Who stole millions in precious stones, in gold?

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Vehicles cross the Grapevine of the 5 Freeway near Lebec, California. (Dan Steinberg/Associated Press)

When experts recall the most notorious jewelry heist in modern history, they talk about the dig a tunnel in Hatton Garden in London or Antwerp, Belgium, a burglary that took months of planning.

Then there’s the case of the heist earlier this month at the Flying J truck stop along Interstate 5 in the Grapevine.

In the early hours of July 11, two armed guards left their Brink’s big rig, giving a gang of thieves a 27-minute window to do the huge snatch, its total value remains a mystery. Estimates range from $10 million to $100 million.

The burglary team bypassed the truck’s locking mechanism and used the storage containers to transport gems, gold and other valuables from a Brink’s tractor-trailer, according to multiple unidentified law enforcement sources. allowed to discuss the crime.

How much the thieves pocketed in the 2 a.m. snatch is hotly debated. Brink’s said it was less than $10 million based on insurance. A federal law enforcement source and some associates at the International Gem and Jewelry Show world said the total appears to be closer to $100 million.

“We’re talking multi-million here. That’s a huge amount of money,” said the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Major Crimes Sgt. Michael Mileski, a veteran of armored car investigations and banking capers. Mileski said the $10 million is a base and should increase.

The question is how the thieves got into the truck and whether they knew in advance about the valuables inside. Given the less than half-hour window, he said, “we believe multiple thieves must have been involved.”

The crime did not fit the usual definition of a burglary as it involved not so much theft as stealth burglary.

The gang of thieves were able to quickly bypass the truck’s trailer locking mechanism, enter its vast rear and unload a series of storage containers filled with jewelry, diamonds, other gems and a plethora of Rolexes. and other designer watches, Mileski said. The investigator said he would not describe the locking mechanism, but acknowledged that it would not be extremely difficult to break. The outward signs of wealth within were not obvious. But Mileski said the guards driving those trucks were openly carrying firearms and that could alert someone watching the trucks.

Arnold Duke, president of the International Gem and Jewelry Show, whose exhibitors displayed the items in San Mateo and transported them to Pasadena, said the truck contained numerous 70- to 100-pound plastic containers filled with jewelry, precious stones and watches.

“We are looking at over $100 million in documented losses,” he said. “This was an absolutely massive crime. One of the biggest jewelry heists of all time. We’re talking about gold, diamonds, rubies, emeralds and tons of luxury watches.”

“There were 15 exhibitors each with $5 [million] to $10 million worth of goods,” he added. “These are small businesses with all the wealth invested in this truck. It destroyed them financially and affected their health in some cases.”

Duke said he was told the thieves failed to remove all valuables from the truck. Duke declined to discuss security measures at the shows, but said everyone entering was photographed. As a rule, the goods are transported in a large platform with a bulletproof cabin, equipped with elaborate satellite tracking systems and cameras, armed guards, with the exact route kept secret, a- he added.

FBI agents and Sheriff’s Major Crimes investigators scoured the Flying J truck stop for clues.

They interviewed potential witnesses and reviewed security video for footage from the vital half-hour window where security guards left the truck door unattended.

“Obviously we’re not about to say what we have at this point,” the sergeant said.

Flying J’s parent company has a web request page for its Travel Center security videos to help law enforcement and others gain access.

Cargo theft is a massive criminal enterprise in the LA area along with some of the largest ports in the country. Last year alone, CargoNet, a theft logging company, recorded over $57 million in cargo truck thefts. California remains the top state for snippets of freight, with a 13% increase from 2020.

More likely, however, the thieves surreptitiously followed the truck from the last location of the gem show in San Mateo. The vendors crated their riches on July 10 and put them in the truck destined for their next show at the Pasadena Convention Center. FBI officials obviously say they are looking into everyone who knew about the move.

The Flying J Travel Center is open 24 hours a day on Frazier Mountain Park Road and includes a Dunkin’ Donuts Express and a Wendy’s that can accommodate 47 trucks. According to underwriters in the insurance industry, truck stop cargo theft is relatively common. But data on cargo thefts at U.S. truck stops between 2012 and 2018 showed just one theft at Lebec.

Brinks declined to comment beyond a statement saying, “Last week, a loss incident involving a Brink’s vehicle occurred near Los Angeles. According to information customers provided to us prior to shipping their items, the total value of the missing items is less than $10 million.We are working with law enforcement and will fully reimburse our customers for the value of their assets that were stolen, in accordance with the terms of our contract.

The Brink’s Global Services website lists trade show locations on a trade show link. The San Mateo show ran July 8-10, with the Pasadena show scheduled for July 15-17.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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