Facing Fear: Jewelers and Guns

It’s the scenario every jeweler dreads. A man comes into your store and asks to see something in your showcase. Before you know it, he’s pointing a gun at your head. Everything you’ve worked for is about to be taken. More frighteningly, your life itself is at stake.

The Jewelers’ Security Alliance, Jewelers Mutual Insurance Co., and law-enforcement officials are unequivocal about how to handle such situations: Cooperate with the robbers. Give them what they want. Don’t attempt to arm yourself. “We’re opposed to jewelers having guns in their stores,” says JSA president John J. Kennedy. “It’s dangerous and increases the risk that there’s going to be a confrontation.”

“Most of the time, people panic; they don’t handle the weapon properly, and it gets taken from them,” says Detective Ray Wood of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office in Orlando, Fla. “What they’ve done is put another weapon in the hands of a criminal.”

That’s not the only potential tragic outcome, JSA warns. If you do shoot, you may hurt an innocent employee, customer, or passerby, triggering legal expenses that would make potential robbery losses seem like peanuts. In many jurisdictions, shooting a fleeing felon may make you a criminal yourself. In the worst case, you could suffer the incomprehensible pain of New Jersey jeweler Jeffrey Wolf, who during a 1995 robbery fired the shot that killed his own wife.

This advice notwithstanding, many jewelers throughout the country keep guns in their stores. In a poll of retail jewelers JCK conducted earlier this year, 36.5% of the 301 respondents reported having firearms at their businesses.

Gun-owning jewelers tend to state their views on the subject vociferously. “It’s the single biggest issue that causes us to have controversial discussions,” acknowledges JSA’s Kennedy.

John Cryan of John S. Cryan Jewelers in Southampton, Pa., is one jeweler who feels strongly about his guns. “It’s about time this industry gets off the milquetoast, hands-off approach to personal protection,” Cryan states. He stresses, however, that he carries a concealed weapon to protect his life, not his property, and he has instructed his employees to give up the store’s jewelry in an armed robbery. He counters the argument that he might not get the chance to draw his gun in a confrontation by observing that “a 50-50 chance is better than a 99% chance in the robber’s favor.”

“If I’m going to go out, I’m going to go out fighting,” says Cryan’s friend Barry DiNola of Yardley Jewelers in Yardley, Pa. Cryan, DiNola, and other jewelers in their area have taken courses in firearms handling. “If you’re not confident with a gun, you shouldn’t have a gun,” Cryan says.

DiNola realizes that shooting a criminal may leave a jeweler with deep psychological scars. “From my knowledge of these situations, your life will change forever,” he says. “But perhaps it will save my life.”

On average, one U.S. jewelry store is robbed nearly every day, according to Jewelers Mutual. About half of these robberies involve violence. Jewelers who resist are about five times as likely to be killed as those who don’t, the insurance company reports.

According to JSA, there have been an average of 23 jewelry industry homicides per year between 1988 and 1998. Until three years ago, two-thirds of the fatalities were jewelers and one-third criminals. Recently, that has changed. Last year, of 19 deaths, 11 were criminals, five were retailers, two were traveling salespeople, and one a pawnshop owner. Four of the retailers, the traveling salespeople, and the pawnshop owner were fatally shot following resistance, and one retailer was beaten to death. Six of the robbers were shot by retailers, one was shot by police, two committed suicide after killing a retailer, and one burglar drowned in his car during a police chase.

What can happen when an armed and impetuous criminal confronts an unsuspecting jeweler? Just about anything, as the following jewelers’ stories prove. They demonstrate the risk that a weapon adds to an already volatile situation, the different ways in which the situation can be handled, and the range of potential outcomes. But if your opinion on the gun issue is set, these anecdotes—shocking as they may be—are unlikely to change your mind.

M and M Jewelers, Philadelphia

As jeweler Mark Chilutti greeted a customer on Dec. 5, 1996, a man behind the “shopper” appeared with a gun. Chilutti had a firearm in his store, but confronted with a gun pointed 12 in. from his chest, he never had the chance to reach for it. “I certainly had a gun to protect myself, but as it worked out it proved to be totally useless,” he says. Chilutti cooperated with the robbers, who emptied his safe and took the jewelry he was wearing. “I just kept telling the guy, ‘Please don’t hurt me,’ ” he recalls. But the men started arguing with each other, and suddenly one of them—who had been released from prison four months earlier—shot Chilutti in the chest.

