While showing a jewelry buyer some of his wares, Frank Shoptaugh knew something was wrong when he spotted a young man across the street casually window-shopping - outside a dry cleaners.
Carrying nearly $1 million worth of gold and jewels in his briefcase, Mr. Shoptaugh quickly realized what the man was doing: Using one of the many tricks employed by professional jewelry thieves, he was casing him in the reflection of the shop window.
Shoptaugh ended up shaking off his pursuers by speeding through a residential neighborhood, Steve McQueen-style, in his Honda Accord. Half a dozen other times, he hasn't been so fortunate. After having hotel rooms broken into, his car ransacked, and a gun held to his head, the septuagenarian from Smyrna, Ga., finally quit the jewelry business last year. For good. "I could be out making some darn good money right now, but also I could be killed or maimed in the process, and it's not worth it," he says.
His experience is part of a little-known battle of wits between America's dwindling corps of "diamond men" and trained thieves and Colombian pickpockets. Perhaps worse, the proceeds from the heists - often huge - are going to fund drug and terrorist operations in South America, police say.
With detectives spending more time on bank robberies and tracking foreign terrorists, this spree is part of a dangerous underground power struggle between the jewelry trade and the well-trained thieves who nabbed some $45 million worth of goods in the US last year alone. They often strike in one-stoplight towns, where police have fewer resources to investigate and where authorities tend to be as suspicious of the jewelry dealers as of would-be robbers. Overall in the South, the number of thefts jumped 89 percent in 2002. Georgia led the way, with 29 reported parking-lot jewelry heists.
It's a crime of patient pursuit. Teams of South Americans, usually in the US illegally, follow couriers for days across the piney plains and remote backroads of the South. They often use two or more cars to throw off suspicion. The thefts have gotten so numerous and audacious, experts say, that they're now at the point of choking off the jewelry industry's main supply line.
"The fact is that every bank robbery gets an FBI investigation, and those losses usually average $5,000 or so," says Bill Adams, a jewelry insurer in Atlanta. "These robberies are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, but it's hard to get the message out about how serious it is, and that it's crippling an entire industry."
At the same time, salespeople complain that they are often treated like the criminals by local police, many of whom are naturally suspicious of someone driving through their town with the equivalent of the gross national product of Sierra Leone in their trunk. After being robbed of $600,000 worth of jewels in Florida a few years back, Shoptaugh had his car impounded. Police thought he had just taken the goods and stashed them. As a detective walked him to his car the next day, he smirked, "I guess you'll be living well in a couple of years."
John Kennedy, president of the Jewelers Security Alliance in New York, defends the FBI. He says their efforts have largely driven the thieves out of Miami and Los Angeles. Nationwide, in fact, losses were down last year, thanks largely to beefed up sting operations in major cities. But often local police are either embarrassed by such crimes taking place in their town - or ill-equipped to deal with the sophisticated robbers.
"The fact is that we're seeing more vigorous enforcement in the Georgia area, but it takes a little time to discourage these gang members and to drive them out," says Mr. Kennedy.
But that's little comfort to the Shoptaughs of the world. For one thing, the crimes are only becoming more violent: Last year saw an 8 percent rise in robberies where a gun was used. They are also often bold - and costly:
• On Jan. 23, a group of ski-hooded men followed four salesmen from Hong Kong into an eatery in the Bellaire district of Houston. They robbed the dealers, in daylight, in the restaurant.
• On Dec. 2, robbers grabbed $132,000 worth of jewels and gold from an unattended dealer's car in a parking lot in Richards, Texas.
• Last August, thieves took $400,000 worth of jewelry from a salesman in Roswell, Ga.
The loot, many believe, is often taken to a central collection point somewhere in the US. The gold is likely melted and the stones removed. And then it's converted into cash, usually overseas, experts say.
But by keeping cool, very few are ever caught - and even fewer convicted. While some of the thefts are done by inner-city gangs, "99.9 percent of them are professionals from South America," says Kennedy.
"The [robbers] know two things if they get caught: If they talk, they'll be killed. If they keep their cool, someone will take care of their bail, no matter how much it is. And then they'll just disappear," says Mr. Adams.
Faced with fearful salespeople and major losses, the jewelry industry is changing its strategies. A firm in Atlanta, for example, is now providing heavy security at sales conferences, where sellers and buyers can congregate and where jewels can be shipped in by armored car, says Carol Young of the Southern Jewelry Travelers Association.
The couriers and salespeople are becoming more cautious, too. Most don't show up in suits and Cadillacs the way they used to. Today, they're just as likely to be driving a Honda Civic, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and carrying their jewels into plastic bags.
"As soon as you let your guard down, you're liable to get robbed," says Kennedy.