By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
It's a creepy feeling, knowing these masked men have cased you for weeks, studying your every move. Leon Rozio had crossed paths with their kind before — highly organized South American theft gangs that employ sophisticated surveillance and commando-style assault tactics.
Rozio, age 64, is one of a dying breed of independent jewel dealers, and part of his work involves ferrying tiny amounts of precious gems. A typical load easily runs into the six figures. This time South American jewel thieves had followed him from Miami, along the toll roads and through the SunPass lanes, all the way to the parking lot of St. Moritz Jewelers in Boca Raton. If he'd known they were behind him, he could have headed straight for the nearest police station, praying for green lights and no traffic. But he hadn't an inkling.
On this day, May 7, the owner of H&L Wholesale was transporting on the floorboard of his Ford Explorer a $100,000 bag of jewels. That's about three times what he takes home in a year. For independent, self-employed traveling salesmen such as Rozio, this is how it's done — with his head on a swivel and his eyes on the rearview mirror. Rozio can't afford security guards; he can't even afford to insure the cargo he takes from jewelry store to jewelry store while hawking colored stones and diamonds for a slim return. He worries about the risks. But what can he do?
It turns out, more than anyone ever expected.
Rozio must have dropped his guard for a moment, because he didn't notice the Saturn SUV pull up behind him. He didn't see the four masked men file out of the vehicle, lining themselves up on either side of his truck. Everything happened so quickly he didn't see the blunt instruments that shattered the rear passenger window or whatever they used to bust the front side windows that imploded into his lap. He did see the man wearing a black T-shirt wrapped around his face like a Palestinian kidnapper lunge through the window and grab the duffel bag on the floor.
That's when Rozio reacted. He gripped the thief's shirt and held on tightly. The masked man pulled Rozio across the seat as the thief yanked his own body and the bag of jewels out the passenger window. Rozio hung on and wouldn't let go even as shards of glass gouged his hands. The crook finally wrenched himself from Rozio's grasp and hopped into the waiting Saturn.
Then Rozio did something the cops would never in a thousand years recommend. He had been robbed before, and a 911 call from a passerby gives the impression Rozio wasn't going to let it happen again. The former Army infantryman drew a 9mm Luger and chased the Saturn out of the parking lot on foot, his short, wavy gray hair fluttering in the breeze.
911 Caller: There's a shooting at Town Square. The man's running with a gun. He's shot three times. He's a gray-haired man with a brown shirt.
Operator: He shot three times?
911 Caller: He's running towards the Wendy's right now. He just shot again... again... again...
Operator: Lots of fire?
911 Caller: Still shooting, yes, he's still shooting.
As the Saturn tore out of the parking lot, Rozio opened fire, pumping anywhere from four to six rounds into the rear driver's-side tire and into the driver's window. The reports snapped off of the Town Square storefronts.
911 Caller: He shot somebody in a car. He shot the glass out. He's still shooting...
The driver, a young man dressed head to foot in black, threw the SUV into reverse. Three of the robbers leapt from the vehicle and ran. One of them staggered somewhere toward St. Andrews Boulevard. The Saturn sped northbound through the parking lot toward the nearby Wendy's, where it came to a stop. Blood was smeared across the back end, suggesting that at least one of the others had been hit. Inside, the getaway driver, a young man named Wilmar Sierra-Perez, bled onto the seat cushion. He died soon after arriving at Delray Medical Center. The other suspects fled in a silver minivan.
It was only then, when Rozio closed his hands, that he noticed they were sticky. The trembling hands of the man with the short, wavy gray hair and the gentle, worn face — somebody's grandpa — were dripping with blood.
Family members would claim Sierra-Perez's body. Yet more than three months after the robbery, the Boca Raton Police Department has refused to release information about the case, citing an ongoing investigation. Rozio, on the advice of attorney Bill Matthewman, declined to discuss details of the shooting until police investigators file their report with the State Attorney's Office in Palm Beach County. Rozio could face charges in connection with the shooting.
