x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Boom in bullion price sparks surge in gold robberies

Large numbers of women have had gold necklaces yanked from their throats by robbers on the street across the US as the price of the precious metal has soared 50% in a year.

Private security guard Gus Rodriguez stands outside the Palacio de Oro jewellery store in  Los Angeles. Damian Dovarganes / AP Photo
Private security guard Gus Rodriguez stands outside the Palacio de Oro jewellery store in Los Angeles. Damian Dovarganes / AP Photo

LOS ANGELES // Gus Rodriguez looks more like a soldier than a jewellery store security guard. He has a Beretta handgun strapped to his bulletproof vest, shades wrapped around his shaved head and pepper spray bulging from a breast pocket.

"I am not afraid," the former Ecuadorean military man said, patting his pistol. "They call me Rambo."

After a summer of brazen attacks on gold stores, parts of downtown Los Angeles look more like a military zone than a commercial corridor.

The gold fever that has driven prices to an all-time high is also fuelling a crime spree in the precious metal.

Police nationwide are seeing an increase in robberies and burglaries related to gold prices, which peaked at $1,891 (Dh6,945) an ounce last month, up more than $600, or 50 per cent, from a year earlier.

The FBI does not keep numbers for gold thefts but local police have evidence of a spike.

Dozens of women have had their necklaces snatched in daylight, burglars are targeting gold in homes and robbers in New Jersey even cleared out a mining museum's irreplaceable collection of nuggets.

The beauty of gold, from a criminal standpoint, is that it is easy to fence. Rings and necklaces can be melted down - destroying the evidence - and sold.

Precious items such as diamonds are harder to alter and easier to trace. There were at least six gold store robberies in LA in June and July. On August 22, four men with hammers were arrested outside a jewellery store, said LA police Lt Paul Vernon.

These thefts were suspected to have been carried out by gang members who covered their faces with hoods and hats, then rushed into stores and swiped what they could in a matter of seconds.

One surveillance video shows a shopkeeper being blasted by pepper spray while robbers destroy display cabinets and grab what they can.

"The surging gold prices motivated these people to want to do these smash-and-grabs," Lt Vernon said.

"They are not trading what they steal at the market value of gold. Even if they get half that, they are making a pretty penny."

In Oakland, dozens of women have had gold necklaces yanked from their throats on the street.

More than 100 similar thefts have been reported in LA, a rash of robberies has taken place in St Paul, Minnesota, and police in Phoenix say muggers chatted up high school girls then ripped their gold necklaces from them.

"We've never seen this," said Oakland police Sgt Holly Joshi. Most of the victims were robbed while distractedly looking at their phones.

In July, thieves smashed open a glass display in the Sterling Hill Mining Museum in New Jersey and made off with about $400,000 in gold samples collected from mines across the globe.

Mr Rodriguez, the LA security guard, has not had to use his gun in his four months at work.

The 44-year-old earned his nickname "Rambo" from gang members who look him over as they slowly drive past the shops he patrols. Most of the jewellery stores on Broadway are low-end enterprises with owners keen to make a quick buck buying jewellery, melting it and reselling it.

The street alternates from squalid to splendid, dotted with crumbling former theatres and refurbished art deco high rises.

Opposing forces of gentrification and homelessness play out on the street, where hustlers stand outside cheap electronics stores and drivers swoop into secured garages beneath newly renovated buildings.

A few hundred yards down the street from Mr Rodriguez, another gold store guard pops open the leather clasp securing his .357 magnum pistol when he sees two young men walking toward him.

Oscar Quintero has never had to fully unholster his gun but a few weeks ago thwarted a robbery by blasting pepper spray at a man who tried to run away with a gold chain.