The man in dark jeans and a black windbreaker sat on a folding chair near the back of the San Mateo County Event Center. He sported an earpiece and wore a blue surgical mask that obscured much of his face.
His presence may have gone unnoticed if not for the event that had just taken place there: the International Gem and Jewelry Show.
It was a little after 5 p.m. on July 10, and the expo had ended. Dozens of exhibitors were packing up the contents of their glass showcases, which sparkled with jewelry worth tens of millions of dollars. At that point in the day, only authorized personnel were allowed inside the exhibition hall, so the man drew the suspicions of Brandy Swanson, the show’s manager and a self-professed “mama bear” who looks out for the event’s vendors.
The man, she said, was watching the jewelers. Swanson said she confronted him, shouting, “Get up. Get out of here. What are you doing?”
He told Swanson he didn’t speak English, but she was undeterred. “A security guard came up, and I said, ‘You follow him out of the front door,’” Swanson said.
Once outside the event center, the man in the windbreaker was joined by another man who wore a matching surgical mask. A show staffer took photographs of 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 event center that day, would take on increased significance just hours later — when a Brink’s big rig transporting the wares of jewelers who’d participated in the show was burgled at a Grapevine truck stop. The July 11 theft occurred while the 18-wheeler paused at the Flying J Travel Center in Lebec around 2 a.m. Thieves stole 22 bags of jewelry that, in all, could be worth about $100 million, though the value of the haul is in dispute.
The criminals pulled off the heist despite, Swanson said, exhibitors and Brink’s representatives having been warned of the troubling activity at the show. And she, for one, sees a possible connection.
“You don’t just rob a Brink’s truck without a plan,” Swanson said. “Those guys didn’t steal anything that we know of — they didn’t have anything on them. They were planning.”
Brink’s spokeswoman Dana Callahan said in a statement that the company was “not aware of any reports of suspicious activity from the show organizer at the San Mateo show.”
Two people familiar with the law enforcement investigation of the heist, which is being conducted by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and the FBI, said one of the men seen in or around the San Mateo event center July 10 could have been involved in the crime. The sources, who were not authorized to comment publicly, cautioned that investigators believe suspicious individuals frequently watch the jewelry expo, which travels across the country.
Indeed, Arnold Duke, president of the Rockville, Md.-based International Gem and Jewelry Show, said that over the years the event has been hit by “snatch and grab artists” who attempt to steal from jewelers and patrons. And the show in San Mateo has been a regular target of such criminals, he said.
“Typically they come at the end of the show, when guys are packing their cases,” Duke said. “They hope to grab one briefcase and run away.”
That’s a simple sort of thievery compared with the Brink’s heist, which could be one of the biggest jewelry thefts of all time. Investigators believe that the heist was carried out by a crew of sophisticated criminals, given the lack of violence and the speed of the operation, among other factors, The Times has previously reported. The crime occurred during a 27-minute window in which one of the 18-wheeler’s drivers was asleep inside the vehicle and the other was getting food at the truck stop, Richmond, Va.-based Brink’s has said.
Investigators now believe that the professional thieves tracked the big rig from San Mateo using multiple vehicles, according to two people with knowledge of the inquiry. The criminals waited for an opportune moment to break into the tractor-trailer and may have not known how big a haul awaited them, the sources said.
Sheriff’s Department investigators, who are working with the FBI, have obtained video related to the incident, at least some of which is from the San Mateo event. Swanson said the show gave the authorities several photos and videos taken at the July 10 expo. The Times received four of those images from a jeweler who had gotten the pictures from event organizers after the incident.
And the photos document other questionable happenings as the show wrapped up.
“That night,” Swanson said, “there was a lot of stuff going on.”
After the expo ended at 5 p.m., jewelry company workers had about an hour and a half to pack up their belongings and deliver them to representatives of Brink’s, which was contracted to transport the merchandise to the Los Angeles area for a trade show in Pasadena.
