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Policing the ‘Capital’ of Jewel Theft

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After tailing the four suspects from Hollywood, after watching them case several jewelry stores and move on, Det. Mike Woodings senses they are finally ready to make their move.

Woodings and a group of other LAPD detectives--who are all in unmarked cars and continually switching positions--tail the suspects to a Diamond Bar strip mall. Woodings watches a man and a woman enter a jewelry store.

A few minutes later the suspects begin motioning and talking excitedly. Woodings studies their hand movements and mutters, “They’re planning a reach-over.” This involves one suspect who distracts the clerk and the other, who, in a split-second, grabs a handful of merchandise from inside the case.

After a few minutes of heated discussion, the suspects apparently decide to pass on the store. They head off to case another jewelry store.

“This is going to be a long day,” Woodings says, firing up his engine and pulling into the street, a discreet 30 yards behind the suspects.

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Jewelry theft is big business in Los Angeles and Woodings is swamped. He is the only LAPD detective who specializes in this type of crime.

The jewel thieves Woodings tracks--99% of whom are Colombian, he says--specialize in two types of crimes: They employ “distraction” ruses and steal from jewelry stores, and they rob traveling jewelry salespeople. The number of jewelry store thefts has leveled off, Woodings says, but the crimes against jewelry salespeople have doubled in the past three years. In 1996 about 150 jewelry salespeople in California were robbed--two thirds of them in Los Angeles County. The robberies netted an average of about $200,000.

“L.A. is now the epicenter--the country’s capital for Colombian jewelry crime,” said John Kennedy, president of Jewelry Security Alliance, an industry trade association. “This is where more of the theft crews are based. And while Mike Woodings is respected around the country for his expertise, he’s outmanned. The police departments in other cities have devoted more resources to jewelry theft than L.A. has.”

Not only is the number of robberies against traveling salespeople increasing in Los Angeles, but the thieves are becoming much more brazen and violent, Woodings said.

In the past, the thieves who preyed on jewelry salespeople were nonviolent and employed distraction and tricks to separate their targets from their wares. Some of the old-timers still employ these techniques. They stake out jewelry stores, often on Hill Street in downtown Los Angeles, where the nation’s second-largest jewelry district is located.

The thieves watch for well-dressed men carrying sample cases. When a salesperson enters a jewelry store, the thieves quickly flip open the hood of the salesperson’s car and puncture the radiator hose, which disables the car after a few miles. Or they wait until the salesperson finishes his business and drives off. They tail him, and at a stoplight, one of the thieves jumps out and expertly punctures the salesperson’s rear, driver’s side tire--in his blind spot--creating a slow leak. When the salesperson pulls over to change the tire, the suspects swoop in.

Sometimes they follow a salesperson to airports or restaurants or hotels, and steal his wares after distracting him by squirting mustard or catsup on his coat when he isn’t looking or by dropping a wad of bills near him.

“These guys are incredibly patient and sometimes they follow a guy for days, until they feel the time is right to move on him,” Woodings said. “And it’s always very well-coordinated, very well-orchestrated. These guys are real pros.”

But during the past few years, salespeople have been taking precautions to thwart the thieves. They began carrying cellular phones and calling police when they thought they were being tailed. They began driving on flat tires to police stations, or keeping their car windows closed if their cars were disabled, and refusing all assistance.

As a result, the jewelry thieves adapted and changed their modus operandi. At the same time, the jewelry thieves themselves changed. They are now younger, more likely to be armed and quicker to use violence.

Another reason for the change, law enforcement sources say, is that many of the younger Colombian jewel thieves are connected to high-level drug dealers. Because jewels are high in value, low in weight and easily hidden, they can be effectively transported to other countries and used to launder money, Kennedy said.

The old-time thieves still employ ruses on salespeople. But the new breed is much more impetuous, much more violent.

“These guys won’t bother tailing you for long,” Kennedy said. “They’ll just smash your car window, stick a gun in your face and grab your merchandise.”

