Blood Diamonds

Violent South American thieves are stealing millions in precious gems ... and getting away with it

Robert Eidelberg and Michael Leslie were in their car at a pump across from Jusupov as he dispensed gas. Then a Chevy Trailblazer slid between the two vehicles, grinding against the side of Eidelberg's car and smashing its side mirror. Eidelberg yelled at the Trailblazer's occupants, but Leslie saw one holding something resembling a dagger. Eidelberg pulled away from the Trailblazer and parked near the exit.

A man brandishing what Jusupov described as a sword chased him from the pump to the convenience store entrance. Inside the car, Takhalov was reaching into the back seat for some muffins when two men smashed both rear windows and then the front windows. Takhalov tried to hold a bag containing about $1 million in jewelry beneath the driver's seat. One of the men removed the keys from the ignition and snatched the jewelry.

Then the Trailblazer sped out of the gas station and turned southbound onto Red Road. Eidelberg and Leslie followed, hoping to get a tag number. The thieves hit a red light with an unmarked police cruiser facing northbound, waiting for the green. Though fresh off of a successful and incredibly lucrative hit, the gang members had little choice but to stop. Eidelberg tried to get the tag number, but there was a piece of cardboard screwed over the plate. One of the thieves attempted to exit the Trailblazer, but then the light changed. They continued south down Red Road and turned west onto County Line Road. Eidelberg and Leslie turned around and headed back to the Shell station to wait for the police.

Illustrations by Kyle T. Webster

Jusupov and Takhalov did everything right, security experts say. Except, of course, stopping at the gas station — better to have let the rental car agency fill the tank. One man always stays with the jewels, no matter what. If unattended goods get stolen, insurance won't pick up the tab. If a guy carries them with him and he gets robbed, the odds are good he's going to get hurt. It's a nasty Catch-22. With the increase in armed robberies by South American groups, the premiums for jewelers keep going up. In many states, insurance departments set jewel insurance premiums. Florida, however, has no such controls for specialty insurance.

"Because we're a specialty carrier, our rates are based on a reasonable evaluation of exposure to loss," says vice president of loss prevention for Jewelers Mutual Insurance David Sexton. Previous robberies and security precautions factor into the premiums a salesman will pay. Basically, the rates are high because the risk is high.

Jusupov wouldn't comment. Takhalov would say only: "I don't want my customers to think I'm in danger." The jewelry industry has always been tight-lipped. But Taylor says silence won't save the traveling jewel salesman.

Less than two weeks later, as part of a task force investigation, two cars were pulled over in Miami Beach for careless driving, according to an arrest affidavit. Four suspects were arrested. Gil confirmed the bust was the result of a SATG Task Force investigation. In one of the stopped cars, investigators found $1.2 million in jewels.

According to the arrest affidavit and the Miramar Police Department report, some of the jewelry still bore Rayalty Jewelry tags. Paige Patterson-Hughes, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, says the agency did not make the stop, though FDLE Agent David Quigley filled out the arrest affidavit and returned the jewelry to Miramar PD detectives. In fact no one would confirm who did what.

In the report, Quigley stated he would have the alleged thieves' hands live-scanned for identification. He suspected, rightly, that the names they'd given him were bogus: Juan Gonzales and Jose Hernandez turned out to be Edison Mejia and Gabriel Mayorquin. Police also had in custody Danny Alvarado and Angel Luis Delgado. One of the suspects, Mayorquin, is native-born, but the rest are likely Colombian nationals, FDLE's press release says. Each man's identity, the Miramar report says, was sourced in an FBI database, with the exception of Alvarado's.

"I will tell you this much: The individuals arrested were part of the crew," Gil says. "As of yet, we're still determining if anyone from that crew, which is a fairly large crew, was involved in the Miramar hit [at the Shell gas station]."

Yet in an odd twist, charges against at least three of the men were later dropped. In a memo filed by Assistant State Attorney Ruth Solly to Quigley, she stated there was not enough evidence to hold the case together, even though the suspects had been caught with more than $1 million in stolen jewels. Gil, who says he wasn't involved with the stop, seems nonplussed by the turn of events. "Just because the state's case may have — quote, unquote — fallen through, we're looking at getting these people off the streets." He contends that at least one of the suspects is facing charges in Lee County. A search by the court clerk, however, yielded no matches, and ICE has no record of any of the four men.

Miami attorney Julio Padilla, who represented Alvarado, Delgado, and Mejia, says there was no jewelry in his clients' car, one of two vehicles pulled over by task force members. "There was something fishy," Padilla says. "How in the hell can they arrest you in Dade for something that occurred in Broward and hold you here? I think it was a bad stop."

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