In 1996, Larry Lawton was convicted for armed robbery of some 20 jewelry stores, and served 11 years in prison. Upon his release, he founded a program, Reality Check, dedicated to helping young people avoid making the same mistakes he did. He is also author of the new book Gangster Redemption, which describes his life as a jewel thief and his new life following jail.
Lawton talked with JCK about how jewelers can protect themselves against people like him.
You said you cased hundreds of stores, yet only robbed about 20. What made a store a good target?
There are certain things I would use to see if I would rob a jewelry store. A lot of stores put major displays in the window so you can’t see in. That was good for me. A robber doesn’t want anybody to see in the store. I don’t want to have someone riding by or walking by to see me taking down a store. I would also look at the sun and when you could see in the window during what times of the day. That could be protection for me because then people couldn’t see in the store. If I were a jeweler, I would make sure your store is always well-lit.
Jewelers should also put up a sign that says they have a video camera where all the information is being collected off-site. I used to go in and take the camera and the recording device. But you can’t do that if all the information is being collected off-site. It doesn’t matter, even if the sign is BS, that told me I should stay away.
I would also put a two-way mirror up, because you just don’t know what is on the other side. That was always a sign that you shouldn’t rob that store.
I would watch if people were left alone in the store. That made it really easy for me to make the decision. Robbers don’t want a crowd in there.
When I went in, I would always look at whether the jeweler produced the “box” of loose stones. I would ask for rings and if he produced the box, then I could pretty much calculate what was in there. If he brought out the box right away, I knew the guy wasn’t on the ball.
I would also look at if people let their guard down. People should [stagger] where they park their car. I would watch a store for two weeks and could see where people parked, when they came in. People get complacent and it was easy to see who was coming in at what time.
It has a lot to do with demeanor, and the way the person is in that store. I can pick up if they are on the ball, whether they are complacent, not paying attention to me.
How can you tell if someone is casing your store?
If a guy comes in and says they are just looking, that is a sign. People don’t just come into a jewelry store without a purpose. If they keep wanting to see bigger pieces, that might also be a sign.
You did robberies. What can people do to avoid other types of crime?
With grab and runs, when you take out three or four pieces at a time, that makes it easy for a guy to run with it.
If you knew the jeweler was armed, would that make you less likely to rob the store?
Wouldn’t mean c–p to me. If a robber is armed, he is going to have the jump on you. One store I robbed had guns; I took them all.
I think people having guns in the store is terrible. You might have customers in the store, ladies, children. If you have customers in there, and you try to shoot the robber, you are really on dangerous ground.
How should people react during a robbery?
People react in different ways. I had people laugh. It is all nervous reactions.
You should just worry about your life. You have insurance to do what it’s supposed to do. A professional robber doesn’t want to come in and hurt anybody. Don’t give him an opportunity to hurt anybody. Listen to all commands. A lot of people have an impulse, they want to protect their stuff. But nobody’s life is worth any piece of jewelry.
Was it easy to get rid of the stolen goods?
It was very easy. People want to make money and it’s a high mark-up. I used to say the real diamond district is in Little Italy. The only problem is a Lazare Kaplan or other inscribed stone. They are tougher to get rid of because there is something of a record there.