By  on December 2, 2005

WASHINGTON — The FBI, joining with the jewelry and gem industry and local law enforcement, has launched a task force to catch a ring of thieves that has burglarized 50 jewelry stores of more than $5.1 million in merchandise along the East Coast for two years.

Federal agents said at a news conference Thursday that the alleged organized criminal ring, dubbed "Gate Cutters Jewelry Crew," has targeted primarily national, mall-based stores in as many as 12 states, stretching from Manchester, N.H., to Boca Raton, Fla., and possibly more as far west as Illinois.

Officials appealed to the public for help in catching the thieves, offering a reward of about $50,000 for information leading to their arrests.

The sophisticated jewelry ring has "victimized" 16 jewelry retailers, including Zale Corp., Tiffany, Sterling Jewelers, Whitehall Jewelers, Reeds Jewelers, Walden Jewelers, Saslow's Jewelers, C&R Jewelers, Michael's Jewelers and O'Connell Jewelers, the FBI said.

The most recent theft occurred Wednesday at a Zales store in Bay Shore, N.Y., officials said.

"They are operating with impunity up and down the East Coast," said Chris Swecker, assistant director of the FBI's criminal investigative division. "We are concerned about the potential for violence because these types of groups get bolder and bolder as they go ... We don't want to get in a situation where they are boxed in or cornered in a mall and we have a violent situation."

The thieves, suspected to be four to five people, have selectively targeted men's gold jewelry, such as chains, bracelets and rings, as well as men's and women's Movado watches. The suspects, who have been caught on surveillance cameras, are described as possibly African-American or Hispanic males.

Swecker said the thieves' modus operandi includes cutting through roll down security gates in four minutes or less to enter the jewelry stores — hence the "gate cutter" label; stores are usually burglarized before or after normal business hours when a mall may be open for evening theater customers or early morning walkers, and the subjects usually wear hooded sweatshirts.

Swecker said law enforcement officials believe the group's leaders are based in Manhattan, although the teams might consist of different people in different states.According to the Uniform Crime Report of 2004, the gem and jewelry industry lost $1.1 billion through theft, said Eric Ives, acting unit chief for the FBI. He noted that the recovery rate for stolen jewelry, which is hard to identify, is 4.4 percent, while the recovery rate of stolen cars, for example, is 63 percent.

John Kennedy, president of the Jewelers' Security Alliance, a non-profit trade association focusing on crime prevention and representing 20,000 jewelry retailers and manufacturers, said this particular "gang" has had a major affect on the 16 jewelry retailers.

"The impact on the industry of gangs such as this — gangs that have a widespread number of cases, are geographically spread out," cause retailers large dollar losses and present the possibility of violent confrontations, is significant, Kennedy said.

In an interview after the press conference, Kennedy said although the dollar value will not "sink the jewelry industry by itself," the fact that the group has been able to commit so many burglaries without being caught in more than two years is a major concern to retailers.

"You don't usually see a gang with this many hits, that keeps doing it without being caught or at least identified," he said. "This is unusual that it keeps going on."

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