A crackdown in Los Angeles on organized gangs of robbers who prey on jewelry store couriers may have forced the thieves south to Orange County, where there have been nearly 100 increasingly violent attacks on jewelers in the last 12 months.
Three incidents this week alone in Orange County have reinforced fears that a special task force set up by the Los Angeles Police Department to deal with jewelry theft rings has moved the problem south.
"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 people--alleged 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. That's double the number before the push in Los Angeles, and the majority remain unsolved.
The thieves, who police believe are connected to a crime syndicate made up of Colombian nationals, are becoming better organized, better armed and 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."
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 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 officers are concerned that the robbers now are willing to fire.
"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 in Westminster, three men carjacked a jewelry courier at gunpoint 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."
That the robbers forced the man from the car and drove off with it also demonstrates a new boldness, police said.
"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."
For years, wholesale jewelry suppliers carted their wares from shop to shop, employing little to no security. The belief was they would be less conspicuous without guards in tow, police said.
But large gangs of organized jewel thieves eventually began to target the traveling salespeople, robbing them at gunpoint in their cars, parking lots and airports. Law enforcement officials said the groups--some of which work together under the direction of one leader--netted about $20 million in jewelry robberies throughout the state last year.
While such heists have been reported in other states, they are nowhere near as prevalent as in Southern California. Los Angeles is the second largest jewelry district in the country, industry officials said.
"It's reached crisis proportions there," said Kennedy, whose security association is based in New York, the largest jewelry district.
The thieves, who usually travel in crews of three to six, stake out jewelry stores, where they watch for well-dressed salespeople carrying the telltale briefcases, police said.
Then they follow the jeweler for a day or so, to get a feel for the person's schedule and, more importantly, the amount of money they're handling. Often, the crews will watch the victim while banking, said LAPD Lt. Al Corella, who supervises the Jewelry Theft Task Force.
When they 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.
"That's when they move in," he said. "They are swift and extremely professional. The [victim] oftentimes doesn't even know what hit them."
The increasing number of robberies has prompted some jewelers to take extra precautions, such as calling police from cellular phones if they suspect they are being followed and driving on a flat tire to the nearest public stop. Some have hired armed guards, but that doesn't always help.
In Ogden, Utah, last week, a salesman carrying $1 million in jewels hired two armed guards, both off-duty police officers, to escort him. The guards were attacked from behind by at least four robbers, "knocked to the ground and roughed up pretty good," Kennedy said. The thieves escaped with the jewels.
In San Francisco on Thursday, a jewelry salesman who stopped for a flat tire was robbed of $300,000 in diamonds, and police said they suspect a Colombian ring.
Victims usually 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 was able to provide only a sketchy description of the get-away car, said Fullerton Police Det. Mary Murphy.
"They're usually so shaken, and have been swarmed by so many bad guys, that they can't see straight," she said.
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, methods and descriptions.
"Hopefully, we can start tying some of this all together by exchanging information among departments, and get some results," Corella said.