Trade organizations such as the Jewelers' Security Alliance say law enforcement is finally getting a handle on off-premises jewel theft — despite a $7 million jump in goods stolen in 2007 to $39.5 million. Experts tracking gangs of jewel thieves, however, dispute claims these organized crime rings are coming under control.
"Crime's down?" Robert Taylor, director of the South American Theft Group Intelligence Network (SATGIN), a jewel theft information clearinghouse, asks incredulously. "Bullshit. There's no way it's down. That's a false sense of security. Wouldn't you say this is the most active year we've had?" Taylor asks Jeff Frau, a recently retired Miami-Dade Police detective and educational coordinator for SATGIN.
"It's picking up," Frau says.
The Rozio robbery, after all, took place in broad daylight. And this wasn't Miami. It was Boca — retirement communities, the well-to-do elderly, synagogues, pricey stores.
Second Amendment bloggers consider Rozio a hero for using his German Luger to take on the thieves. But local and federal law enforcement agencies, along with a couple of ex-cops — Frau and Taylor — know the South American crooks won't be intimidated by Rozio's response or that of the police.
In October, Miami Beach will host a jewel thief's wet dream — $3 billion in goods all in one place. Buyers and sellers will gather at the Jewelers International Showcase, the largest independent trade show in the Americas. Taylor predicts jewelry gangs will descend on Miami Beach in the weeks before the show like hungry locusts to a mature crop.
For years, South Florida has been one of the worst areas in the nation for jewelry theft, says John Kennedy, president of the Jewelers' Security Alliance. Now SATGIN wants to join law enforcement agencies in taking on gangs of illegal Colombian immigrants terrorizing jewelers across the United States with near-impunity. Arrests are rare. Tracing the identities of the thieves has led investigators down many dead-end roads. Taylor hopes SATGIN will play a role by giving law enforcement the means, the network, and the information to combat a criminal phenomenon that has metamorphosed from jewel pickpockets to complex thievery involving weeks of surveillance and blitzkrieg-like assaults.
"What we see is that you have younger, crazier gang members," Kennedy says. "Before, you might have had people willing to engage in trickery or deception. They might pat you on the back, and when you turn around, someone else grabs your bag. Now, we frequently see immediate violence — smashing the windows, smashing the person."
To the uninitiated, selling precious gems might sound like a swanky line of work. It does involve buzzing around South Florida and other exotic places, handling and appraising elegant jewels for high-end merchants. But veteran salesmen say it's a harried enterprise, fraught with financial and bodily risk. To hang onto your life and livelihood, you have to be as wary as a narcotrafficker. Otherwise you're an easy and lucrative target.
Traveling jewel salesmen carry anywhere from a few thousand dollars in gold chains or watches to one or two million in diamonds. Some work directly for jewelers, selling their lines to boutiques. Others, like Rozio, are independent middlemen toting multiple lines from jewelry makers to shops across the nation. Rozio's car was his office; South Florida jewelry stores were his workplace. He cleared about $3,000 a month, far less than many of the Cadillac-driving itinerant jewelers he'd pass on the road.
It's all about who you work for or sell to and what you're packing, Kennedy says. Traveling salesmen, however, are dwindling because the risk of robbery is driving out the veterans and deterring young people from getting in. The average age of a jewel salesman, Kennedy says, is around 50. "The rewards, as I'm told by many salespeople, are not as strong as they were 20 years ago."
Owing to high gas prices, salespeople making calls in person has become less cost-effective. Overnight shipping is catching on as a distribution tool. And relatively secure invitation-only trade shows such as the one coming to Miami Beach in October are becoming more popular as a way to reach large numbers of buyers while lessening exposure to the organized thieves haunting their steps.
The South American robbers aren't organized like the Mafia-style gangs of old, according to law enforcement experts. There is no don, no pyramid structure. Each man gets an equal cut — after the stones are sent overseas to Bogotá or recut by a local fence to erase the identities of gems, each with its own characteristics that are as telling as a fingerprint. The gang structure resembles that of the clans of Eastern European Gypsies, linked by marriage or blood or, for other reasons, based on the mutual trust of core members of the cell. Members form interchangeable parts of a stealing machine. They have matriculated easily into local Hispanic communities.
