For the high-end jewelry sellers on the popular online classifieds site Craigslist, it must have seemed like their ship had come in: A prospective buyer in California offered not only their asking price but would fly them into town and have a limo waiting.
“The individual would think they were going to the jewelry store to meet with the actual buyer,” said Special Agent Darin Heideman, who works out of the Oakland Resident Agency of the FBI’s San Francisco Division, “when in fact, a co-conspirator would take them to a predetermined location, assault them, and then basically rob them of all their items.”
The crew of robbers, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, is estimated to have stolen more than $500,000 in jewelry from victims who traveled from more than six states between November 2012 and December 2013. Five men were charged in 2014 in connection with the violent robberies during which, among other items, a $90,000 Cartier watch, a $14,000 Rolex watch, and a $19,000 engagement ring were stolen. The last member of the crew to be sentenced, Michael Anthony Martin, 42, of Tracy, California, was handed a term last December of 30 years in prison.
“It’s definitely a tale of something that started small and just mushroomed into this massive investigation,” said Gebhardt.
It all started in 2012 with the brazen robbery of a Bay Area man who was selling his watch. The seller and the purported buyer, both local, arranged to meet in Fremont in a public place—a coffee shop. “As they are talking, the potential buyer just grabs the Rolex and takes off running,” Gebhardt said.
“It’s definitely a tale of something that started small and just mushroomed into this massive investigation.”
Det. Michael Gebhard, Fremont (California) Police Department
Video surveillance and the so-called buyer’s cell phone number turned up an identity that police were able to link to two more robberies in Bay Area cities. In each case, the victims were selling Rolex watches and the prospective buyers grabbed the goods and ran. “The M.O. is the same,” Gebhardt recalled thinking. “He’s targeting people on Craigslist for Rolexes.”
Two months later, the detective received word that police in Oakland were investigating five similar robberies, including one they witnessed firsthand during a separate investigation. Oakland police officers arrested three men, who it turned out were associates of the watch thief Gebhardt was investigating for the 2012 coffee shop heist. With some digging, Gebhardt learned his subject was taking directions from his father, an inmate at the California Men’s Colony state prison. The father was using a number of relatives, including his son and a cousin in Texas, to lure prospective Craigslist sellers with flights and limos and then have co-conspirators rob them once they were captive.