The jeweler realized he had lost the use of his legs and listened helplessly as the robbers broke his showcases and took more jewelry. When they left he managed to pull himself to his “panic button” to summon the alarm company. His surveillance camera captured the incident on tape, which enabled police to catch the criminals.

Chilutti was left a paraplegic, with no feeling from the chest down. He had to close his business to tend to his health. “I have no plans to go back. In my condition it’s not really possible,” he says. Today, he speaks publicly in support of anti-violence causes. His story has been posted on the Web site of the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence (www.handguncontrol.org). It includes the message: “People need to realize and accept the fact that guns do not solve problems; they create them!”

DFC Estate Jewelers, West Palm Beach, Fla.

Jeweler Jack Schram was working on his taxes in August 1994 when a man came to the door of his store. “I wasn’t paying attention,” he says. “There was a knock on the door. Instinctively I hit the buzzer and then looked up. As soon as I looked up, I knew I made a mistake.” The “customer” was wearing an untucked, baggy shirt, a baseball cap, and sunglasses. “He just didn’t look right,” Schram recalls.

The man pointed to the counter and blurted out, “How much is that watch?” Says Schram, “He almost asked the question before he looked. I said, ‘It’s $500.’ I didn’t even care what it was.” The man turned away. “As he turned, he bent down. I don’t know why, but I knew exactly what he was doing,” says Schram. Knowing that the “customer” was going to draw a weapon, the jeweler pulled out his own gun. “I beat him to the draw. There was only one problem: I forgot to take the safety off. I’m not James Bond. This isn’t something I do all the time.”

Startled, the intruder opened fire. “He didn’t have to worry about a safety; he had a revolver, a Saturday-night special,” Schram says. “Unfortunately, five of his bullets hit me; four in the abdomen and one in the arm.” A sixth bullet struck the wall. No doubt thinking Schram was going to shoot him, the man ran to the door but couldn’t get out; the security system required Schram to buzz him out. “He comes back to me; I get down on the floor under my desk. I have my gun in my hand. I don’t know why it’s not working. I’m thinking, ‘I’m gonna die. I just got shot. I’m not dreaming. I have 2-year-old twin girls.’ ”

Instinctively, Schram put his hands out in a defensive posture, not realizing he was still holding his gun. The intruder seized the opportunity. “He just reaches up and takes the gun out of my hands and puts it in his waist,” Schram says. Pointing his own gun at Schram, the robber took the Rolex the jeweler was wearing. “Then he puts his gun to my head—I can feel the barrel—and he pulls the trigger. He intended to blow my brains out.” But the robber had already spent all six bullets. “I’m already in shock,” Schram says. “I’m already expecting to die anyway. So the fact that I’m not spattered all over the place … I didn’t react to that in a positive way. I’m only thinking one thing: ‘Dear God, please let me make it to the buzzer before I pass out.’ It was imperative that I get him out of the door.” Schram managed to buzz the man out. The assailant ran past seven other storefronts and got into a waiting car.

Schram was left with “big craters in my stomach, with chunks of flesh gone,” as well as copper poisoning from the robber’s copper-jacketed bullets. He underwent multiple operations and suffered post-traumatic stress. “Things always come up now; every six months I develop something else.” Adding to the trauma, Schram’s pregnant wife lost her baby from the shock of hearing about the shooting. “That son-of-a-bitch did murder someone; he killed my baby,” Schram says. The man was never caught.

Despite all that happened, the jeweler—who had been the victim of armed robberies twice before the shooting incident—went back to work. “When you’re 50 years old, what do you do?” he asks. “When you have a home, a mortgage, bills to pay, it’s kind of hard to just change your occupation in midlife.” He now has a “man-trap” door lock, enabling him to take a second look at customers before letting them into his store. But the incident hasn’t changed his mind about guns. He replaced his stolen weapon with a Glock. “It doesn’t have a safety,” he says.

Newton Jewelry Co., Fort Smith, Ark.

