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Friday, February 5, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Big Ring Of Jewel Thieves Takes Shine To Northwest

They drive rented Cadillacs, look like nothing so much as well-to-do tourists, and sip espresso right next to you at your favorite suburban mall.

And unless you're in the habit of lugging around $200,000 or more in precious gems, you probably have little to fear from a slick gang of jewelry thieves best known as "The Colombians."

Police say hundreds of members of an international theft ring, trained at pickpocket schools in South America, have been working large cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Miami for two decades. They steal roughly $500 million a year in precious gems, according to the Jeweler's Security Alliance, a nationwide theft-prevention association.

Now, the thieves have expanded to the Northwest, from Vancouver, B.C., to Portland - with Bellevue Square and Seattle's downtown jewelry district favorite targets. They steal from sales representatives, known as couriers, who travel alone supplying diamonds, pearls, emerald and opal jewelry to jewelers.

Bellevue police Detective Bob Thompson has handled a half-dozen cases in the past two years. He says the thieves "sit in the mall, drink coffee and watch a store. Then as soon as you turn your back, bam, they grab the goods and they're gone."

Within a half hour of a hit, the thieves typically will have already sent their loot via Federal Express or United Parcel Service to Los Angeles, where many of the thieves are based, Thompson said. "The jewelry goes one way and they take off another," he said.

As a result, the thieves almost never get caught. Many have been trained at the School of Seven Bells, for pickpockets, in Bogota, Colombia, according to Los Angeles police Detective Mike Woodings, considered one of the country's leading experts on the Colombian thieves. The school gets its name from the bells put on clothing that ring if a clumsy trainee messes up when reaching into an instructor's pocket.

ALL HERE ILLEGALLY

All are in the country illegally, about 95 percent from Bogota, Woodings said, and the remainder are from other South American countries.

Ring members usually work one of two ways: creating a distraction or waiting for couriers to make a mistake and let go of their bags. Common distractions include spilling mustard on a victim and offering to clean up the mess, or, as was a case in Bellevue last summer, faking a pregnancy and writhing on the ground.

Justin Parks drives an unmarked delivery van for Ben Bridge Jewelers. On Aug. 11, he left Southcenter, heading for Bellevue Square, when he had to pull into because of a flat tire.

The tire had been punctured with a sharp object, probably an ice pick. It is another common ploy - but Parks didn't know that.

When he stepped out of his van, he noticed what appeared to be a pregnant Hispanic woman lying on her stomach.

"She was muttering and going into convulsions . . . she started muttering something about her baby," Parks told police.

Seconds later, she made a miraculous recovery.

"She got up and started jogging away. I figured I was being duped," Parks said.

She drove off with two men in a car with California plates.

Parks had been carrying three bags of jewelry worth $25,000 in his van. Now they were gone.

While Colombian thieves in the Northwest and Los Angeles generally go after jewelry couriers, Rick Smith of the FBI in San Francisco said delivery vans are the prime targets in his city.

Often, the ring members don't need to create a distraction. They just wait.

"They're the most patient thieves I've ever known," said Seattle police Detective Joe Corbett. Thieves have been known to follow a courier from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to Southcenter to Seattle to Bellevue to Spokane, waiting for just the right moment, he said.

Courier Ava Ashley of Redondo Beach, Calif., was eating lunch at the Miyako restaurant in Bellevue Square in September when she fell victim. Ashley stepped four feet from her table to get a fork from the condiment counter for her rice when her attache case containing $200,000 in gems was snatched.

This was the second time her gems had been stolen. Both times, police linked it to the Colombians. She had let go of her bag for about 10 seconds.

Sometimes, a mistake is as innocent as answering the call of nature.

In 1991, a wholesaler from Eden Prairie, Minn., lost $350,000 in diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds from a car in a Bellevue parking lot when he went to use the bathroom, thinking the friend with him had locked the door. There were four bags in the back seat. The thief took only one - a nylon satchel containing the gems.

PATIENCE PAYS OFF

How do thieves spot a courier? Police admit they're puzzled, as the attache cases, often attached to a luggage carrier, look like any other attache case. But they believe the thieves learn to pick out targets through patience and experience.

Typically, thieves pick out their targets at Sea-Tac and follow them to their hotel and on their sales route. Or they will hang out at malls or in downtown Seattle's jewelry district around Fourth Avenue and Pike Street. Sometimes, they cruise hotel lobbies.

Usually, they work in teams of twos or threes, using hand signals to communicate, Corbett said. It's a hit-or-miss venture, but the Northwest in recent years has become big in jewelry, hosting large-scale gem and jewelry shows, another favorite target.

And they are never violent.

The way they operate, they don't have to be. More importantly, if they get caught, a nonviolent booking charge at the jail for theft will have them free on bail within the hour.

Corbett has a notebook filled with the names of suspects arrested here and in Los Angeles. Many are the same people. Most have at least a dozen aliases, along with identification to back them up.

If arrested, the thieves present false ID, contact another ring member for bail and are out of the state before police figure out they've been given a phony name.

The jewelry, police believe, is disassembled in Los Angeles or New York and then sold locally or shipped back to Colombia.

Since five years ago, the Los Angeles Police Department has had a task force that Woodings said has driven many Colombian thieves out of the city.

Woodings said that even though there are still about 300 thieves who work out of Los Angeles, more and more are fanning out to areas under less scrutiny, including the Northwest.

AWARENESS KEY

There isn't yet a task force in the Seattle area, but police and jewelers are working together to create awareness of the problem and try to prevent heists.

Thompson, of the Bellevue police, has set up sufficient contacts with jewelers and couriers that they now contact him when they're coming to town and ask if he can follow them on their routes.

Recently, Thompson began following couriers, but has yet to see a thief. "I don't know," he said, shaking his head. "Maybe they can spot police as well as they can jewelry couriers."

There have been no more hits in Bellevue since Thompson began following possible targets. But he knows he hasn't much time to spare hanging out at the mall.

Corbett is outright frustrated.

"This is a case that will never leave you till the day you retire, and then some," he said. "I've lost sleep over this, and it requires more time than I've got to put into it."

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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