War in the Streets of L.A.

“Los Angeles is the eye of the storm, the epicenter, for jewelry crime in the United States. It’s the most dangerous place in the country for the job you’re in.”

And so John Kennedy, president of Jewelers’ Security Alliance, opened a recent security seminar for 50 traveling sales representatives in Los Angeles. For industry members who feel harassed by crime in the Southern California area, JSA Vice President Robert Frank’s summary of the situation is more hard-hitting. “It’s a war out there in the streets of Los Angeles,” he says.

Of the 151 crimes against traveling jewelry sales representatives report-ed by JSA in the first seven months of 1997, 62 happened in California and all but 10 took place in Southern California. The California total was almost three times the number reported in Florida and six times those in New York state. The average loss was almost $200,000, and the largest reported was $1.5 million.

JSA’s reports don’t reflect the entire problem. According to Los Angeles Police Detective Mike Woodings, about 150 jewelry salespeople were robbed in California in 1996, double the number from three years before. Two-thirds of the robberies occurred in Los Angeles County. LAPD Detective Bill Speer, who handles robberies involving both jewelry sales reps and retail stores, says the number of store robberies is significantly lower in Los Angeles this year, but the threat to sales reps is up “three- or four-fold in the West, not just in Los Angeles.”

Resorting to violence

While the number of incidents has soared, an even more frightening fact is the escalation of violence. Nearly 80% of the cases reported to JSA involved guns, knives or physical force.

“These guys used to be very sophisticated and used cunning, but now they resort to violence,” says Woodings. A few years ago the most common method of theft was to distract salespeople by throwing ketchup on their jackets or money on the floor or sidewalk. As they turned to wipe off the ketchup or stooped to pick up the money, the thief grabbed the case and ran.

The industry became aware of such techniques and stopped being susceptible to the distractions, so the nature of the crimes changed. “What used to be theft is now robbery [use of force or fear],” says Wooding. “Today they use physical force, guns, pepper spray or mace. It’s a new breed. They’re younger, more likely to carry weapons, more intent on doing crimes rapidly and doing more of them.” JSA has no reports of homicides among traveling jewelry salespeople so far this year, but three such deaths occurred in 1996.

If salespeople are careful enough not to allow a window of opportunity for thieves, the thieves will create one – by slashing radiator hoses or puncturing tires. When the victim stops to fix the problem, they rob him or her. “If the jeweler doesn’t get out of the car, they smash the windows,” Woodings says. When suspects are caught in a car, the same basic tools are always found – knives for cutting tires, a spring-loaded carpenters’ center punch, which can easily break car windows, and a BMW tire jack, a favorite tool for quickly prying open a trunk lid.

Even if the thieves take the sample case, the victim is not necessarily safe. One sales rep was severely beaten after he surrendered his line. “Four guys started kicking me and beating me,” he remembers. “I told them, ‘You have the bag, go,’ but they just kept on beating me. I had to keep fighting because I thought if I went unconscious I wouldn’t wake up.” He suffered two broken ribs and was bleeding from his head and ears when he crawled to the hotel office for help.

Modus operandi

Almost without exception the robberies are carried out by highly skilled South American gangs, primarily from Colombia. Mike Woodings, who has been working on jewelry theft cases since 1988, says Colombian gangs have been operating in Southern California for at least 30 years. “As many as 200 people are working in L.A. at any given time,” he says.

At one time the thieves were actually trained at the Seven Bells Pick-pocket School in Colombia, but the school is now closed and gang members instead receive “on-the-job training.” “They used to be trained in non-violent ways,” says Robert Frank of JSA. “Now there’s no school and more violence.”

The robbers carry no identification; one even burned scars into his finger tips to eliminate the 12 points of identification sought by fingerprint experts. Another thief took salt tablets and bloated herself so the victim would not recognize her.

The gang members stake out jewelry stores and begin pursuit when they spot a person leaving the store with large cases. “In 90% of the cases we know of, they spot you when you call on a retailer,” says Frank. “They come at you with 10 or 12 people, in anywhere from three to five vehicles. You may not always see all of them, but they’re there.”

Once they identify their victim, the bandits will follow that person until they have an opportunity to commit the robbery. Many times they are incredibly patient and often will follow someone for days before making their move.

Sometimes they will even follow a victim on open highways for many miles – one sales representative reports she was followed 300 miles from one appointment to her next destination, then attacked for her case in her hotel parking lot. When the robbers spot their prey, they follow their victim and often box the jeweler in to force him or her to the curb. They also may follow the victim to his or her home and attack there.

When the thieves strike, it’s often well-orchestrated, and even salespeople who follow the rules of safety can fall victim. A salesperson returning to his car after a sales call in a shopping mall put his line in the trunk and got into the front seat when a car with four men drove up behind him and blocked his exit.

“One got out, came up next to my car, smiled and waved to me,” he remembers. “He leaned against the car next to me and put his feet against my door. One opened the trunk, one took the case and one stayed in the car. It was choreographed, just like a ballet. The whole thing showed up on the parking lot surveillance tape, and it took only about 12 seconds.” The robbers used a key because the trunk had not been pried open.

The Colombian gang members steal jewelry because it’s easy to get rid of. It is believed that many of the younger gang members are connected with drug rings, and because jewelry is high in value and can easily be hidden, it’s a perfect vehicle for money laundering. The jewelry is stolen, the thieves turn it over to their boss who in turn passes it along to a receiver. “The jewels are popped out, the metal is melted and it can’t be traced,” Wooding says.

