A Los Angeles Police Department crackdown on organized rings of jewel thieves appears to have pushed the criminals south into Orange County, officials there say.
Three attacks on Orange County jewelers this week reinforced those fears. In the past 12 months, violent robbers have attacked jewelry couriers in Orange County nearly 100 times--twice as often as before the Los Angeles crackdown.
"There's no doubt in my mind that these thieves are moving out into other areas as a result of the heat they're feeling in L.A.," said John Kennedy, president of Jewelry Security Alliance, a national trade association. "It could very well account for an upsurge in robberies in Orange County. Things are fresh there."
Since it formed seven months ago, the 12-person LAPD task force has arrested 51 members of organized jewelry theft rings. In the same seven months, jewelry robberies in Orange County have averaged 10 a month, mostly in the northern cities, police said. The majority remain unsolved.
The thieves, almost all Colombians, are becoming better organized, more often are armed and are more inclined to use violence, law enforcement officials said.
"They're using just plain brute force out there," Kennedy said. "Being a jewelry salesperson has become one of the most dangerous jobs in Southern California."
The thieves, who travel in crews of three to six, stake out jewelry stores, where they watch for well-dressed salespeople carrying the tell-tale briefcases, police said.
Then they follow the jeweler for a day or so, to get a feel for the person's schedule and, more important, the amount of money they're handling. Often, the crews will watch the victim make deposits and withdrawals at the bank, said LAPD Lt. Al Corella, who supervises the Jewelry Theft Task Force.
When the thieves do make their move, it often is with a quick slice to the victim's tire or radiator hose, which eventually forces the jeweler to pull over, Corella said.
About 2 p.m. Thursday, six men surrounded a saleswoman as she drove into a jewelry store parking lot off Crown Valley Parkway in Mission Viejo. The woman, who was carrying cash and loose gems in a briefcase, accelerated in reverse, rammed into another car that had pulled behind to block her, and drove away, as a bullet hit her tire.
Orange County Sheriff's Lt. Tom Garner said the fact that the robbers now are willing to shoot is the most troubling part.
"You usually hear about the crooks having a gun or brandishing a gun, but to actually fire it during one of these is rare," he said. "It doesn't look like they're messing around with this stuff anymore."
The day before that incident, three men carjacked a jewelry courier at gunpoint in Westminster and escaped with a briefcase of diamonds valued at nearly $130,000. The victim had been moving the stones from Los Angeles to the business district in Little Saigon, one of the largest concentrations of jewelry stores in Orange County.
"They just took me over," said the victim, who requested anonymity. "They shoved me around and yelled, and before I knew it, in a split minute, they were gone."
"We never used to see that kind of violence," said Westminster Police Det. Richard Mize, who has investigated at least 30 thefts against jewelers in 10 months. "They're usually sly. They don't normally get so ugly about it."
Salespeople have trouble giving detailed descriptions of the robbers, who tend to dress similarly, police said. When a salesman visited a jewelry store in Fullerton last week and was confronted by three men outside his car, he managed to lock his briefcase in the trunk and throw his keys away, which sparked an argument between him and the gunmen.
Even after one of the robbers chased down the victim's keys, opened the trunk, took the diamond-filled case and left, the victim only was able to provide a sketchy description of the get-away car, said Fullerton Police Det. Mary Murphy.
Other police departments have begun asking the LAPD task force for help, Corella said. The team has developed a database of several hundred suspects with jewel theft arrests, including information about their cars, modus operandi and descriptions.