They were clever enough thieves to know which estates had caches of valuables, when the wealthy owners would be gone and how to disarm high-tech alarm systems for the many people required to haul out heavy safes.
Authorities think they learned the layout of their targets by touring the homes and businesses months ahead of time, posing as prospective buyers interested in the properties.
They managed to break into several high-security jewelry stores around Southern California to steal at least $1 million in goods, police said.
But their luck did not hold when it came to the array of sports collectibles they allegedly stole. While police displayed dozens of pieces of memorabilia in Glendale on Tuesday in hopes that their owners might identify them, experts said the thieves didn’t exactly pick winners.
The former Los Angeles Rams football helmet signed by retired running back Eric Dickerson? The autographed Magic Johnson basketball and jersey? The bat and baseball signed by then-St. Louis Cardinals player Eric Davis?
“I hope these guys got jewelry,” said Keith Vari of New York sports auction house Gray Flannel, which rakes in up to $3 million per auction in memorabilia sales. “They didn’t do too good with the baseballs.”
“That Eric Davis bat, why would they even take that?” he added.
Police hope the owners of the stolen collectibles will come forward; from there, detectives can trace the crimes backward for any additional charges against the suspects, who will face trial in September. Authorities say they know homes and businesses in Encino, Beverly Hills, Rolling Hills and Glendale were hit but believe that’s just the beginning.
“We think there are probably many more [homes and crimes],” Glendale Police Sgt. Bob Breckenridge said, “and we hope the owners of the stolen sports stuff will lead us there.”
In the estimated $3-billion annual sports memorabilia marketplace, such thefts are relatively rare, sports auction house officials said Tuesday.
“Every once in a while you hear of it,” Vari said. “Like we had a client whose house was broken into and they took a couple hundred thousand in signed baseballs.... People in the hobby usually don’t have stuff stolen. Years and years ago, Joe DiMaggio’s [championship] rings got stolen.... And the first black New York Yankee, EIston Howard -- his rings were stolen. There are just few and far between.”
When some of the purloined sports items were described for their prospective value, two sports auction experts Tuesday wondered why the robbers bothered.
The Eric Davis bat?
“I’d say the bat is in the range of $75, and the signed Davis baseball with his signature [and even the rest of the St. Louis Cardinals] maybe $30,” added Dan Irmler, auction director at SCP Auctions in Laguna Hills, which specializes in high-end vintage sports collectibles. “If the Eric Dickerson helmet was a player quality or model helmet, his signature isn’t rare, so maybe $200.”
The autographed photo of the 1970s-era “Fearsome Foursome” L.A. Rams defensive line? Possibly $100, Irmler said. The signed Magic Johnson jersey might go for $300, his autographed basketball maybe $150 at auction.
“All the things you mentioned are from young and vital athletes who are still actively signing autographs, and some of them even at shows,” he added, “so these items are not difficult to find.”
Glendale police have arrested three men and are seeking a fourth as detectives try to unravel what they believe is a far-flung robbery ring that may have other members in the Los Angeles area and possibly in Las Vegas.
Billy Joe Spencer, 38, of San Bernardino, and Cole Dexter, 28, and Gregory Webster, 33, both of Los Angeles, have been indicted on charges of robbery, Glendale Sgt. Tom Lorenz said. He said Spencer and Dexter also were charged with using a gun during a robbery and of assault with a deadly weapon in an attack on husband-wife jewelers.
A fourth suspect, Timothy Galloway, 34, of Apple Valley is wanted on a warrant charging him with robbery and possession of stolen property, police said. The judge who issued the warrant set bail at $1.3 million.
The sports memorabilia and other evidence were seized by police July 15 from an Apple Valley storage unit registered to Galloway.
At Galloway’s home, detectives found documents related to real estate purchases.
That led them to begin investigating whether he or associates posed as prospective home buyers to scout the layout and security. They also are trying to determine whether the suspects might have used proceeds from the thefts to buy property.
“It would also be a way to launder money from illegal sales and criminal activity,” Breckenridge added.
Neither the three jailed suspects nor their public defenders could be reached for comment.
The police trail to the alleged robbery ring began April 2 with Irene and Miroslaw Kohut, both 68.
Twenty minutes before closing at the couple’s Glendale jewelry store called Little Switzerland, a man in an expensive-looking suit buzzed the entrance ringer to be let in, waving several hundred-dollar bills. The man hollered that he had bought his wife diamond earrings there two months earlier; didn’t they remember? In fact, police later confirmed, he had.
“That kind of foresight and planning ahead,” said lead detective Breckenridge, “is pretty sophisticated. And there’s more.”
The Kohuts weren’t sure, but the husband thought the man might look familiar. It was 4:40 p.m. He buzzed the front door to admit the suited man.
For 10 minutes, a person who police said later was Spencer pretended to shop for jewelry as Irene Kohut waited on him. The front door had been left ajar by Spencer or the couple failed to relock it, but soon a man police said was Dexter barged in and handed Spencer a gun. Both men talked to at least one lookout by cellphone.
Spencer vaulted the display counter and ordered the husband to unlock the store safe, which he did not. Instead, he was pistol whipped and beaten, and as he tumbled to the floor he managed to flip a silent alarm to a security company that alerted local police. The wife also was beaten, and both were bound with duct tape and handcuffs.
Police arrived as the pair of robbers fled into a neighborhood on foot.
Officers found them and -- critically, it would turn out -- their cellphones.
Police used cellphone records for leads, and found that Webster allegedly was in Little Switzerland’s vicinity at the time of the robbery, and they arrested him.
They said cellphones and other evidence at Webster’s home led them to Galloway.