On the Trail of the Suspects

The four suspects in the maroon Honda lead Woodings and his partners on a serpentine chase through the San Gabriel Valley. Woodings’ police radio crackles with a continuous stream of calls from the other detectives as they tail the Honda, frequently switching position so they are not “made.”

“We’re at a fresh green [light] holding in the two [lane].

“I need help on the point.”

“I lost him!”

“Anybody got a visual?”

“I got him, holding in the one at a stale red. . . .”

Two of the suspects, a man in a blue button-down shirt and slacks, and a woman, in a long, floral-print dress and white high heels, briefly check out a few more jewelry stores. But they seem put off by the high level of security. Finally they pull into the West Covina Fashion Plaza and park in the underground lot. Woodings parks about 50 feet away. A male and female detective follow the suspects into the mall and stay in touch with Woodings by discreetly slipping into alcoves and muttering into their walkie-talkies.

It is mid-afternoon now and Woodings is getting impatient. He has been following the suspects since morning and has nothing to show for it. And this is his 25th wedding anniversary. The way the day is going, he fears that he will not make it home in time to take his wife to dinner.

“Good thing I sent flowers this morning and gave her a card,” Woodings said, polishing off a tuna sandwich while he keeps his eyes on the suspects’ car.

Finally, one of the detectives tailing the suspects says, “I got them at a jewelry store. It looks like they’re preparing to do a distraction.”

Woodings nods. “That’s promising.”

But a few minutes later, Woodings, who squirms in his seat waiting for the news, is disappointed. The suspects eventually move on.

This, however, is not unusual, he said. Although the thieves can be rash when tracking a salesperson, they are much more careful when preparing to rob a jewelry store because of the high level of security.

A few minutes later a detective announces on the radio: “I got them lifting some CDs . . . some clothing and some other stuff.”

This is not what Woodings had hoped for, but it could be useful. Because the suspects cased so many jewelry stores, a conspiracy charge can be added onto the theft charges. That way he can book them on suspicion of felonies. But Woodings has not given up hope; he still thinks they will attempt to rob a jewelry store before the day is out. He tells the detectives in the mall to continue tailing the suspects.

Dwindling Police Resources

After Woodings joined the LAPD, he spent eight years on patrol and another few years as a detective. In 1988 a task force was created to combat the increasing amount of crime against merchants and salespeople in the downtown jewelry district. Woodings was recruited, partly because he had extensive experience as an intelligence officer in the Army. The jewelry theft unit was called the Colombian Task Force and, at its peak, was composed of 13 detectives and officers.

After five years, the task force had racked up about 750 arrests and significantly reduced jewelry-related crime in the city, Woodings said. But in 1993 it was disbanded. During the early 1990s, the LAPD eliminated a number of specialized units in order to increase the number of patrol officers on the street. Woodings was the only detective from the unit who continued tracking the thieves, and he has had a number of partners in the past four years.

Woodings, who heads the Organized Theft Detail, devotes about half his time to the jewel thieves. The rest of his cases involve various rings, including thieves who specialize in pilfering luggage from airports or stealing minicams from news crews (they are worth about $60,000 each) or robbing bank customers after they make large withdrawals.

When the Colombian Task Force was operating, the unit was very effective. But since it was disbanded, Los Angeles has become the nation’s leader in jewelry-related crime, said Kennedy of the Jewelry Security Alliance.

“L.A. has always been a problem spot, but when the task force was around, South Florida was the worst place in the country for this kind of crime,” Kennedy said. “Then it was disbanded and L.A. took the lead. The numbers are up in L.A., and the level of violence is up.”

The LAPD would like to re-create the task force, said Lt. Al Corella of the Burglary-Auto Theft Division. But during the past few years, the chronically understaffed department had to make “some hard decisions on how to allocate its resources . . . and what it comes down to is the department can’t fund every worthwhile program and task force.”

