and nightclubs, often during major conventions or sporting events. After doctoring the man’s drink, a woman will steal his watch and other valuables. In Los Angeles, LAPD Detective Doug Sims said he has investigated four cases this year where women have used muscle relaxant drugs to incapacitate their victims. He suspects the caseload is only a small percentage of the actual number of these crimes.

“The victims,” Sims said, “run the gamut from judges to athletes to top CEOs from major companies, so many men will never report this kind of crime.”

Tracking down the nomadic women involved in such a robbery can prove difficult, but when suspects are found, police say they are often linked to dozens of related robberies. The same holds true for armed robberies, according to police.

In the Carroll Adams shooting, police officers last January arrested a 19-year-old man as a suspect in that robbery and contend that he also participated in a number of other Rolex thefts. Two other men were also arrested with him as alleged partners in related crimes.

Adams, however, never recovered his watch nor his money. Like some other owners, he had allowed his insurance to lapse because of rising premiums--which are brought on largely by the rising value of a Rolex watch. Other victims, meanwhile, have made watch recoveries nearly impossible because of lost serial numbers.

But in one case, authorities were able to salvage more than a dozen Rolexes--from one man who had developed a unique scam.

Carlos Jaramillo, a 33-year-old Houston native and con artist, had escaped from a Utah prison and made his living answering newspaper ads from Rolex owners eager to sell their watches.

Posing as a physician at a local hospital, Jaramillo would arrange to meet his victim in the hospital lobby. After greeting the seller and inspecting the watch, he would ask if he could show the timepiece to a fellow doctor who owned a Rolex.

When the seller agreed, Jaramillo would simply disappear.

When he was finally caught in San Francisco, Jaramillo had already victimized 23 Rolex owners in California, Texas, Washington and other states and boasted of making hundreds of thousands of dollars in the scam.

Convicted last November of grand theft and fraud, he is now doing time--five years--in Soledad state prison.


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