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Jewelry robberies are typical of gangs attacking industry

| Friday, June 14, 2013, 10:57 a.m.

Gangs of thieves crisscross the country robbing dealers and sales people of backpacks and briefcases full of diamonds, precious gems and jewelry.

They stake out stores and follow dealers home and to hotels, patiently waiting for the opportunity to strike.

Although police do not know who orchestrated three recent jewelry heists in Allegheny County, federal authorities and security experts said South American gangs commit a vast majority of such thefts.

“These are professional criminals who attack the jewelry industry,” said John Kennedy, the president of the Jewelers' Security Alliance, a New York trade association that tracks crimes against jewelers. “These guys sit on jewelry stores, and they wait and they wait until they see a traveling salesman, and then they follow him or her.

“They will follow them for 500 miles. If they spot a guy they think is a good mark, they will follow him for days.”

On Thursday, an independent diamond dealer claimed three men attacked him in the parking garage of Gateway Towers, Downtown, making off with a backpack full of diamonds and jewelry. On May 8, three masked men stole $1 million worth of jewelry and gems from a salesman in the parking lot of Grafner Brothers Jewelry Store in Pine. About a month earlier, thieves broke into a salesman's car parked in the lot of a Monroeville hotel and stole $250,000 worth of jewelry.

Pittsburgh police intend to examine the May and April thefts during their investigation, said spokeswoman Diane Richard.

Employing what are known as off-premise hits, gangs have targeted traveling salesmen and dealers for decades, Kennedy said.

“The people who do these hits on traveling salesmen stick to that (modus operandi). With rare exception, these are not the people who walk into a jewelry store with a gun,” Kennedy said. “Ninety-nine percent of these off-premise hits are done by South American gangs, primarily from Colombia.”

The FBI's Jewelry and Gem Program listed South American theft groups as one of three crime groups involved in high-profile jewelry thefts targeting traveling dealers. Black groups and Eastern European gangs from Yugoslavia, Albania, Croatia and Serbia also are listed on the agency's website. The FBI considers the South American gangs, who often have informants inside the industry, the most violent.

In late March, the leader of a jewelry theft crew pleaded guilty to racketeering and conspiracy in Virginia. Alexander Cuadros-Garcia, 37, led a gang that staked out jewelry stores in several states and followed vulnerable victims home or to their hotels, according to federal court documents. The thieves punched out car windows, threatened victims with knives and slashed tires. The stolen jewelry was sold to dealers in New York, the Justice Department said.

John Durastanti, a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent who supervised the investigation, said agents followed Cuadros-Garcia and his crew up and down the East Coast and to Atlanta, Nashville, Houston and Los Angeles. The crews know their targets, Durastanti said. They stay mobile, specialized, patient and out of the drug trade.

“There is too much money in the diamond district,” Durastanti said. “The key for them is to find someone to buy their stones.”

Thieves stole $12.4 million during off-premise burglaries and robberies nationwide in 2012, a $200,000 increase from 2011, according to a report compiled by the Jewelers' Security Alliance. Off-premise hits have fallen in recent years as the number of traveling dealers continues to drop, the group reported. Dealers conduct more business over the phone and through the mail and other shipping options for safety and business reasons, said Ron Rosiak, an employee at the Pittsburgh Diamond Center and Exchange, Downtown. Dealers who travel often carry “dummy” goods, jewelry made of brass rather than gold and with fake gems.

“You have to be very careful,” Rosiak said. “The number of reps coming into the Clark Building, Downtown, with live goods, as they say, has reduced dramatically.”

Traveling dealers could do more to protect themselves from theft, said John Hudson, a retired Secret Service agent and owner of Security Consulting Solutions Inc. in Beaver County. Dealers could hire additional security, install tracking devices in their bags or carry guns, Hudson said.

“Carrying a weapon is certainly what I would do,” Hudson said. “You definitely want to enhance the overall security. You just don't transport diamonds like that. If you do something like that, I would call that careless. That's an awful lot of money.”

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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