Last updateThu, 17 May 2018 7am

Jewelers getting some justice


Retail jewelers are all about love. But they certainly aren’t getting any from criminals looking to make a fast buck. Although some crime statistics against jewelers are showing signs of leveling off and even coming down, it’s troubling that spending $200 to $300 on cutting wheel tools at a Home Depot can place even a motley crew on the same level as the pros.

(l-r) Jan Fergerson, Joseph Gittings and Alice Herring of Ford, Gittings and Kane Jewelers (Rome, GA). Fergerson used her “jeweler’s sixth sense” to stop a high end watch purchase on a stolen credit card.
If you’re looking for a silver lining, take comfort in knowing not all criminal minds are exactly Ocean’s Eleven material. Brandon Burke, store manager of Charleston Gold & Diamond Exchange in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, learned this firsthand in late March.

Detectives contacted Brandon and other jewelers in the area in late March about a recent string of burglaries in town. An 18-karat gold flower brooch set with diamonds, valued at $10,000, was identified as a high-ticket item in one of the home invasions.

Brandon dutifully took detailed notes from the officer, and then shared the information with the store owner and staff. The following day, as luck and timing would have it, the first customer was a young man looking to sell a high karatage gold flower brooch set with diamonds.

The day before, the young man had the brooch appraised at another jewelry store in town. He produced the document with his name on it to establish ownership of the brooch in order to facilitate the sale of the item. Or so Joshua Daniel Baumgartner thought (and hoped) when he approached a sales associate in the store, who adroitly alerted Brandon of the situation so that the store manager could seamlessly take over the transaction.

“It was pretty easy to put two and two together with this case,” says Brandon. “The first thought that hit me was why the guy was trying to sell jewelry to a store in the same town as the burglaries took place.”

Brandon and the sales associate stalled the fledgling felon as long as possible. The phone call placed to Brandon’s friend in the local police department went to voice mail, but authorities eventually arrived 15 minutes later.

Long Jewelers (Virginia Beach, VA) store manager Jon Walp worked with ATF agents tracking a group of Columbian criminals for over a year, resulting in a number of arrests.
An even greater error committed by the criminal was getting an appraisal done on the brooch the previous day. The actual take-in value of the brooch was under $5,000, according to Brandon’s rough estimate. But the insurance replacement cost of the flower brooch recently established at $10,000 on a written appraisal with the criminal’s name on it, took the crime from larceny to grand larceny.

Booked on a federal crime, in addition to a number of burglary charges (police found several pieces of jewelry in Joshua’s car that matched descriptions of jewelry items taken from other home invasions in the area), could possibly land the burglar in some serious jail time.

At press time, Joshua’s trial was still grinding through the courts. But Brandon got immediate satisfaction for his serving up some justice. The owner of the brooch was a widow in her seventies. The stolen item was one of her prized gifts of jewelry from her late husband.

“She came in to the store a week later,” says Brandon. “She made a loaf of homemade raisin bread for me and the staff. We felt good about doing good, and the bread was incredibly delicious.”

In recent months Armand Stidham, of All Valley Coin and Jewelry, also discovered that the criminal mind isn’t always a rational one. On April 3, the Temecula, California-based store manager received a call from a young woman who stated that her mother had been robbed of many of her collectible coins and other valuables. She forwarded a list of items the burglar stole to Armand by e-mail.

Four hours later, a young man entered the store looking to sell some coins to Armand and store owner Morris Minsberg. Both men were immediately on high alert. The young man appeared to be high on marijuana, based on Armand’s assessment, and, the big tip off was telling the store manager and owner that the pawn shop up the road was run by “rude guys.”

In his exchange with the young man, Armand discovered that the neighboring pawn shop owners had first agreed to buy the coins then suddenly backed out of the deal. Suspicious, Armand excused himself from the showroom floor and checked some of the goods the man was trying to sell against the e-mail list forwarded to him earlier that day. As he suspected, there were several matches.

The plan to snare the unsuspecting thieves was for Armand to stall the exchange while Morris contacted the police from the back office. Police arrived soon and arrested William Michael Escancy, 19, for possession of stolen property. His accomplices were juveniles, one with an outstanding bench warrant. He was arrested and taken to jail along with Escancy, while the other juvenile, 16, was released.

“I was never really worried,” says Armand. “It was obvious to me that these kids were just a bunch of punks that were no real threat. Still, you never know and we were thankful the whole thing went perfectly, totally by the numbers.”

And, like the previous case, Armand was stunned the young man tried to sell stolen goods in the same town where the crime occurred. The woman’s mother came to the store to thank Armand and Morris in person. The old woman stated she’d seriously consider selling her coin collection to the store owners for helping her recover most of the stolen coins.

