A ring of jewel thieves operating from Orange County to San Francisco are suspected of staging a daring midday heist in which a gunman smashed a salesman's car window and robbed him of $255,000 in gold and diamonds as he waited at a traffic signal.
The jewelry salesman was stopped at Ventura Boulevard and Topanga Canyon Boulevard about 3:30 p.m. Thursday when a black car pulled alongside his vehicle, LAPD Detective Robert Johansen said.
Two men wearing ski masks got out of the car. One smashed the window of the salesman's Nissan with a hammer, then shoved a gun to his head and demanded a briefcase containing 175 diamond tennis bracelets and 60 gold and diamond rings.
The salesman complied and got out of his car in the middle of traffic and retrieved the briefcase from his trunk.
Detectives say the robbery appears to be the work of a ring of Colombian jewel thieves. But while the ring has been operating in Los Angeles for more than 30 years, police say it is becoming more active and violent.
"This year there has been a big turnaround," LAPD Detective Mike Woodings said. "There has been an increase not only in the number of crimes but also the dollar amount stolen and the latest trend is to use violence."
In the past, ring members would typically stake out salesmen and burglarize their cars, rather than confront them. But in recent years, thieves have increasingly resorted to using pepper spray, guns and knives to attack their victims and have sometimes killed them.
Police have linked the ring to the August slaying of jewelry maker Ernesto Avellaneda, who was gunned down in the driveway of his Santa Ana home. Ring members are also suspected in the 1993 killing of a diamond merchant in San Francisco.
In Los Angeles, ring members typically target their prey at the jewelry expo in Downtown Los Angeles or at high-end retail shops in Beverly Hills and Westwood, said Woodings, who has investigated the ring for eight years.
The thieves then follow their victims to outlying communities, such as the San Fernando Valley, and rob them. The stolen jewelry is quickly shipped out of state where it is resold.
"It's pretty rare that any of this stuff gets recovered," Woodings said. "They do it so rapidly that it's gone before we get any clues as to who took it."
The same ring has been linked to a brutal attack on a Porter Ranch jewelry dealer who was pepper-sprayed, stabbed and then stomped on by a half-dozen assailants who broke his shoulder when he refused to hand over a briefcase filled with $500,000 of his wares.
Three days later, a retailer was robbed at gunpoint of $1 million in jewelry as he dropped off merchandise at a Sherman Oaks business.
The thieves probably spotted the salesman in Beverly Hills, where he had been showing his wares at a Rodeo Drive shop and then followed him to a parking lot in the 4400 block of Van Nuys Boulevard, Woodings said. Two men confronted the salesman in the parking lot and ordered him at gunpoint to put down his briefcase and turn around.
The man complied and the gunman fled in a waiting car.
Woodings believes the same ring also stole $8 million to $10 million in jewelry, coins and expensive watches from a Las Vegas jewelry auctioneer who had parked his car in a lot inside a building at the jewelry expo.
The man left the multimillion-dollar cargo in his car while he took care of some business. But when he returned, the trunk had been pried open and his merchandise was gone, Woodings said. The victim in that case has offered a $50,000 reward, but police say they have heard that the thieves have fled the country and the jewelry has been sold.
Woodings said the string of high-profile robberies are the talk of the jewelry industry.
"The jewelry salesmen are scared out their wits," Woodings said. "But they don't have another job, this is what pays the bills."
And often, Woodings said, the salesmen are not insured to cover the losses because the cost is too prohibitive.