It was late morning Nov. 13 when a New York jewelry dealer pulled into a 76 gas station in South San Francisco to fill up his tank. Suddenly, a dark sedan pulled up with three masked men inside. Two of them jumped out.
In systematic fashion, the men smashed out the dealer’s windows and grabbed a satchel containing jewelry estimated at $250,000 in value. They also stole $10,000 in cash from the victim, dragging him for a short distance as he hopelessly tried to retrieve his property.
Crimes of this nature may seem fresh out of a Hollywood movie. But they are all too common in the Peninsula, and the only thing more brazen than the robberies is the utter mystery surrounding the suspects who commit them.
The San Francisco metropolitan area, which includes the Peninsula, was the fourth-most active city in the nation when it came to jewelry robberies, according to statistics from the Jewelers’ Security Alliance, a nonprofit trade association based in New York.
Additionally, California was the most active state in the country for jewelry robberies, accounting for 16 percent of the nation’s crimes in that category.
“Unfortunately, this problem is all too familiar with people in our profession here,” said Rick Velayo, a Bay Area-based jeweler who established the Northern California Security Alert system, which notifies local retailers and vendors to recent
South San Francisco police Sgt. Joni Lee said there were similarities between November’s gas station robbery and other heists: The victims were all jewelry dealers and the suspects targeted their parked cars.
Lee said that victims are almost exclusively recently arrived dealers from the East Coast who are looking to sell their products to jewelry outlets along the Peninsula. The robberies are often reported within a few miles of the airport.
“Somehow, these criminals are getting word that certain people are flying out here,” Lee said. “I don’t know how many people are involved in planning out these crimes; it could be hundreds.
“These crooks seem to do their homework, and they know who is coming and going out of these high-end jewelry places.”
Burlingame, a suburban community with a population of fewer than 30,000 people, typically sees about one to two major jewelry robberies a year, said Burlingame police Capt. Michael Matteucci.
“We don’t know how exactly these groups get their information, but they definitely target wholesale jewelry owners,” Matteucci said. “And unless you catch them in the act, it’s really difficult to track them down.”
In April, two thieves wearing ski masks drove up behind a jewel dealer’s car at a Holiday Inn Express in Burlingame. The men blocked the car in, slashed the dealer’s tires, broke out the windows and took “hundreds of thousands of dollars” worth of jewelry from the victim, Matteucci said.
“We’ve heard some scattered reports that they might be from Colombia or elsewhere in South America, and that immediately after they commit these crimes they hop on a plane and fly out of here,” Matteucci said. “It’s hard to confirm any of this information, but we do know that they are professionals.”
Velayo, a former president of the California Jeweler’s Association, said he’s heard rumors of the criminals being trained in Colombia on how to target, follow and rob commercial jewelers.
The stories surrounding these criminals have been heightened by their elusiveness. Karen Guidotti, the assistant district attorney for San Mateo County, said these cases rarely come across her office because arrests are so scant.
The crimes are usually committed by two- to three-person units, and they often occur at hotels or neighboring gas stations, said San Bruno police Cmdr. Matt Campi.
In September 2008, a jeweler was assaulted in a hotel elevator in San Bruno. He had a jewelry vest strapped to his chest, and the thieves used knives to cut it off him. The jeweler was not injured, but he was relieved of “a lot of valuable property,” Campi said.
Lee said that the South City Police Department advises commercial jewel dealers to add variety to their normal routine to avoid detection. She said travelling on an assortment of different airlines and staying in different hotels helps, as does hiring a bodyguard.
Velayo said that many jewelers follow these recommendations, but sometimes the criminals are one step ahead of them.
“There was this one case where a retailer didn’t tell his friends, family or co-workers that a dealer was coming into town,” Velayo said. “And yet somehow, these criminals were waiting for the vendor to arrive when they robbed him. You’re left just asking yourself, ‘How did they know?’”
The FBI is not actively involved in any jewelry theft cases in San Francisco or the Peninsula, agency spokesman Joe Schadler said. The FBI would be responsible for looking into the cases if the criminals were believed to be operating internationally, but so far, there has not been enough evidence in any of the current cases to support such an investigation, he said.
Community thick with theories on robbers’ background, origin
With the arrest rate of jewelry thieves disarmingly low, little information is known about who they are and where they come from, leading to speculation and myths that grow with each outlandish caper.
Several jewelers and law enforcement officials said that the suspects are from South America, although little else is known about their backgrounds.
Michael Matteucci, a captain in the Burlingame Police Department, said he has heard reports that the suspects “hop on a plane and fly to South America” immediately after committing the crimes, although he admits that hard evidence supporting that claim is difficult to gather.
Rick Velayo, founder of the Northern California Security Alert System, which tracks local jewelry robberies, said the suspects are trained in Colombia specifically to pull off jewel heists. He said that the criminals are a well-funded and organized outfit, schooled at identifying and tracking potential victims in the U.S.
Others aren’t convinced about the link to South America. The FBI, which is responsible for international crime, isn’t investigating the Peninsula jewelry robberies, spokesman Joe Schadler said.
South San Francisco police Sgt. Joni Lee of the said she hasn’t heard of any link between the crimes and any mysterious South American syndicate. The only information she has about the suspects is that they are professionals.
“We don’t know anything about these guys,” Lee said. “The only thing we’ve picked up is that they know what they’re doing.”
Robberty statistics for 2008:
Most active metropolitan areas
– Los Angeles
– San Francisco
Most active states annually, by percentage of total U.S. heists:
New York: 10.5
Source: Jewelers Security Alliance
California was the most active state in the country for jewelry robberies in 2008, accounting for 16 percent of the nation’s crimes in that category.
$103 million: Total amount of jewelry property stolen nationwide in 2008
$42.9 million: Amount of jewelry stolen nationwide in off-premise crimes (away from a retailer)
$292,000: Average value of jewelry stolen in California in 2008, per crime
259: Jewelry theft crimes in California in 2008 (the most in the U.S.)
43: Arrests for jewelry-theft crimes in California in 2008
Source: Jewelers Security Alliance