CAN THE INTERNET REDUCE JEWELRY THEFT?

When Randy Jones, co-owner of Global Gems in the Atlanta suburb of Chamblee, Ga., put an 8-ct. emerald in his display case, he had no idea it would potentially lead to sharing a $1 million reward for his role in the arrest of a notorious jewelry thief. He also had no idea he would become embroiled in the first use of the Internet to recover stolen jewelry.

Sheer chance played a role. A friend of his, Jeff Meyer, an Atlanta jewelry dealer, was searching the Internet before going on a gem-buying trip to Thailand. When he used the keywords “jewelry” and “warning,” up popped the Palm Beach (Fla.) Police Department’s Web site (www.palmbeachpolice.com) with photos of pieces from a $7 million collection of jewelry stolen in January 1997 from the Palm Beach home of Kathleen Ford, the widow of Henry Ford II.

Tantalized by the huge reward offered by Ford, Meyer scrolled through the jewelry. When the image of a necklace valued at $1.5 million appeared on his screen, his jaw dropped. Its 14 links were made of emeralds surrounded by diamonds, and the largest emerald in the necklace looked remarkably like the one in his friend’s store. The three solder marks on the setting of the 8-ct. stone gave away its location in the necklace.

As it turned out, the Florida dealer Jones had bought the emerald from had also dropped off three diamonds to be placed in a platinum mounting for the dealer’s wife. Two were 1.5-ct. stones and the third was a 4.17-ct. strikingly cut gem. The image on the Web made it clear they were also from the stolen necklace.

The FBI gets involved. Meyer alerted Jones and then called the Palm Beach Police. They flew to Atlanta the very next day, bringing FBI officials with them. “It was a hot lead,” recalls Detective Sergeant Kirk Blouin.

Back in Palm Beach, the police set up a surveillance on Barry Lee Marshall, the 51-year-old dealer who sold the gems to Jones. They watched as Marshall repeatedly met behind a donut shop to exchange jewelry and cash with Alvara Valdez of Margate, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and then they made their arrests.

Police had long suspected that Valdez, 45, was the thief, but this was the first time they could make the charges stick. In connection with the investigation, they recovered more than $2 million of the total $7 million in jewelry taken from the Ford estate.

Both Valdez and Marshall have pleaded guilty to federal charges of interstate transport of stolen goods. Valdez also pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges; he faces a maximum sentence of 25 years – 10 years on each of two counts of interstate transportation of stolen property and five years on the conspiracy charge. Sentencing is scheduled this month. Valdez and Marshall face state charges and penalties as well, according to Blouin.

While the link between the Web posting and the Palm Beach arrests was based partly on chance, the Internet nevertheless may play a growing role in identifying stolen jewelry and tracking down those who bring it to market. “The potential is great,” says John Kennedy, president of the Jewelers Security Alliance (JSA). He reports that the 15,000-member organization plans to set up its own database for tracking stolen jewelry nationwide and possibly even globally.

Multiple benefits. “The obstacles can be overcome in time,” Kennedy says. “A widely consulted database of stolen jewelry will be important for the trade. It hopefully will make it more difficult to dispose of stolen merchandise, leading to the apprehension of more criminals – not only fences, but also the people the fences are buying from. It will show that the industry is looking to help in voluntary, nongovernmental ways to police itself and to cut down on things like fencing and other improper practices.”

JSA has posted six jewelry losses on its Web site so far. It’s a capability Kennedy refers to as “merely vestigial, not even primitive yet.” Still, these listings led to what JSA believes is only the second case in which the Internet was used to identify a piece of stolen jewelry – a $20,000 theft from a traveling salesman.

“Technologically, it’s all there to do this,” says Kennedy. “The other barriers to be overcome are how to cover the considerable operating costs, as well as issues of practicality and liability.”

The JSA listing most likely will have to be limited to high-value, unique, and readily identifiable pieces. “The fine-art world has an excellent stolen-art database that’s widely used by insurance people and dealers and others in the trade, but every item on the database is unique,” he says. “In the jewelry trade, on the other hand, you’re talking about fungible items. A company might make 5,000 copies of a ring, and each one is not easily distinguished from another.”

Liability issues come into play if a legitimately obtained item is misidentified as stolen goods – particularly if the item is not one of a kind. “You don’t want to mistakenly involve law enforcement in something innocent,” Kennedy explains. “And you never know what will happen after the cops come in.”

That’s why JSA’s Technology Committee will be charged with developing the stolen jewelry database with great care, working in close cooperation with major gem labs, law-enforcement agencies, and insurance companies. Plans for the initiative will begin next year.

There’s a hidden benefit to the database: According to Randy Jones, who co-owns Global Gems along with Shawn Slep, the publicity generated by their discovery of Kathleen Ford’s stolen jewelry was tremendous. “It generated a lot of local interest and new customers. People were looking for a new jeweler they could trust, and they came to our store and said, ‘I trust you.’ I could have spent $100,000 in advertising and not achieved the same results.”

Jones says Ford’s lawyer is dragging his feet on paying that $1 million reward. But he’s relieved by the outcome of the case nevertheless. “Marshall sold us the hottest piece of jewelry on the planet like it was nothing. He put us at considerable risk. Things could have turned out much worse!”