Still, there are some thieves that like to be somewhat clever in their chosen profession. Jan Fergerson, secretary and treasurer of Ford, Gittings & Kane Jewelers in Rome, Georgia, has worked side-by-side with store owner Joseph Gittings since Christmas 1973. She’s learned a lot from the consummate jewelry store owner in those 38 years, including developing a “jeweler’s sixth sense,” as Jan likes to call it.

Given the traditional store’s close relationship with its many regular customers, that extrasensory perception doesn’t often have to kick in. But 18 months ago, her internal radar was pinging loud when a young man came in the store to buy an expensive watch for himself. “Bells and whistles in my head went off when the sale went too well, too quickly,” says Jan. “The sale was too good to be true.”

The man, estimated to be in his late twenties, provided a credit card for payment. An accompanying driver’s license checked out, as did the billing address. All circumstantial checks cleared, but for Jan, things still weren’t adding up for her as he continued to answer basic personal questions for a line of store credit through provider Wells Fargo.

“When I asked him his birthday, there was a strange delayed response,” says Jan. “That was the big tip off for me, as it seemed like the device in his ear wasn’t a Blue Tooth, but perhaps a device for others off-site to feed him information.”

The entire exchange didn’t pass the smell test. Jan stalled completion of the transaction by telling the customer some links needed to be taken out of the watch band for a better fit. And, that it would take about two to three hours to complete the work with the jeweler away on an extended lunch break.

Brandon Burke, manager of Charleston Gold & Diamond (Mt. Pleasant, SC), helped police nab a burglar trying to sell jewelry taken from home burglaries.
Jan had a few hours to get to work. Using Google White Pages, she decided to call the home phone number of the man whose name appeared on the credit card. “I called the house and identified myself as a sales associate from FGK to the woman on the phone,” says Jan. “The name on the credit card was her husband’s, who wasn’t home at the time, so I asked the woman to have her husband contact me at the store.”

Within minutes her husband contacted Jan. She told him the watch he purchased earlier that day was ready to be picked up. The man, who resided in a town hundreds of miles from the store, said he didn’t buy a watch at FGK that morning.

Trusting her gut paid off. The man went on to tell Jan that during a recent team meeting at work, executives told employees that the company’s database was hacked, and that personnel should be on the lookout for suspicious company-issued and personal credit card transactions.

Jan later found out the man called his credit card company to cancel the watch transaction and close the account. An hour later, the young man returned for the watch, but Jan told him that the store couldn’t complete the credit card transaction. The man exited the store and fled the scene before police arrived.

“We didn’t catch the bad guy, but it felt good to know we at least took one hacked credit card account number out of circulation,” says Jan.

In assisting law enforcement officials, not all jewelers are working with local authorities. Colombian drug thugs have long been public enemy number-one for many jewelry store owners and travelling sales reps. ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) officials have been working with Jon Walp, the store manager at Long Jewelers in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and his staff for well over a year to track down a violent and very aggressive group of drug cartel members. The crew of 10 to 15 criminals were responsible for armed robberies of jewelry stores and travelling reps in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Baltimore, and as far south as Atlanta.

During the year-long investigation, ATF agents followed the action to Virginia Beach, where agents discovered gang members casing Long Jewelers and other jewelry stores and sales reps in the vicinity.

“It was kind of scary at first,” says Jon. “But we slowly got used to the idea of the Colombians using the gas station across from our store as their base of operations for over a year.”

It was a tense time for Jon and his staff, knowing ATF agents dressed in civilian clothes entered the store for a variety of reasons, be it providing a decoy for a travelling sales rep, or more covert surveillance when they knew members of the Colombian crew were actually in the store’s showroom posing as customers.

Robberies did occur in and around Long Jewelers, but the store was never hit. And, the year-long investigation ended in mid-April.

“The ATF ended up busting seven or eight of the Colombian crew on tax evasion and interstate commerce violations at first,” says Jon. “Weeks later, they were able to pin some more recent jewelry robberies, especially one in North Carolina involving a Philip Stein watch sales rep, to this group.”

Still others try for more creative approaches to nab the bad guys that commit crimes against jewelry stores. Jewelry on James in Syracuse, New York, was burglarized in late March. At press time store owner Tom Marini was still working with local police to forward the reward money of $1,000 to the appropriate informant(s). There was only one stipulation, half the reward money had to be donated to the Wounded Warrior Project.

“My thinking, in attaching a cause marketing dynamic to it was having some good come from such a bad incident,” says Tom. “A lot of local news outlets thought it was a good story and interviewed me, so the media attention was helpful.”

By mid-April police apprehended the burglars. “I’m still waiting to hear from the police as to whose tips or information lead to the actual arrest,” says Tom. “I guess they have some way to figure these things out.”