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A Gem of a Caper 

Bags of jewels stolen. Two brothers in custody. The store owner implicated. Who done it?

Wednesday, Apr 26 2006
Someone or something inside Lang Fine Estate Jewelers tripped an alarm at 11:17 p.m. Police officers responded and peered into the darkened showroom. It looked empty, undisturbed. They left.

Richard Frey and Erin Beeghly arrived for work the next morning around 9:30, unaware of the previous night's disturbance. Before the store opened in half an hour, they would need to set out dozens of jewelry-laden display trays locked overnight in three safes. They chatted for a minute, then Frey climbed upstairs to switch a security videotape. Beeghly walked to the rear of the shop to change her clothes.

Scraps of wood and sheetrock littered the back office, debris from the store's ongoing renovation. Beeghly picked her way across the small space, passing the safes along one wall, and pushed on the bathroom door.

As it opened, two men dressed in black lunged toward her.

The young woman's scream startled Frey. He headed back downstairs, but stopped halfway. A man had appeared on the landing, aiming a silver handgun at him.

His voice even, the man ordered Frey to the bottom of the steps. He jammed the gun in Frey's side as they stepped into the office, separated from the showroom by a curtain.

No longer visible to passersby who might glance in the storefront, the man tugged a nylon mask over his shaved head. He told Frey to open the 6-foot-tall safes that held Lang's entire inventory. Frey saw a second masked man pointing a gun at Beeghly as she faced a wall.

Frey's thin hands trembled as he twisted the combination wheels. The sound of the front-door buzzer interrupted him twice. The thieves directed him to answer it each time and return, their guns persuading him to obey.

Frey first let in the shop's bookkeeper; one intruder herded her into the office. Store manager Suzanne Martinez buzzed the door moments later. His face wan, Frey choked out a whispered warning to her at the door. "We're being robbed."

Martinez entered the office behind Frey, who had struggled to recall the combination of the third safe. After opening it, she turned toward the wall as commanded.

The robbers grabbed the display trays and began dumping more than 1,000 pieces of jewelry into garbage bags. Eighteen-carat diamond rings and sapphire teardrop earrings. A $25,000 platinum Edwardian bracelet studded with emeralds. A 1920s filigree diamond bracelet inlaid with Thai rubies. Cartier brooches and Piaget watches. Some items dated to the mid-19th century; most were one of a kind, customized by previous owners.

The precious gems and metals created a soft crunching noise as they tumbled into the plastic bags. "You're taking away our livelihood," Martinez said.

"Think of the poor children in Iraq," one thief shot back.

Tall and muscular, the two men moved with athletic grace, their manner calm and efficient. As they worked, Frey noticed that a crude hole had been cut in the office's rear wall about five feet off the floor. He saw a third man standing on the opposite side, in a vacant restaurant attached to Lang's. The thieves inside the shop handed the bags to the man until a woman's voice crackled over their walkie-talkies.


The duo bound their captives with plastic flex cuffs and duct tape before stacking them face down on top of one another. Placed on the bottom, Frey, a lanky man in his early 60s, wheezed under the weight of his co-workers. They worried he would suffer a heart attack.

Long seconds passed. Martinez rolled off the pile only when she felt certain the gunmen had left. Short and lithe, she hopped over to a phone and punched the speed-dial button to Lang's sister store. "We've been hit," she told the woman who answered.

Martinez wriggled out of her restraints and untied her co-workers as police pulled up. Officers soon realized the dizzying scale of the break-in. The crooks had escaped with $4.5 million in loot, the richest jewelry heist in San Francisco history.

The Lang job occurred on April 7, 2003. So began the three-year search for Dino and Troy Smith.

At the time, the Smith brothers already owned a reputation somewhere between notorious and loathed within the Hall of Justice. Their infamy derived from repeated run-ins with police over two decades. During the 1980s, investigators suspected them of committing possibly hundreds of burglaries and armed robberies, hitting clothing and jewelry stores, rug and furniture shops, restaurants, bars, and homes.

Police came to know the Smiths for their catlike climbing skills, alarm-system expertise, and cool demeanor. Posing as customers, the brothers visited stores to scout vulnerable entry points, authorities alleged, then returned at night with work tools to pry open a skylight or window, or to bash a hole in a wall. They were accused of forcing employees to unlock safes at gunpoint.

Whatever the source of their wealth, the brothers cultivated a playboy lifestyle in their 20s. They mingled with the glitterati at bygone hotspots Studio West and DV8. Both over 6 feet tall, they wore tailored Italian suits to flaunt chiseled physiques, eager to indulge their appetites for luxury cars and women. Dino converted a Hunters Point warehouse into a rambling bachelor's pad. Younger brother Troy sated his gambling jones in Las Vegas and Monte Carlo.

The Smiths plunged from orbit in 1990, after their arrest on dozens of robbery, burglary, and false imprisonment charges related to alleged misdeeds a year earlier. Juries convicted them in a series of tabloid-tinged cases over the next six years, as cops and prosecutors packed courtroom galleries to watch them fall. Though sentenced to decades in prison, they walked in 1998, freed by successful appeals.

The brothers appeared to keep a low profile through early 2003, living within a few miles of each other in Oakland after each of their marriages crumbled. Yet the poise of the Lang jewelry thieves and the method of their break-in suggested a strong possibility to police: The Smiths were back in the heist game.

About The Author

Martin Kuz


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