Jewelry store robberies grow more widespread

An hour before the Pico Rivera Indoor Swap Meet was to close last Thursday night, several young men ran to a jewelry store near the entrance.

Dressed in hooded sweatshirts and armed with only hammers, the men smashed jewelry cases and quickly fled with an estimated $15,000 in jewelry, most of it gold, witnesses later told Los Angeles County sheriff's investigators.

It was the second such robbery in Pico Rivera in recent weeks and part of a larger region-wide robbery spree, authorities said.

Since at least October, members of gangs in the Los Angeles area have been traveling to small and mid-size towns throughout Southern California, robbing largely unprotected jewelry stores and jewelry marts, authorities said.

Anaheim, El Monte, Fullerton, Glendale, Huntington Park, Pasadena, Santa Ana, Brea and Placentia have reported robberies nearly identical to the one in Pico Rivera in the last three months, police said.

In Los Angeles' jewelry district, smash-and-grab robberies "have been going on for years," said Los Angeles Police Det. Al Rasch, who investigates robberies in downtown L.A.

"It seems … to be getting more press now because it's happening in the outlying areas of L.A.," he said.

It also appears to have become a fashionable crime among some of South Los Angeles' gangs. Other departments report arresting members of the Rolling 60s Crips and Project Crips from South L.A. and Denver Lane Crips of Pasadena in the robberies.

One factor is the price of gold, police said. It has climbed as the recession sent investors searching for a safe place to put their money and now sells for just under $1,400 an ounce.

Another factor is that many suburban stores and jewelry marts don't have much security and aren't accustomed to these kinds of attacks.

"Most of the places don't have a security guard. They're in and out in less than minute," said Fullerton police Sgt. Mike Chlebowski. Gangs "have realized that, because of the skyrocketing price of gold, that this is easy to do."

Once such robbery occurred on Oct. 21, when nine men in three cars pulled up to a jewelry mart in the Metrocenter Fullerton Shopping Center. Six of them emerged wearing hooded sweatshirts and armed with heavy hammers. They ran in and smashed cases in three jewelry kiosks, Chlebowski said.

Owners reported losing more than $500,000 in jewelry, he said.

The Fullerton robbers even had two more men in a separate car ready to create a distraction should police arrive during the robbery, Chlebowski said.