Around noon one day about 20 years ago, thieves drove up to Kelly Newton’s front window, smashed the glass, and started taking merchandise from a case that held rings priced over $10,000. “They didn’t think I was there because my car was down the road at the Ford dealership,” says Newton. “I ran to the front door and told them to stop. Then I shot their car and shot one of them.”

Though he was “petrified,” Newton fired five shots at the robbers, hitting one of them in the side. “It was instantaneous. I couldn’t tell the police what color the car was, though I stood there and put five bullets in it.” The injury to the thief helped police solve the case. “He went to a hospital in Oklahoma City because he still had the bullet in him. That’s how they apprehended him,” Newton recalls.

For many years, Newton used guns in his store as a substitute for insurance on his merchandise. He is now rethinking his philosophy. “The fact is, [the guns] are just here. I don’t know if I would use them. There are too many reasons now not to,” he says, citing potential liability from hitting an innocent bystander. “I sure would have to have the upper hand. If there were customers in the store, no way.”

Beverly Hills Jewelers, Richmond, Va.

In December 1994, 15 minutes after his store opened, owner Gary Baker and five employees were confronted by two men with ski masks, one pulling a black suitcase on wheels. “They were professional criminals, members of something called the Dixie Mafia,” says Baker. “One was armed with a .45 semiautomatic pistol, the other was carrying a sawed-off shotgun. The man with the .45 came all the way to the back and leaped on top of the [5-ft.-high] showcase. The one with the sawed-off shotgun stayed close to the door. When something like this happens, you want to reject the reality of what’s going on. I remember thinking, ‘Who could be stupid enough to play this dumb joke?’ ”

One of Baker’s employees yelled at the men to leave the store. “The guy at the front opened up; he shot into one of my showcases,” Baker says. But the jewelers had firearms at the ready. “I keep them about every 10 ft.,” Baker says. Baker and an employee drew weapons; others, who had hit the floor, pressed the store’s panic button. In the end, both robbers were dead. “The police said 33 shots were fired,” Baker says. He recalls that his mind was on automatic pilot during the incident. “It was sort of like watching a movie.”

Baker became a local hero in the aftermath of the shooting. “The street police, when they came in, were all flashing thumbs-up to us,” he says. “They were used to stepping over the [dead bodies of] merchants.” Former Virginia Gov. George Allen came to the store to pay his respects, and Baker received an award from the National Rifle Association. Last year, the incident was chronicled in a book, The Best Defense: True Stories of Intended Victims Who Defended Themselves with a Firearm (Robert A. Waters, Cumberland House, Nashville, Tenn., 1998).

“It’s amazing, the amount of business it’s created for us, especially among older people,” Baker says. Since the incident, Baker says he’s “beefed up” his arsenal, adding guns with more firepower. He’s also added steel plates to some of his inside walls. “I’m very set in my ways of thinking,” the jeweler says. “I don’t like the concept of simply submitting to a robber if he’s armed, and if you behave in a certain manner, maybe he won’t kill you.”

Paradise Jewelry, Naples, Fla.

The two men who rang the doorbell of the store in July 1994 looked like tourists. “They were both well-dressed,” recalls store manager Dell Jenkins. “They never took the baseball caps off of their heads. They were wearing sunglasses, but it was a very sunny Saturday morning.” One of the men asked to see a diamond. “He bent over a little bit,” Jenkins says. “I told him he could see the diamonds better if he removed his sunglasses. When he straightened up, I had a knife to my throat. He said, ‘This is a robbery; don’t do anything or you’ll be hurt.’ And I believed him.”

The men took Jenkins into the store’s office. “The first thing they did is tape my hands up. They taped my feet, they taped my eyes shut and my mouth closed. Of course, they took my keys out of my pocket immediately. I sat very still, and I concentrated on listening to them. I could hear them wiping out the cases. I figured it wasn’t worth my life to save the jewelry, and it wouldn’t have done any good, anyway.”

While Jenkins was tied up, the two robbers let a third accomplice in the store. A fourth waited in their car. They emptied the showcases and disabled the store’s security system. Watchful neighboring business owners noticed something amiss and called police and store owner Barry Nicholls, who was at home at the time. Jenkins, who remained still throughout the incident, sustained just bumps and bruises plus the loss of her eyebrows and eyelashes when the duck tape was removed from her eyes. She says she was able to escape injury because she had good training: “I had a son who was a Michigan state police officer. He was always quizzing me [on how to handle a robber].”