As a result, only about 10% of all cases are solved, Kennedy says.

L.A. law

In 1988, former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates created a task force of 13 people to work on South American gang-related activities, putting Woodings, who had experience in military intelligence, in charge. “Los Angeles was a safe place for jewelry salespeople for a while,” Woodings said. In 1993, however, the new chief, Willie Williams, disbanded the task force to reassign more officers to a community policing program.

Kennedy says that while the task force was operating in Los Angeles, it was effective. “During that time South Florida was the worst place in the country, but after the task force was disbanded, Los Angeles took the lead.”

Woodings remained the sole person assigned to following organized theft – his business card reads “South American Theft Groups” – with occasional help from a few people on a temporary basis, including his current partner, Ben Black. A new police chief, Bernard Parks, was appointed in August, and the task force has been reinstated in part. Five people have been assigned to the unit in addition to Woodings and Black, and the group has now reached half its original strength.

The recent Pacific Jewelry Show provided an excellent opportunity for the unit-in-training to see the problem first-hand. Suspicious people were spotted at the Century Plaza Hotel on the closing day. One “security-savvy” sales representative made a dry run from the hotel without his goods. He noted he was being followed, returned to the hotel and called LAPD to request an escort to the airport.

Two unmarked cars showed up to act as a caravan to the sales representative’s car. The thieves followed in four cars, leapfrogging in a professional manner, Speer says. Ten robbers were captured after they parked in front of the lead police car at the airport and tried to accost the sales representative.

One of the major problems facing Los Angeles law enforcement officers is a common one: the lack of a central clearing house for jewelry theft intelligence among the nation’s police departments. Each department has its own core of information, and there is little sharing of data. The FBI does an ongoing investigation, but it is the responsibility of each office to participate.

Kennedy says the Los Angeles FBI office has not been as responsive as he would have liked in the past. Recently, he and Robert Bridge of Ben Bridge Jewelers visited the new special agent in charge of the Los Angeles office to seek his support. “I was happy about the reception,” Kennedy says. “He said he was going to ‘put it on their plate.’”

Woodings defends the FBI. “Locally they have a lot of priorities. L. A. is the bank robbery capital of the country, it is the drug capital and it is it is the illegal alien capital,” he says.

Many ask why “stings” aren’t used more often. Frank explains the LAPD needs many more resources to set up a sting than are available. Woodings once set up a sting using a detective posing as a salesman who did everything wrong – didn’t look when he left a store, didn’t take evasive action and appeared not to look to see if he was followed. He was, and four cars of detectives followed the robbers. “We got the guys,” Woodings says. “But it took one detective, 15 more following him and five cars to do it.”

Calling all retailers

It’s not only the sales representatives who feel the effects of the crime wave: retailers are affected too. They don’t see as many sales representatives, and those who do visit them are likely to come less often.

  • “Retailers can help,” says one sales representative. “Many want us to work with them in the front of the store and people can walk by and see the line laid out on the counter. Maybe they can work with us in an office or in a lunchroom or someplace in the back.”

  • Retailers can scan the storefront frequently to see if anyone appears to be watching, not only for the benefit of the sales representatives but for their own safety too. Several sales representatives suggest that “telephone trees” be established among retailers to keep each other apprised of suspicious situations. Jewelers in Santa Barbara, Cal., have used this technique successfully to thwart store robberies.

  • One sales representative says many jewelers offer to escort her to her car. “If not, I ask them to. I ask them to wait until I pull out and see if anyone follows me. If they do, I tell them to call me on my cell phone.”

Robert Bridge of Ben Bridge Jewelers, Seattle, Wash., recently chaired a meeting of representatives from JSA, Jewelers of America, Manufacturing Jewelers & Silversmiths of America and Jewelers Mutual Insurance Co. to organize the industry’s response to the continuing Colombian threat. The committee appears to be partly the result of a widely-circulated letter written by Jason Segal, a sales representative who called for various segments of the jewelry industry to exert more pressure on law enforcement agencies. “Industry lobbyists could bring this to the attention of the FBI and other government officials,” the letter said.

Personal Prevention

There are things those in the industry can do to protect themselves. A few experts and victims of crime share some insights and tips:

  • “Don’t fall into a pattern and become predictable,” says Robert Frank, Jewelers’ Security Alliance vice president. He recommends using different car rental companies, varying the hotels you stay in and even using different airlines occasionally when traveling.

  • “Don’t give them anything that will help them follow you,” Frank says. “Keep your car clean, free of any decals or other identifying marks. Get dents and broken tail lights fixed right away. Make it harder for them to follow you. You want your car to blend in with the traffic.”

  • “Make the assumption that they know you, who you are, what you have, what kind of car you drive, where you live,” one victim advises. Expert robbers don’t need to follow a jeweler to find out where he or she lives. They can learn a lot just by tracing a license plate, looking at the license plate frame for the city where the car was purchased, finding the Vehicle Identification Number or noticing a home address on an envelope left on the front seat.

  • All jewelers are urged to be on the lookout for suspicious people, acts or comments, and the trunk pried open.

  • When incidents do happen, some victims complain that they were unable to find help by calling 911. One sales representative dialed the emergency number to report he was being followed and was about to be robbed. “The operator said, ‘How do you know you’re being followed? How do you know they’re Colombians?’ I said, ‘I know they are. Just get me the damn police.’”