Around 6 p.m., one of the jewelers at the show stepped outside the event center and noticed a car in the parking lot that looked odd. It was a gray vehicle whose windows were “blacked out” so that he could not see inside. Even the front windshield featured a dark tint — and the car also did not have a front or rear license plate.
“That made me suspicious,” said the jeweler, who, like other merchants interviewed by The Times, asked that his name not be published because of security concerns.
The jeweler attempted to photograph the vehicle, he said, but it drove away. He reported what happened to security personnel stationed at the front of the exhibition hall. Swanson confirmed that the guards had received the tip from the jeweler, and said that they also had been unable to take a photo of the departing vehicle.
Later, once the jeweler learned of the heist, he wondered about the mysterious car he’d seen. “I was a little bit shook by that,” he said.
There were a handful of other concerning encounters with unknown individuals. In one case, a man wearing a baseball cap, dark glasses and an earpiece was spotted outside the event center. He lingered near a loading area at the rear of the building after the expo closed, Swanson said.
“He was told to leave the property,” said Swanson, adding that the man got into a red Dodge Charger that “just looked funny.” A photo was taken of the sedan and later shared with at least one jeweler.
A walk through the rows of vendors at the jewelry show when it returned to San Mateo on Sept. 2 gave a sense of how appealing the event might be to a thief. Showcases housed dozens of diamond necklaces, gold rings and emerald earrings. Some vendors specialized in jade, others in loose gemstones or pearls. But several empty booths were a reminder of the theft’s toll: Only a handful of the jewelry companies whose wares were stolen had returned to the show.
The 14 victimized jewelers, at least eight of whom are based in L.A. County, are tussling with Brink’s over the value of the stolen wares. The jewelers have pegged their total losses 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.
That dispute isn’t the only one to arise out of the heist, with questions also mounting about the timeline of the puzzling crime. There’s also the question of what warning, if any, Brink’s employees received about suspicious activity at the show before the big rig began its journey down Interstate 5.
As jewelers packed up their showcases after the July 10 show, a message from the expo’s organizers boomed over the facility’s loudspeakers. Informed by the presence of the suspicious men in and around the event center, the warning urged the jewelers to take precautions while departing the facility.
Although the show’s organizers routinely issue such messages, on this day, Swanson said, it was offered with “extra urgency,” given what had transpired earlier.
Around the same time, Swanson said she delivered a separate warning to the Brink’s representatives at the venue, at least some of whom were there to handle the intake of the jewelers’ cargo.
“I specifically went over to those guys, and said, ‘Listen, there is a lot going on here tonight, you need to be aware,’” Swanson recalled. “I said, ‘Listen guys, there are a lot of people around here who shouldn’t be.’ I don’t know if they did anything or not — I said what I wanted to say, and walked away.”
Callahan, the Brink’s spokeswoman, said that the company “was not aware of a report of suspicious men outside or inside the San Mateo show and was not advised of such persons near the area where the claimants were signing the shipping contracts and tendering their shipments.”
A jeweler victimized in the theft said that as he packed up his booth at the end of the day, Swanson told him she had just delivered a warning to the Brink’s workers.
Once the jewelers’ cases were packed, they wheeled them on dollies to the back of the convention center, where representatives of Brink’s accepted the merchandise and associated paperwork, two jewelers said. Even for veterans of the trade show circuit, this was always an anxiety-ridden moment.
“My two expensive showcases — my diamond showcases — I call those my babies,” said one of the victimized jewelers. “They’re like my kids.”
The cases were placed in large orange bags marked with the Brink’s logo. Later, they were stowed on the Brink’s tractor-trailer. “Our load is too big to go into a typical armored truck,” Duke explained.
Indeed, the big rig carried 73 jewelry bags — many weighing 70 to 100 pounds — when it rumbled off the event center property and into the crisp Northern California night a little after 12 a.m. The jewelers may have heeded the warnings issued over the loudspeakers as they packed up their merchandise, but from then on, the matter was out of their hands.