Jean Malki was carefully wrapping up a necklace containing more than 25 carats of fancy yellow diamonds, a rare Australian-mined Lightning Ridge black opal, and a deep-magenta Burmese ruby after a long day of sales at the International Gem & Jewelry Show when a bewildering announcement came over the loudspeaker.
Strange and suspicious individuals have been seen hanging around the expo, the show organizer warned, urging people to leave with extreme caution.
Up until then, July 10, 2022, had been a normal day for Malki, a veteran jeweler for 40 years who sold most of his estate collection at shows like this one in San Mateo, California, just south of San Francisco. Malki, who got his first taste of the industry by moving diamonds for Zales, is a traveling salesman who continually packs and unpacks items that are sometimes worth millions apiece. These shows feature dozens of jewelers from all over the country selling everything from decorative beads to rare Rolexes.
Instead of moving the merchandise himself in his car, Malki had opted for what he thought was the safest possible alternative: a Brink's armored truck. He handed his entire collection to a Brink's guard who packed the items into the truck and told Malki he would receive them the following day for another show five hours south in Pasadena.
Soon, Malki learned he had made the wrong decision.
Just after 2 a.m. the next day, at an unremarkable truck stop right at the Los Angeles County line, the guard driving the Brink's truck went inside to grab a bite. His co-pilot was asleep in a berth in the cab. When the driver returned 27 minutes later, dozens of bags of precious gems and watches sent by Malki and 14 other dealers estimated to be worth up to $100 million were gone.
The heist, by some estimates, is the largest jewelry theft by value in modern U.S. history. In the ten months since, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the FBI have announced no suspects. Even if the thieves are found, it might not help most of the jewelers whose livelihoods were effectively wiped out; they are locked in a bitter legal fight with Brink's that has prevented them from receiving any insurance money. They say they feel robbed twice: first by the thieves, then by Brink's refusal to pay them for what they believe is the company's own negligence.
Founded in the 19th century, Brink's has been transporting valuables, mostly cash, between banks for so long that its name is synonymous with high security. Its trucks, a fleet of rolling vaults, have long tempted thieves, from the 1981 heist that killed two police officers and a Brink's guard in New York to a string of armed robberies last month in Chicago . In the jewelry trade, Brink's has also become something of a monopoly, according to jewelers. It's often the only option for shipping valuables securely at shows like the San Mateo expo. (In 2018, the company bought a major competitor, Dunbar, for $520 million .) It is so dominant that jewelers and showrunners I spoke with said they fear criticizing Brink's will lead the company to ban them as customers, which could end their businesses.
The vehicle transporting millions of dollars in jewelry from San Mateo was not one of the company's famous armored cars but a semitruck. While the cab was armored, according to a review of sheriff's deputies' body-camera footage, the trailer actually carrying the valuables was not. There were no surveillance cameras, and an incident report noted the jewelry was secured inside the trailer by a single locking device in the rear. The thieves simply cut the lock, as evidenced by the slivers of metal left behind, and appeared to have taken it with them.
That's not the level of security the jewelers thought they had signed up for.
"Brink's was supposed to use an armored truck. They didn't use an armored truck; they used a trailer to transport our jewelry," said Ming Cheng, a jeweler who worked the show with his wife. He lost his entire stock in the theft, mostly hundreds of pieces of pearl jewelry. "And only two armed guards — one was sleeping, and one went to get some food, and they didn't keep an eye on the truck. How could this happen?"
The Brink's guards seemed just as shocked.
That night, James Beaty had been sleeping in a small compartment behind the seats, taking what Brink's says was part of the federally required ten hours off per day that limit how much time a driver can be awake on the road. Tandy Motley had been behind the wheel for hours when he pulled into the Flying J truck stop in Lebec. When he came out after his meal, he noticed the red seal wrapping the back of the truck had been torn and was lying on the ground. He called 911.
The guards determined that 24 of the 73 bags Brink's had initially said were onboard were missing, according to the body-camera footage, though Brink's would later put the figure at 22.