Jewelry stores are shoring up their security, but the traveling salespeople are still extremely vulnerable. And the thieves are becoming increasingly audacious.

The theft rings have been operating in Los Angeles for more than 30 years, Woodings said, although he does not know why most of the suspects are Colombian. He lectures about the thieves’ methods to jewelers’ groups and police organizations throughout Southern California.

Until recently, a homicide associated with this type of crime was unheard of. But during the past few years in California, three salespeople have been killed, including one who was gunned down in 1993 in the driveway of his Santa Ana home.

A few months ago, an Israeli diamond salesman was taking a shuttle from his West Los Angeles hotel to the airport, when a tire, which had been punctured, went flat. Four thieves jumped in the van, one pulled a gun on the salesman and stole about $700,000 worth of diamonds from him. The case is still unsolved.

A Porter Ranch salesman was pepper-sprayed, stabbed and beaten by several suspects right by his front door. They broke his shoulder when he refused to hand over a briefcase filled with about $500,000 worth of jewels. The 1995 case also is unsolved.

The thieves work fast, sometimes leave the country after the crime and are extremely difficult for victims to identify later because so many of them overwhelm a single salesperson. As a result, fewer than 10% of the cases are solved.

“These cases are very frustrating because you often hit dead-ends wherever you turn . . .,” said Woodings, a 23-year LAPD veteran. “But I enjoy the work because it gives you the chance to do complicated investigations. In the division stations, the detectives are swamped by the sheer numbers. And it’s always satisfying, as a detective, to develop expertise in one particular area.”

Woodings has been frustrated even after seeing suspects convicted. In one case, Woodings arrested a thief who had left fingerprints all over the radiator hose of a saleswoman’s car. But none of the $1 million in jewels was ever recovered. And the thief was sentenced to only 16 months in prison.

Some salespeople hire their own personal security guards--but even this measure is not foolproof. Last year in Van Nuys, a retired LAPD sergeant working as a bodyguard for a salesman was robbed. The salesman pulled into a fast-food restaurant to use the restroom and more than six suspects surrounded the car and “had the drop” on the retired sergeant, Woodings said. They took about $500,000 in jewels and the car.

One salesman, a past president of a Southern California jewelry seller’s organization, said after he was robbed last year that he was so terrified that he considered finding another line of work. But he is 55 years old, spent his entire career selling jewelry and feels he would never be able to find another job.

“I had just left a jewelry store in a strip mall and two men stuck .45s in my face,” said the salesman, who requested anonymity. “They took my keys and drove away in my car, with all my jewelry in it. Since then, I can’t tell you how frightened I’ve been. Every day, I start the day scared. I feel like I’m walking around with a target on my back.”

Not Quite Caught in the Act

By the end of the afternoon, the suspects head back to their maroon Honda at the West Covina mall. It appears that the level of security at the mall discouraged them from ripping off a jewelry store. Woodings has to decide whether to continue tailing the suspects or arrest them now and book them on suspicion of conspiracy and thefts at four different stores.

Because they face felony charges, Woodings barks into his radio, “Do ‘em now.”

As the suspects enter the parking lot, an unmarked police car screeches to a halt in front of the Honda, blocking its exit. Four detectives, guns drawn encircle them.

“Hands up!” the detectives shout. “Arriba!”

In the trunk of the suspects’ car are all the tools of the jewelry thief: X-Acto knives; a BMW tire jack, which is a favorite tool for prying open trunks; a carpenter’s center punch, which is springloaded and quickly shatters car windows. All four suspects are in their 20s and have been arrested many times.

Later, the district attorney agrees with Woodings’ assessment and files felony charges against the suspects for conspiracy and burglary. Woodings makes it home in time to take his wife to a steakhouse for their 25th wedding anniversary.

“This isn’t the best-case scenario,” Woodings said, shaking his head. “But at least we got them off the street . . . for a while, and we might have saved a few jewelry stores some real problems.”


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