FBI joins jewelry heists investigation

FBI joins jewelry heists investigation

Posted: Saturday, August 2, 2008 12:00 am

By JON GAMBRELL Associated Press Writer LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The million-dollar robberies took only terrifying seconds in the parking lots of jewelry stores, hotels and restaurants. Masked gunmen and knife-wielding attackers blocked in cars and broke out windows to scare jewelry salesmen and couriers into submission before whisking away their merchandise. The thieves, focused enough to frisk backs and find diamond pouches hidden away in socks, remain at large after heists across the South. In Arkansas, the FBI is launching a joint investigation of the robberies, the latest a daytime heist on Tuesday in Little Rock in which thieves made off with $500,000 in jewelry. Agents say that robbery, matching two others last month in Pine Bluff and Nashville, shares similarities with a string of thefts in Houston of jewelry worth at least $3.5 million. “In cases like these, it’s standard investigative procedure for the FBI to check other FBI field offices for similar types of crimes,” said Steve Frazier, a spokesman for the FBI’s Little Rock field office. “We are aware that Houston has reported several jewelry heists in their area and as part of this investigation, we’ll be communicating with them and other offices to help us with our investigation.” In Houston, police report at least six robberies of jewelry salesmen and couriers since April, with one May theft netting nearly $1.5 million in diamonds. Officers say the thieves used pepper spray, pistol-whipping and knives to threaten their victims. “They definitely appear to be preplanned,” said Shauna Dunlap, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Houston field office. “They appear to know where these individuals are going to be at a particular time.” FBI and police suspect the thefts could be part of what the bureau refers to as “South American Theft Groups” targeting diamond couriers. Agent say the groups, crewed by illegal immigrants from countries like Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, stake out traveling salesmen and jewelry shows, sometimes traveling across the country for scores. Investigators recently arrested three Colombian nationals loitering around Houston-area jewelry stores. Dunlap said the men were being held for illegally re-entering the United States, but were being questioned about potentially involvement in the robberies. In June, robbers attacked couriers at a hotel in Nashville and a strip mall in Pine Bluff. Police say both men flew into airports, then rented cars to travel to their sales destinations. Both victims told police the attacks happened quickly, with one jeweler even losing the diamonds hidden away inside his socks. Each man reported losing about $500,000 in stones during the heists. Tuesday’s lunchtime robbery, along a well-traveled street in Arkansas’ capital city, targeted a salesman who flew into Little Rock National Airport on a private plane. Despite keeping their travel plans quiet, the salesmen make tempting targets, often traveling alone and carrying high-dollar stones. The Jewelers’ Security Alliance, which tracks the jewelry crimes, said traveling salesmen in the U.S. lost $39.5 million in stones last year alone in robberies and thefts. Dunlap said FBI agents urge jewelers and couriers to report anyone out of the ordinary to police, as the thieves likely conduct surveillance for days at stores. “They appear to move from city to city to commit these kinds of robberies,” she said. “That’s what we’ve seen in the past that they do, and that’s what we as the FBI would like to prevent.” Published in The Messenger 8.1.08

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