Crooks behind massive California jewel heist remain elusive

West

LOS ANGELES (NewsNation) — A multi-million dollar jewelry and gemstone heist in Southern California continues to baffle local and federal investigators.

The thieves broke into an unattended Brink’s tractor-trailer parked at a remote rest stop in mid-July and stole the items after the vehicle’s two armed guards walked away, authorities said. 

The tractor-trailer had been traveling overnight from a jewelry show in the San Francisco Bay Area down to the Los Angeles region for another event. It is unknown whether the suspects followed the vehicle along its 375-mile journey or stumbled across it at the rest stop in a crime of opportunity, according to Los Angeles Sheriff’s Sgt. Michael Mileski.

The guards reported the heist around 2 a.m. on July 11 after they noticed that the trailer’s lock had been tampered with, Mileski told The Associated Press.

Investigators are trying to determine how the lock was broken. The FBI is also working on the case.

It’s unclear how long the guards had left the vehicle unattended at the Flying J rest stop and gas station in the unincorporated community of Lebec, about 75 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.

The merchandise had been loaded onto the truck late on July 10 following an exhibit hosted by the International Gem and Jewelry Show in San Mateo, south of San Francisco, said Brandy Swanson, the group’s director. It was going to an event at the Pasadena Convention Center just northeast of Los Angeles, she said.

While Swanson said 18 victims were reporting more than $100 million in losses, Brink’s told The Associated Press the stolen items were worth less than $10 million.

“According to the information the customers provided to us before they shipped their items, the total value of the missing items is less than $10 million,” Brink’s said in a statement to The Associated Press. “We are working with law enforcement, and we will fully reimburse our customers for the value of their assets that were stolen, in accordance with the terms of our contract.”

Mileski said detectives are currently estimating the theft at $10 million, based on the insurance, but they expect the amount to climb. Investigators are reviewing video footage from local businesses to see if the crime was recorded. The sergeant said multiple suspects are believed to have executed the heist.

Arnold Duke, president of the International Gem & Jewelry Show, is still — weeks later — trying to process the theft.

“You couldn’t make up a story like this; it’s just so bizarre,” he told NewsNation. “The sheer volume of these large footlockers would fill more than a cargo van. I just can’t understand how they could get away with so much merchandise.”

Authorities estimate the operation may have taken as little as 27 minutes to pull off.

Some of the 18 vendors affected are small mom-and-pop outfits.

“Their whole life that they’ve been working and doing our shows for 30 or 40 years was in that box and worth a couple million dollars. And now lots of those are gone,” said Duke.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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