"Holy shit," Beaty said after counting. "I've been here eight years, and I've never seen anything like this."
They began piecing the night together, telling the two officers who arrived that they thought they had been followed from the show in San Mateo.
"I just had a weird feeling," said Motley between puffs on his vape, about a figure at the show. "He was staring me right in the eye. And I looked — it's like why is this guy dogging me? He had a beard, driving a silver SUV. And then just sitting there for like two minutes. And then I was — after that, I was kind of watching to see if anyone was following me … They had to have come in here with a fucking trailer."
The guards and deputies agreed it appeared to be a calculated theft for another reason: The stolen items were not the most convenient to grab, as the bags from the immediate opening of the back door would have been were the thieves in a hurry to take what they could. The missing bags were stowed further back and had been seemingly handpicked even though the entire load was wrapped in identical, bright-orange heavy plastic bags that concealed what was inside.
"Well, what doesn't make sense to me is you would think the back half of the trailer would be empty rather than leapfrogging the stuff," said one deputy.
"As much as they took in a little amount of time — they knew what they was getting," said Beaty.
Consequently, the guards suggested the thief could have been one of the jewelers. "It almost makes me wonder if the jeweler robbed himself, you know? Like he knew exactly what they had or something, right, for insurance," said Motley.
Later, Motley said he was worried the suspicion might turn on him. "You know what worries me the most is they always want to blame the employee first," he confided to one of the deputies.
Each of the 73 bags was labeled with a distinctive colored tag, but it's in dispute whether those tags denoted value, destination, or ownership. After the deputies arrived, Beaty called the Brink's guard who had packed up the shipments at the show, whose name was given as Nelson. Based on what Beaty claimed was their conversation, he told deputies the tags indicated value.
"He thinks that all the LAX stuff is what got stolen because it's the highest value," Beaty said of Nelson, referring to bags that were headed to Los Angeles International Airport instead of the Pasadena show.
"But that's right there," Motley said, confused. "It says LAX on it."
"I'm just telling you what he said," Beaty replied, and the contradiction wasn't pursued any further.
It later was determined that the jewelry stolen was indeed among some of the most expensive pieces being shipped, according to Gerald L. Kroll, the lawyer representing the victims against Brink's. Taken together, the ease of the theft and the weak security have left some of them believing it was an inside job.
"Reading the police report that we had, it's just kind of hard to believe it's just a coincidence that some people decided to rob a Brink's truck. And they knew when they were going to leave. They knew where they're going to stop. They knew how long they're going to stop," said Malki.
Sergeant Michael Mileski confirmed that the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Major Crimes Bureau and the FBI were looking into that angle. He said authorities have so far served several warrants at various residences and businesses for records and to search property but have no updates to announce. The lack of answers has allowed rumors to swirl about where the gemstones and watches went, including that some of the pieces ended up in Israel. Others believe the thieves are playing it smart by holding on to the jewelry and will likely do so for years until the spotlight fades.
Some of the jewelers learned their collections had been stolen not through Brink's but through word of mouth. Cheng found out something was wrong when his items didn't arrive at the Pasadena show and he went to the Brink's office in downtown L.A. for answers. Even then, he couldn't get any information. Not until two days after the heist did Brink's send letters to each jeweler alerting them of a "loss incident." The company said it couldn't comment on an active investigation but promised that it "strives to implement the best security practices to protect our customers' assets."
Cheng said his takeaway from Brink's handling of the situation was "they're hiding something, that's for sure."
Brink's eventually returned with an offer: They would pay the jewelers back the amount they had bought in insurance for the theft but no more. The total the jewelers had purchased from Brink's, in addition to their own insurance they had elsewhere, was just under $10 million. The majority of the jewelers, who argue that their collections totalled a true value nearly ten times that, scoffed. So two months later, Brink's sued them in a New York federal court, in part accusing the jewelers of breach of contract and of fraud because they had allegedly undervalued their items. "Brink's believes that each Defendant seeks to recover more from Brink's than is permitted under the Contract," the company wrote in its suit. (Brink's did not respond to requests for comment.)
