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Updated: Authorities working to break East Coast jewel heist crew

Associated Press Writer

Chris Swecker, Asst. Dir. of the FBI, speaks at a press conference at FBI Headquarters, Thursday in Washington. The FBI is seeking help in breaking up a group of jewel thieves that has struck numerous stores and netted millions of dollars. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
WASHINGTON- Jewel thieves in hooded sweat shirts have knocked over nearly five dozen stores from New Hampshire to North Carolina in the past two-and-a-half years, eluding capture with an efficient operation that has netted $5.1 million in men's watches, chains, bracelets and rings, the FBI said Thursday.

Targeting jewelers in malls and passing up high-end merchandise, the thieves cut through security gates and clean out display cases filled with men's gold jewelry and watches _ especially Movado watches, FBI officials said at a news conference in Washington intended to enlist the public's help in dismantling a group informally labeled the gate-cutters crew.

In four minutes or so, they're done, the FBI and local police officials said.

"This isn't luck. You don't do 56 robberies without being caught," FBI Assistant Director Chris Swecker said. Investigators said the crew almost certainly is responsible for 51 burglaries in 10 eastern states and may be involved in four others in Florida and one in Illinois.

Their most recent heist occurred Wednesday at a Zales Jewelers in Bay Shore, N.Y., FBI officials said.

The value of their take has ranged from $7,500 in Colonial Heights, Va., in April to more than $260,000 in suburban Baltimore, Md., in August 2003.

The items taken have no serial numbers, making them nearly impossible to trace, Swecker said. But he said one important clue may by the predilection for Movado watches.

FBI Special Agent Kevin Hennessy, an Albany, N.Y.-based investigator, called Movado "the poor man's Rolex," noting that it bears no serial number and might be resold for $500. Hennessy said the other jewelry could be melted down.

The FBI has set up a telephone hot line, 1-800-225-5324, and is offering a $25,000 reward. Jewelers are offering another $25,000, said John Kennedy of the Jewelers Security Alliance, an industry association.

The core group of thieves numbers four to five black or Hispanic men, although some break-ins involved up to six people, investigators said. Hennessy said the group has ties to New York City and that the FBI has recovered some fingerprints and identified possible suspects. But no arrests have been made.

They appear to focus solely on stores in malls because they are just off major roadways and allow a quick exit. The crew does extensive surveillance before the heist, sometimes slashing the tires or putting glue in the locks on mall security vehicles, Swecker said.

At least one person stands lookout while several enter the store and fill bags. They ignore store safes and women's jewelry, he said.

A typical break-in took place in October, when a six-person crew used a battery-powered saw to cut the gate at the Zales store inside the Willow Grove Park Mall in Abington Township, Pa., at 10:50 p.m., according to the local police. The thieves cut power to the store, preventing them from being caught on surveillance cameras, the police said.

The burglary was similar to one at another jewelry store at the same mall in January, police said.

The FBI attributed burglaries in these 10 states to the same group: Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Virginia.

In a few cases, security guards have responded quickly enough to give chase. In one instance, a security guard said one of the thieves carried a gun, Swecker said.

The onset of the holiday shopping season and the prospect of violence at a mall prompted the FBI to ask for help now, he said.

"We don't want a situation where individuals are forced into a corner and we end up with a violent situation inside a mall," he said.


On the Net:

FBI: http://www.fbi.gov

Jewelers Security Alliance: http://www.jewelerssecurity.org

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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