Some experts complain the government can wage overseas wars on Colombian drug cartels and an entrenched insurgency in Iraq but can't stem the surge of South American theft groups on our own soil. It's true that law enforcement's efforts to handcuff these gangs have been largely thwarted. One problem is that the thieves roam far and wide from their hubs in New York or Miami or Los Angeles. Another is that smaller police departments such as Boca Raton don't have the time, resources, or connections with other agencies to take on the rings.
"Everybody is overworked and understaffed," says one law enforcement source. "Let's say a jeweler gets hit in Hialeah and the case gets assigned to a robbery detective. And he's got to work all the other cases he has. So the Hialeah detective is working his robbery. The Miami detective is working his robbery. And the Miami Beach detective is working his robbery. What Miami has could solve the Hialeah case. It might be the very same group hitting all three and no one is working together."
Law enforcement's track record of arrests against jewel gangs reflects this problem. Of the 1,291 jewelry-related crimes nationwide in 2007 reported by Jewelers' Security Alliance, only one-third of them resulted in arrests. Unsolved cases proliferate each year. As long as salesmen brashly trundle diamonds across South Florida in quantities sufficient to finance a Richard Branson-worthy yacht, thieves will engage in a criminal enterprise whose profits rival almost any kind of theft or narcotrafficking operation.
Former Miami-Dade Police Det. Jeff Frau worked pickpocket and distraction thefts at Miami International Airport for some 20 years. Each day he'd comb the terminals for crooks. Legend has it that some had been educated at the School of Seven Bells — a training camp said to exist somewhere in the misty reaches of the Andes Mountains near Bogotá. The academy supposedly creates a class of thieves with preternatural finesse. The final exam — according to lore — is to remove valuables from seven pockets on a mannequin booby-trapped with seven bells. A slight tinkle of a bell and, like Fagin's student pickpockets in Oliver Twist, the student flunks.
Surveilling the busy airport corridors, Frau saw every kind of jewel-theft technique. Back in the Eighties, the game called for patience and distraction. He would watch beautiful, provocatively dressed Latinas engage traveling businessmen in conversation, holding their attention until a cohort could slip away with their briefcases or satchels. Another trick involved bumping into them, smearing ketchup or mustard on their suits, and making off with their valuables as soon as they set them down to clean up.
Frau's airport beat became ground zero for the South American theft gangs. By 2000, hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of dollars in precious gems were being funneled through MIA. Wholesale salesmen made their deals at the Seybold Building and the Metromall in the Miami Jewelry District — one of the most important jewelry supply hubs in the world, where jewelers from the Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia come to purchase unset diamonds and jewels.
Gangs would follow the salesmen, often for days, learning their schedules. They'd call in a crew to seize the jewels when the opportunity was ripe. A crew usually travels in two cars in case one is stopped by law enforcement, Taylor says. As cell phones became common, the thieves integrated them into a communication network of hand signals and two-way radios.
"You bust one [crew], set the cell phones out on the car, and they'll all start ringing," Taylor says. "They're calling, saying, 'Where you at?' And there'll be 10 numbers on that cell phone."
Taylor worked the pawnshops for stolen goods when he was a reserve detective for Miami Beach Police. In 2001, he came across some jewelry sold to a shop by a Colombian man and woman. When he noticed some of the gems still had tags attached, red flags went up. Taylor investigated, discovering the jewelry had been stolen and the Colombians were members of a South American gang. That was Taylor's introduction to the South American thieves, and it taught him a valuable lesson: Information is everything.