The lawyer defending the jewelers sees it differently. "We feel confident that we have enough evidence to prove the purported contract is unconscionable. The clients were told to write down how much insurance they wanted," Kroll said, not the value of their goods. "The example would be like fire insurance on your home. Who insures 100 percent of their house? Your house might be worth many millions of dollars, but you get to decide how much insurance you want for an event of a fire."
"Our contracts are clear, easy to read, and, except to Mr. Kroll, uncontroversial," Brink's shot back. "The contracts clearly ask our customers to state the actual value of their goods, and explain that we will reimburse losses promptly up to that declared value.
Two weeks later, 14 of the 15 victims countersued Brink's in Los Angeles County Superior Court, seeking $200 million in total damages. (Since then, three have settled for an undisclosed sum.) They accuse the company of negligence for putting their valuables in a lightly protected truck, especially after being warned of heightened security risk at the expo. The show manager, Arnold Duke, said in an interview that he had alerted the Brink's guards.
"We say in this case that Brink's should have paid them the insurance value on day one," said Kroll. "That's what the people paid for, and that's what they expect to see. I think Brink's is trying to hold that money as a tactic to get these people to capitulate. Most of these people have lost everything. These are mom-and-pop businesses. This is not the lifestyle of the rich and famous."
"Our customers trust us to cover them for any losses, however unlikely," Brink's said. "In turn, we trust our customers to declare the full and correct value of the goods they ask us to transport. According to the information the customers provided to us before they shipped their items, the total value of the missing items is less than $10 million. In this case, we held up our end and fulfilled our contract, promptly settling a claim by one of the affected customers and subsequently settling two more. The others have chosen to litigate, admitting under oath that they undervalued their goods, and even did so regularly. While we are deeply disappointed by this breach of our trust and the plain language of our contracts, the courts have responded favorably to our position, and we remain willing to compensate these customers for the declared value of their goods."
The lawsuits have also revealed strange inconsistencies in the theft's timeline. First, that the truck left San Mateo at midnight and arrived 300 miles away at the Flying J truck stop in just two hours — meaning the semi would have had to be going about 150 miles per hour. But in a deposition, the driving guard said they actually left much earlier, at 8:25 p.m. Second, Beaty said in a deposition that he went to sleep at 3:39 p.m. on the day the jewelry was loaded onto the truck and wasn't woken up until after the heist at almost 3 a.m.
Brink's in its lawsuit argues that Beaty followed standard company practices and was "in compliance" with federal regulations that allow drivers time to sleep and take breaks. But Kroll said that by the time the truck had pulled into the rest stop just after 2 a.m., Beaty's ten hours of mandated sleep were up. When deposed by Kroll, Beaty acknowledged that he could have been woken up and outside on guard by then.
Since the lawsuits began, Brink's has cut off all ties with the jewelers involved and won't allow them to use their company for security. The jewelers aren't sure if it's a lifetime ban. "It's like you're killing somebody and then on the day of their funeral, you'll be the first one to walk in," said Malki, who is struggling to support three young children.
With no resolution in sight, Cheng is stuck paying rent for an empty showroom because, he said, his landlord won't let him out of the lease. After immigrating to Los Angeles from Hong Kong, he got into the jewelry business at 21 and learned English from his customers. For the past 30 years, he has flown to a show almost every week, traveling what he estimates as 3 million miles in total. Earlier this month, he started a new job: working six days a week as a sous-chef at a Chinese restaurant.
"I don't think anybody could prepare for this. What comes worse than death? I think besides death, this is something worse to happen to you," Cheng said through tears. "I'm 66 years old now — the only thing I know is the jewelry business, I don't speak very good English, and I wasn't educated too much. I have to start everything again. If I am young, I can handle it, but it's been so hard."
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