Nicholls says the thieves took between $50,000 and $120,000 worth of merchandise. The robbers were never caught. At first, “it was like the end of the world,” Nicholls says. “But upon deeper thought, I realized that I was insured and the insurance would cover me.” Although reimbursement took many months, “people sent me memo goods and helped me out,” he says. Some even contributed cash. Jenkins was back at work the following Monday. “I’m one of these people who feel if you fall off a horse, you get right back on,” she says.

Paradise Jewelry’s ordeal is featured in a Jewelers Mutual Insurance Co. safety video. “I’m not necessarily anti-gun,” Jenkins says. “I know that guns have their place, but in a situation like that, they wouldn’t do any good. If Barry had a gun, [facing the robber who had] a knife to my throat, what good would it have done?”

Armed Guards: A Solution?

A number of jewelers use armed security guards to protect them from criminals with weapons. Is this a good idea? Not necessarily, says John Kennedy, president of the Jewelers’ Security Alliance. “We give great cautions about whom you use and how they’re used,” Kennedy says. “There are numerous instances of armed guards, not in uniform, being overcome by robbers.” An armed guard, like an armed jeweler, could have a gun put to his head and his weapon seized by criminals, Kennedy points out. “Once he takes his gun out, you already have a disaster,” says Kennedy. “Who knows what’s going to happen?”

While JSA does not endorse any security company, Kennedy says that by far the best armed security guards are off-duty police officers in their uniforms. Criminals who have been debriefed after capture have told authorities that “they don’t like dealing with police; they don’t want to bring down the wrath of the department,” says Kennedy.

Guards should know the jewelry business, Kennedy advises. “Jewelers should brief them so there’s an understanding about how they behave. They shouldn’t be firing into the store in an indiscriminate manner.”

The best protection a guard can give a jeweler doesn’t involve a weapon, Kennedy points out. With off-duty or retired police, “the most important thing you’re buying is their eyes and ears and their knowledge; their ability to stop trouble before it starts. You’re not hiring a guard to have a shoot-out in your store. That’s not good for business.”

Argus Protective Services of New York offers a variety of security services to jewelers, including armed guards. Although his employees wear civilian clothes, they are active-duty and retired police officers and federal agents, says company president John McCann. “A trained professional knows whether to use the gun or not use the gun,”

McCann says. He adds that his company’s guards evaluate people who come to the door of a store and advise jewelers when a suspicious-looking person should not be let in. “My guard is a security expert. He will advise them what to do.”

McCann stresses that “in the event that human life is at risk, [an Argus guard] will comply with the instructions of the robbers. The greater loss is litigation exposure and loss of life.”

”I beat him to the draw. There was only one problem: I forgot to take the safety off.” — florida jeweler Jack Schram

“If I’m going to go out, I’m going to go out fighting.” — Pennsylvania jeweler Barry DiNola

What to do in an Armed robbery

Although many jewelers feel strongly about arming themselves against criminals, the Jewelers’ Security Alliance, Jewelers Mutual Insurance Co., and law-enforcement officials encourage cooperating with robbers to save your life in an armed robbery. Here’s their advice:

  • Have a written policy for how to respond to a robbery. Conduct training sessions to review security procedures.

  • Do not resist. Obey the robbers’ orders.

  • Don’t do anything other than what the robbers ask you to do.

  • Give the robbers what they want and try to get them out of your store as quickly as possible. The less time you spend with them, the greater your chance of survival.

  • Stay calm. Focus on surviving.

  • Try to remember as much information as you can.

  • Don’t reach for a “panic button” or phone while a robber is in your store.

  • Avoid eye contact or staring at a robber during a holdup.

  • Expect to be threatened. Assume a robber will shoot without hesitation.

  • Let the experience be as predictable as possible for the robbers so they have no reason to be upset.

  • Leave the premises if you can do so without being noticed. Call police and tell them there’s a robbery in progress. Observe from a safe distance to get a description of the robbers’ clothing, car, and license plate number.

  • If possible, avoid going anywhere with the robbers.

After the robbery:

  • Lock all doors.

  • Call the police.

  • Call your insurance agent or company to report the loss.

  • Call JSA at (800) 537-0067.

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