So last year, Taylor and Frau launched SATGIN, an information service they finance out of their own pockets and offer free of charge to law enforcement agencies. From a third-floor office that overlooks Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Frau and Taylor pore over news accounts and police reports of robberies, identifying hits that could be attributed to South American gangs, often unbeknown to the agency handling them. Nabbing jewel thieves doesn't necessarily mean they have to be caught in the act. Patrol officers have stumbled on gang members during stops for loitering or drug possession. If a cop is diligent, he might send the fingerprints to Quantico. But by the time he hears back that the suspect is a member of a South American gang, the crook has long since bailed out of jail. The trick is catching them for jewelry-related crimes before they post bond and disappear.
Gang members typically carry forged documents and might have multiple identities, Taylor says. To foil fingerprint identification, thieves apply liquid bandage to their fingertips or burn off their prints with acid. They often scrunch up their faces during mug shots or alter their hairstyles and facial hair between arrests. Some are known to use Botox injections and plastic surgery to conceal their identities, much like recently apprehended Juan Carlos Ramírez Abadía, leader of the Colombian Norte del Valle cocaine cartel.
This is why effective detective work requires creative thinking. "If we can't charge this guy with armed robbery of a jeweler, we get him on immigration charges and deport him," Frau says. "If he comes back in, we have a re-entry-after-deport, and that's a federal charge. We don't have the interagency communication, which makes it bad for us and good for them."
Stolen jewelry doesn't spur the kind of cooperation and information-sharing that narcotics enforcement does. SATGIN's goal is to create a network by which cops across the nation can share information and photos and set up databases that feature every jeweler's laser-inscribed ID tag or logo. Taylor plans to develop facial recognition software to identify thieves, as well as e-mail and text message alerts warning cops of hits in the area.
Right now the only law enforcement initiative against jewel theft in Florida is the SATG Task Force. Formed in 2003, the task force consists of Coral Gables Police, the FBI, Miami-Dade Police, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Miami Police Department once worked with the force; manpower shortages have forced others to drop out.
The Gateway Shopping Center in Fort Lauderdale is as familiar to Siegi Lindsay as her own back yard. She owns a tiny boutique, Acacia, and she and a next-door shop owner spend muggy afternoons chatting outside as customers trickle in. Around 5:45 p.m. on a Wednesday in March, Albert Nissim, a traveling jewel salesman from New York, parked his rental car about 50 feet from Lindsay. Suddenly she saw two men running through the parking lot. According to police records and Lindsay — the primary witness — the men were wearing dark hooded sweatshirts and white bandannas over their faces.
"Oh my God, there's gonna be a robbery," Lindsay told her friend. "Get in your store and call 911."
They bolted inside their shops. Lindsay picked up a cordless phone, dialed 911, and headed back outside.
Inside the car, Nissim detached the GPS unit from his windshield and placed it in the side pocket of his door. That's when the driver and passenger windows shattered. So stunned was Nissim that he stared at his hands, unable to comprehend why they were covered in glass.
A man on the driver's side reached in and gripped Nissim's vest, which contained diamonds — a testament to the experience of the assailants and the amount of intelligence they'd gathered. "Give us your diamonds, motherfucker," one of the thieves demanded.
He ripped the vest off Nissim while the man on the passenger side opened the door, reached over, grabbed the keys from the ignition, and popped the trunk. Inside was a blue backpack containing some $500,000 in diamonds, not an atypical amount to carry.
A white van came barreling the wrong way down a one-way lane in the parking lot, and the driver, a man Lindsay says wore a white T-shirt and no mask, yelled out the window. The thieves dove into the van and tore through the lot and out an exit onto Ninth Street. They came up behind a slow-moving car and swung around it, almost colliding with a vehicle in the oncoming lane. Then they were gone.
Seconds later, Fort Lauderdale Police arrived. The robbers have yet to be found, but department spokeswoman Det. Kathy Collins says the case is by no means cold.
Probably within hours, Nissim's diamonds had been shipped to Bogotá or delivered to a local fence.
