Brink’s truck robbery: strangers at a jewelry fair could provide clues

The man, dressed in dark jeans and a black windbreaker, was seated in a folding chair at the back of the San Mateo County Convention Center. He wore earphones and a blue surgical mask that covered much of his face.

His presence might have gone unnoticed had it not been for the event that had just taken place there: the International Gem and Jewelery Fair.

It was just after 5pm on July 10th and the Expo was over. Dozens of exhibitors packed up the contents of their glass cases, sparkling with tens of millions of dollars worth of jewelry. Only authorized people were allowed into the exhibit hall at the time, so the man aroused the suspicion of Brandy Swanson, the show’s manager and a self-confessed “mama bear” who keeps an eye out for the event’s vendors.

The man, she said, watched the jewelers. Swanson said she confronted him and yelled, “Get up. Get out. What are you doing?”

He told Swanson he didn’t speak English, but she was undeterred. “A security guard came and I said, ‘You follow him out the front door,'” Swanson said.

Outside the event center, the man in the windbreaker was joined by another man wearing a matching surgical mask. A show staff photographed the men and the silver Honda Civic they drove off in, Swanson said.

The incident, and the appearance of other suspicious men in and around the venue that day, took on significance just hours later – when a Grapevine rest stop was broken into. The theft on July 11 occurred when the 18-wheel vehicle stopped at the Flying J Travel Center in Lebec around 2 a.m. Thieves stole 22 bags of jewelry that may total about $100 million, although the value of the loot is disputed.

The criminals pulled off the robbery even though Brink exhibitors and representatives had been warned about the disturbing activity at the show, Swanson said. And she sees a possible connection.

“You don’t just rob a Brink’s truck without a plan,” Swanson said. “These guys didn’t steal anything that we know of – they didn’t have anything on them. They planned.”

Brink’s spokeswoman, Dana Callahan, said in a statement that the company was “not aware of any reports of suspicious activity by the trade show organizer at the San Mateo trade show.”

A wide building with the word "Industrial fair" thereon

The San Mateo County Convention Center hosted the International Gem and Jewelry Show on July 10th. The next day, a large Brink’s oil rig was being broken into, which was transporting jewelry from the venue.

(Daniel Miller/Los Angeles Times)

Two people familiar with the law enforcement investigation into the robbery, which is being conducted by the LA County Sheriff’s Department and the FBI, said one of the men seen July 10 in or around the San Mateo Convention Center could to have been involved in the crime. The sources, who were not authorized to comment publicly, warned investigators believe suspects frequently watch the jewelry fair that travels around the country.

In fact, Arnold Duke, president of the Rockville, Maryland-based International Gem and Jewelry Show, said that over the years the event has been hit by “snatch artists” trying to steal jewelers and customers. And the San Mateo show has been a regular target for such criminals, he said.

“They usually come at the end of the show when the guys are packing their bags,” Duke said. “They’re hoping to grab a briefcase and run away.”

That’s an easy line of theft compared to the Brink’s heist, which could be one of the biggest jewelry heists of all time. Investigators believe the robbery was carried out by a group of experienced criminals, given in part the lack of violence and the speed of the operation, as The Times previously reported. The crime occurred during a 27-minute window during which one of the 18-wheeler’s drivers was asleep in the vehicle and the other was getting food at the truck stop, Richmond, Virginia-based Brink’s said.

Investigators now believe the professional thieves used multiple vehicles to track down the large San Mateo oil rig, according to two people with knowledge of the investigation. The criminals were waiting for an opportune moment to break into the trailer truck, and may not have known the amount of loot awaiting them, the sources said.

Many vehicles at a gas station.

The Flying J Travel Center in Lebec was the scene of a major Brink’s jewelry robbery in July.

(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

Sheriff’s Department investigators, working with the FBI, have obtained videos of the incident, at least some of which are from the San Mateo event. Swanson said the show gave authorities several photos and videos taken at the July 10 show. The Times obtained four of these images from a jeweler who received the images from event organizers after the incident.

And the photos document other questionable events as the show wound down.

“There was a lot going on that night,” Swanson said.

arouse suspicion

After the exhibit ended at 5 p.m., workers at the jewelry company had about an hour and a half to pack their things and deliver them to Brink’s representatives who were assigned to ship the goods to the Los Angeles area for a trade show in Pasadena transport.

