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Southland smash-and-grab jewelry thefts on the rise

In an Eyewitness News exclusive, Miriam Hernandez explores who these smash-and-grab thieves are and why they do it.

March 28, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
They are terrorizing people all across Southern California. They enter a store violently, smashing and grabbing everything in sight. So who are these thieves?

"Every other month we get robbed," said Robert Trette, president and CEO, Don Roberto Jewelers.

"The mere fact that they rush that place, the sheer numbers, literally. I don't know how else to explain it. It scares the crap out of people," said Glendale Police Sgt. Tom Lorenz.

Smash-and-grab thieves: You've seen them in the act. And if you think you've seen a sudden surge lately, police can confirm it.

"That's what I find fascinating about this whole case is the sheer volume," said Santa Ana Police Corporal Anthony Bertagna.

And that's not all. Investigators from multiple agencies are sharing notes, from Orange County to Ontario, Redondo Beach to the San Gabriel Valley.

Detectives say many of the suspects arrested are gang members or are linked to a gang. Yet, police say, there is an even more disturbing pattern here.

The alleged gang members are working side by side with members of rival gangs in one hit after the other.

"Whereas in the past they might have had conflicts because of gang territories, they now seem to be partnering for criminal efforts," said Pasadena Police Lt. Tracey Ibarra.

"We have been informed that in one of our cases that possibly the driver of the vehicle was in fact a Blood gang member driving three and four Crip gang members together to commit this crime," said Bertagna.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has as many as seven cases under investigation.

One reason for the crime spree is the price of gold. A single ounce was $600 four years ago. Now it is double that. The thieves pass up diamond rings and items with embedded identification numbers. The profit is in the precious metal.

And where is the gold being turned into cash? Not in pawn shops, where ID is required for every transaction. Investigators believe that jewelry is all being melted and down and sold by an illicit operator.

Meantime, there are others besides the jewelers caught in this web.

Some of the young male suspects may have been lured into these robberies with a promise there would be easy profit and little risk. No gun necessary, just gloves and a hammer.

"Looking at these some of these people, actually, to tell you the truth, from the other videos, it looks like there's some first-timers involved," said Sgt. Lorenz.

They get caught, yet somehow there are ready replacements.

"It appears that there's over 80 people in custody for this type of incident across the L.A., Orange County, San Bernardino area," said Bertagna.

To make matters worse, some the gang suspects may avoid tough prison sentences because of legal loophole. A gang member could get life if he commits a crime that furthers his own gang, but not if he collaborates with a rival gang member.

"It's a stupid crime, I will tell you that right now," said Sgt. Lorenz.

Jewelry stores now have more cameras and hammer-proof cases.

"In a lot of cases, the glass won't break. Your exposure and your return is not worth it," said Sgt. Lorenz. "Not worth it at all."