Harmed Guards

A nightmare scenario played out in Palm Desert, Calif., this summer. A traveling jewelry salesman returned home from sales calls in Los Angeles with his armed escort, the first he’d used in 10 years in the business. Joe (not his real name) parked the car in his garage while the escort kept a lookout in the driveway, as he had done for the previous two weeks.

Suddenly, Joe heard a warning from his escort, a retired police officer: “Stay down; there are four of them, and they’re coming.” Four Colombian gang members ran toward them, firing shots. As the escort crouched down and returned fire, emptying eight rounds from his 45-caliber pistol, Joe took a calculated gamble and pushed the button to close his garage door.

Fortunately, the escort was able to roll inside. The two of them ran into the house, where Joe’s wife cried hysterically as she called 911, holding their 4-month-old baby in one arm and their 4-year-old in the other. Joe and his family ran upstairs and hid in the bathtub for protection from stray bullets.

The police arrived soon after with a show of force akin to Lethal Weapon 5. A squad car ran down the gang members’ car, which had been identified by a neighbor, and arrested three of the four gang members, one of whom lies in a police ward at a hospital, paralyzed from a shot that lodged in his spine. They have been charged with weapons violations as well as attempted murder and robbery. The salesman has since left the business. There was no loss to his line.

Along with two other violent assaults on armed escorts earlier this year, the case signals a serious, emerging issue for the jewelry industry. In recent years, jewelry manufacturers looked to armed escorts as the last word in protection against the South American – primarily Colombian – gangs targeting the industry. At least six firms now provide armed escort services to jewelry manufacturers, typically with off-duty or retired policemen.

Now it seems that even armed escorts may no longer be a safeguard. Even worse, their presence may be contributing to an escalation in violence. For instance, in Ogden, Utah, last March, an armed off-duty police officer was assaulted as he guarded a jewelry manufacturer unloading his line for a mall remount show. According to the Jewelers’ Security Alliance, the escort spotted gang members streaming out the doors of the mall. Before he could react, a car hit him from behind and knocked him down, and gang members held him in a stranglehold as other gang members grabbed the jewelry. They drove off with $1 million in jewelry as the guard struggled to his feet and fired shots after them.

In a third assault in July at a mall in Hawthorne, Calif., gang members held one gun to an armed escort’s head and another to his mouth. JSA says that criminals frisked the escort (they didn’t find his gun), then took off with $150,000 in jewelry. The escort fired shots as they drove away. There were no arrests in either case.

Detective Michael Woodings of the Los Angeles Police Department, who has tracked South American gangs for a decade, views these assaults as early indicators of a disturbing trend. “The violence in the last years has been escalating. There is a changing MO [modus operandi]. They are using more suspects and more guns. In days gone by you would see one carload of suspects; now we see three or more carloads. In the past, the thing was to disable the victim’s car, create a diversion. Now they’re waiting until the victim stops where there aren’t too many witnesses. The pattern is violent and confrontational.”

Though armed guards are intended as a deterrent to crime, says Woodings, “it seems to be that they [the gangs] are making whatever adjustments to their methods are necessary to continue their access to the jewelry. There’s certainly a very realistic potential that they would start by taking out the guard first. I think the guards are at extreme risk.”

The reaction from JSA is a sober reevaluation of the organization’s position on armed guards. “This situation is very scary,” says John Kennedy, JSA president. “If we decide that people should continue using armed guards, then we have to decide what policies and procedures can be established to make escorts more effective” (see article at left).

JSA vice president Bob Frank notes that “everyone seems to feel safer with an armed escort. But that may be a false sense of security. There’s no person with a gun outside of Rambo who can protect you against nine armed men. In fact, a lot of escorts have concluded that their experience and tactics are more important than carrying guns.”

According to the FBI, several thousand people connected with the South American theft groups prey on members of the jewelry industry, hundreds of whom are involved in direct attacks. There are indications that their internal structure is similar to that of some terrorist groups in South America. Their assaults are fast and violent, and their surveillance and victim-selection tactics make it difficult for sales reps to know if they’re being followed.

Many people in the jewelry industry feel that when an escort fires back, it dissuades further attacks, but Frank isn’t so sure. “I am fearful they will ratchet up their act a little more,” he says. “Instead of saying, ‘This is a stick-up,’ they will just start shooting.”

Aware of the heightened danger, some security firms are insisting that clients pay for two escorts, especially in hard-hit areas such as Southern California, Miami, and Houston. Yet escorts are expensive – $300 to $500 per day – and many manufacturers aren’t willing to foot the bill.