Around 6pm, one of the show’s jewelers stepped out of the convention center and noticed a strange-looking car in the parking lot. It was a gray vehicle with the windows “blacked out” so he couldn’t see inside. Even the windscreen was tinted – and the car didn’t have a front or rear number plate either.

“That made me suspicious,” said the jeweler, who, like other retailers interviewed by The Times, asked not to publish his name for security reasons.

People walk between two rows of jewelry displays and browse.

Attendees at the Sept. 2 San Mateo International Gem and Jewelry Fair browse jewelers’ wares.

(Daniel Miller/Los Angeles Times)

The jeweler tried to photograph the vehicle but it drove away. He reported what had happened to the security personnel stationed in front of the exhibition hall. Swanson confirmed the guards got the tip from the jeweler and said they were also unable to take a picture of the departing vehicle.

Later, when the jeweler found out about the robbery, he marveled at the mysterious car he had seen. “That shook me a bit,” he said.

There have been a handful of other troubling encounters with unknown individuals. In one instance, a man wearing a baseball cap, dark glasses and an earphone was spotted outside the venue. He lingered near a loading area at the back of the building after the fair closed, Swanson said.

“He was told to leave the property,” Swanson said, adding that the man got into a red Dodge Charger that “just looked weird.” A photo was taken of the limousine and later shared with at least one jeweler.

A walk through the ranks of vendors at the jewelry fair as she returned to San Mateo on September 9th. 2 gave an idea of ​​how attractive the event might be to a thief. Display cases housed dozens of diamond necklaces, gold rings, and emerald earrings. Some vendors specialize in jade, others in loose gemstones or pearls. But several empty booths commemorated the toll of the theft: only a handful of jewelry companies whose wares were stolen had returned to the fair.

Some buildings are surrounded by parking lots next to a highway.

The Brink’s robbery, which took place at the Flying J Travel Center in Lebec, affected 14 jewelry companies.

(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

The 14 jewelers, at least eight of whom are based in LA County, are in dispute with Brink’s over the value of the stolen goods. The jewelers have estimated their total loss at about $100 million, but Brink’s has said the merchandise is worth less than $10 million. The disagreement is the subject of two ongoing lawsuits filed in August.

This argument isn’t the only one arising from the heist, and questions are also piling up about the timing of the mysterious crime. It also begs the question of what warning, if any, Brink employees received about suspicious activity at the show before the big rig began its journey down Interstate 5.

As jewelers packed up their cases after the show on July 10, a message from the expo organizers blared over the facility’s loudspeakers. Informed by the suspected men’s presence in and around the venue, the alert urged jewelers to take precautions when exiting the facility.

Although the show’s organizers routinely issue such news, that day, Swanson said, it was offered with “special urgency” given what had previously been leaked.

Around the same time, Swanson said she sent a separate warning to Brink’s representatives at the venue that at least some of them were there to pick up the jewelers’ freight.

“I specifically went up to these guys and said, ‘Listen, there’s a lot going on here tonight, you need to be aware of that,'” Swanson recalled. “I said, ‘Listen guys, there’s a lot of people here who shouldn’t be.’ I don’t know if they did anything or not – I said what I wanted to say and left.”

Callahan, spokeswoman for Brink’s, said the company “was not aware of any report of suspicious men outside or inside the San Mateo show and was not informed of any such individuals in the vicinity of the area where the applicants were signing the shipping contracts and their broadcasts.” offered. “

A jeweler who was the victim of the theft said that as he was packing up his stand at the end of the day, Swanson told him she had just warned the workers at Brink’s.

Orange bags and boxes.

A Brink’s cargo bag at the International Gem and Jewelery Show in San Mateo on 2/9.

(Daniel Miller/Los Angeles Times)

Once the jewelry boxes were packed, they wheeled them on trolleys to the rear of the convention center, where Brink’s representatives accepted the merchandise and associated paperwork, two jewelers said. Even for veterans of the fair circuit, this was always a terrifying moment.

“My two expensive showcases – my diamond showcases – I call my babies,” said one of the jewelers concerned. “They are like my children.”

The crates were placed in large orange bags marked with the Brink’s logo. They were later stowed on the Brink semitrailer. “Our load is too big to fit in a typical armored truck,” Duke explained.

In fact, the big rig was carrying 73 jewelry bags — many weighing 70 to 100 pounds — when it rumbled off the venue’s grounds into the cool Northern California night just after 12 p.m. The jewelers may have heeded the warnings played over the loudspeakers as they packed up their wares, but the matter was out of their hands from then on.

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