Thu, Jul. 31, 2008
By JON GAMBRELLAssociated Press Writer
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- The million-dollar robberies occurred in the parking lots of jewelry stores, hotels and restaurants and took but a few terrifying seconds.
Masked gunmen and knife-wielding attackers ambushed cars and smashed windows to scare jewelry salesmen and couriers into submission before whisking away their merchandise. The thieves, focused enough to frisk their victims, remain at large after heists across the South.
In Arkansas, the FBI is launching an investigation into the robberies, including the latest: a daytime heist 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, Tenn., shares similarities with a string of jewelry thefts in Houston 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.
In Houston, police have responded to at least six robberies of jewelry salesmen and couriers since April, one 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." Agents say the groups, illegal immigrants from countries such as Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, stake out traveling salesmen and jewelry shows and sometimes trek across the country for heists.
Investigators recently arrested three Colombian nationals loitering around Houston-area jewelry stores. Dunlap said the men, held for illegally re-entering the United States, were being questioned about the robberies.
In June, robbers attacked couriers at a hotel in Nashville and a strip mall in Pine Bluff. Both victims told police the attacks happened quickly, with one jeweler even losing the diamonds hidden 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, targeted a salesman who flew into Little Rock National Airport on a private plane.
Despite keeping their travel plans quiet, jewelry salesmen make tempting targets, often traveling alone and carrying high-priced stones. The Jewelers' Security Alliance said traveling salesmen in the U.S. lost $39.5 million in stones last year in robberies and thefts.