Gang members who've been arrested over the years paint a blurry picture of their backgrounds, but some are known to be ex-Colombian army or paramilitary. With the emergence of FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the Colombian government issued a decree in 1965 allowing civilians to form militias to protect their communities and land from the guerrillas. This also opened the door for the landed wealthy to form their own paramilitary groups to protect their assets — namely emerald mines, marijuana, cocaine, and livestock. When the government realized it had made a mistake, it repealed the law in 1989. But five years later, a similar law allowed civilians to form neighborhood watch groups to resist guerrilla activities. Popular support for the FARC guerrillas has never been high (the freeing of a group of FARC hostages this past July by a Colombian military squad proved to be vastly popular in that country), and since 2002, violence there has been on the decline. Nonetheless, a large contingent of disenfranchised paramilitary members — some 32,000, according to the CIA — has been demobilized. Many suspect that these unemployed hired guns, who often have ties to narcotraffickers, are creating an abundant supply of prospective jewel thieves. They aren't crossing the border through Mexico or smuggling themselves into the United States; they're hopping a plane with an authentic-looking passport and landing in airports across the nation for the sole purpose of joining a jewelry gang, according to agent Noel Gil of the Miami FBI office.
The thieves have told Gil that they get up and go to work every day as though it were a 9-to-5 job. They might identify a mark and choose three or four guys from within their network for the job. Because each person receives an equal share, there is very little infighting. Their roles are often interchangeable: On one hit, you might be the leader, with the big-picture view of the robbery. On the next, the driver, and after that, a gunman.
Making charges stick against the South American thieves can be difficult. In late March, two New York jewelers — Ribi Jusupov, CEO of Rayalty Jewelry, and David Takhalov — were traveling around South Florida. They stopped at jewelry stores in Aventura and Boca Raton, showing and selling their line while staying at a hotel on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. On their way back to the hotel to return the jewels to the safe, Takhalov exited the turnpike. Their rental car needed gas, so he pulled into a Shell station on Red Road in Miramar to fill up.
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.
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."
A law enforcement source who asked not to be identified says there was likely a problem with the legality of the stop. Ed Griffith, Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office spokesman, declined to release any information to New Times, even though the case appears to have been closed.
As Leon Rozio will tell you, "looking at getting these people off the streets" doesn't offer him or any other traveling jewelry salesmen protection.
The Cuban expatriate was fresh off the island when he put in his time with the U.S. Army, fleeing the Castro government and revolution threats on his life. He spent six years in the reserve. Then a friend introduced him to the jewelry business. It wasn't an easy way to make money, but a polite, earnest man such as Rozio could sell.
When John Travolta layered on gold chains in Saturday Night Fever, Rozio wanted to kiss him. "I told my wife: 'I sell chains like no tomorrow,' " he says.
During the oil crisis of the '70s and '80s, the gold business tanked. Rozio hung in there, making ends meet with a part-time job. Colored stones and diamonds made a comeback, and after a while, he could justify a $3,000-a-month salary — enough to pay the bills and then some. But he got hit in the early '90s — about $160,000 down the toilet. In broad daylight, thieves locked the doors of his partner's house with handcuff's and broke into his car, making off with a stash of diamonds. By the time Rozio and his partner shimmied under the rising garage door, their tires were flat and their livelihood was gone. Rozio sat on the front steps and wept. He was finished, he thought. So much progress, so many years of work building a successful business. Yet he kept at it, even when the danger and the insurance premiums were driving many of his fellow traveling salesmen out of the trade.
This last hit was all H&L Wholesale could take. The business Rozio spent 30 years building from the ground up was destroyed in less than a minute.
Now he will collect the outstanding debts he's owed by local jewelers and keep watch for the South American men he fears might come to exact revenge. As Taylor notes, these gangs are tight-knit. It's all about family.
On a recent day, Rozio stands on the front porch of his modest West Miami home. His arms are crossed over a white polo embroidered with the Air Force logo — his son's branch of service. Rozio scans the street. He is visible in the Cuban community, and he knows it. If they want to find him, it won't be difficult. It'll be awhile before he doesn't have to circle the block every time he drives home, eyes glued to the rearview mirror.