“Safety is paramount to everything,” says Edward O’Callaghan, field operations manager for Safety Escort Services, based in Mount Vernon, N.Y. “We have turned down a lot of jobs because the client didn’t want to pay for a two-man run. Nothing is worth one of my men, or one of the salespeople, getting hurt.” –John McCann, president of Argus

Protective Services Ltd. in New York, notes, “No matter how much firepower you have, the gangs will just increase their firepower to take you off. Firepower isn’t the answer; you have to use countersurveillance and avoidance techniques. You have to blend in, be unobtrusive.” He still believes escorts should carry guns. “The real point is not to be an easily identifiable target.”

“It’s a serious problem,” says Dave Downey of Downey Designs in Indianapolis. “There’s nothing fail-safe, and I’m worried that if we raise the bar, they’ll raise it, too. This is their living, and you can’t out-gun a group of Colombians.”

A Victim Speaks Out

Though he’s grateful to have lived to tell the tale of the shootout on his front lawn, the Palm Desert, Calif., jewelry salesman mentioned in the accompanying article is understandably angry about the experience that robbed him of his chosen profession.

JCK spoke with Joe (not his real name) to see what lessons he could share. Here’s what he told us:

  • You can use textbook security precautions and still be a victim. Joe and his armed police escort discussed in advance how they would respond to an assault. Joe drove as the escort kept a lookout while they took evasive action that day, using three different highways as they returned from a mall in Los Angeles. They even drove past his house after they had an odd feeling about a parked car at the side of the road with two people inside one block from his home. (However, when the car pulled away and drove past them they assumed, incorrectly, they weren’t being targeted.)

  • Traveling jewelry sales reps should be careful to train their children not to run outside to greet them when they return home. Joe’s 4-year-old son usually does that. Had he not been taking a nap that day, he would have run into the line of fire.

  • “When you travel with your line, you’re going to drag a bag of troubles with you wherever you go,” says Joe. “Don’t think for one minute about letting your guard down. The gangs have all the time in the world to sit and watch you.”

  • Use specially trained police escorts whenever possible. If Joe hadn’t, he and his family might not be alive today. Though the shoot-out has overtones of the Wild West, Joe’s escort said it was only the second time in his nine-year police career that he had ever pulled a gun.

Two months after the assault, Joe’s funds have dwindled dangerously low. He and his wife want to stay in Palm Desert, but he can’t find suitable employment there. They have applied to a victims’ fund for some restitution, which nonetheless would barely cover expenses. His wife is heartbroken at the prospect of returning to work while their children are so young.

“I was just an ordinary guy doing a job so well, having a fabulous career, and the Colombians changed my life,” says Joe. “In addition to a very serious financial burden, the profession I love is gone for me. It’s like taking an engineer and saying, ‘You’re going to work in a car wash.’ I had competed against the best salesmen from around the country and proven myself over and over again. When [thieves] shower you with bullets, you have to rethink life.”

Using Escorts Effectively

If the Jewelers’ Security Alliance decides to continue endorsing the use of armed escorts, a decision it expects to make soon, it would do so with several caveats:

  1. Only escorts trained in risks specific to the jewelry industry and with police training should be used. JSA offers one-on-one training sessions for escorts on request and trains escorts who attend its annual traveling jewelry salesperson seminar, which is expected to be offered in New York in early 1999.
    “There’s a mind-set that as long as you have someone with police experience and a gun, you’re covered. That’s what we want to change,” says Bob Frank, JSA vice president. “The escort also needs the experience and ability to spot the bad guys and get the jeweler out of there before something happens.”
    The problem is that law-enforcement officers’ role is to confront and apprehend criminals. However, when an off-duty or retired law-enforcement officer serves as an escort, his only goal should be to keep clients and products safe – before a confrontation occurs. “Salesmen don’t want to be in a shoot-out situation,” says Frank. “The name of the game is crime prevention, not confrontation.”

  2. Jewelers and escorts need to plan ahead. “You can’t just jump in the car and say, ‘Here’s where we’re going,’ ” says Frank. “You have to discuss what you would do before these violent scenarios happen. If you don’t, you might do something that could cause you to lose your life.”

  3. Escorts shouldn’t drive while providing protection. It’s impossible to negotiate urban traffic and simultaneously watch for pursuing cars, particularly when assailants use several vehicles. Because escorts often follow their client in a separate car, this again points toward the need for two-person escort teams: One drives while the other watches out for thugs.

  4. Similarly, jewelry manufacturers need to rethink the level of protection they budget for their sales representatives. One and perhaps even two escorts (whether armed or not) may be advisable in a growing number of regions and situations.

Security Escorts

The following security companies have significant jewelry industry clients, use off-duty or retired police personnel, and have a track record of providing quality service, according to the Jewelers’ Security Alliance. JSA does not endorse any company.

Argus Protective Services New York (212) 875-0010

Frank A. Barcott Security and Investigations Cypress, Calif. (714) 891-8556

Intel Security Systems Los Angeles (213) 255-0156

Safety Escort Services Mount Vernon, N.Y. (914) 668-1045