A Gem of a Caper

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

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.

Dino and Troy vanished days after the Lang robbery, leading police on a cat-and-mouse chase that dragged on until last month. Investigators tracked them from the Bay Area to New York, with rumored sightings as far away as Argentina, Costa Rica, and Italy. Meanwhile, in a peculiar sideshow closer to home, authorities depicted the jewelry store owner as the brains behind the theft — without ever charging him.

Gardner (top), Leydon (middle), Turner (bottom).
Gabriella Hasbun
Gardner (top), Leydon (middle), Turner (bottom).
1 Tillman Place sat vacant at the time of the robbery.
Gabriella Hasbun
1 Tillman Place sat vacant at the time of the robbery.

Lang Fine Estate Jewelers sits blocks from Union Square, near the swanky retail nexus of Sutter and Grant streets. The rear of the shop shares a common wall with a martini bar at 1 Tillman Place, a short, dead-end walkway off Grant.

In April 2003, 1 Tillman stood empty, the site of a defunct restaurant. An investigator discovered a piece of copper wire protruding from the inside of its front door that could be pulled from the outside to unlock a deadbolt.

Once inside the vacant space, the thieves exploited a weak spot in the common wall. They hacked through a veneer of crosscut plywood and sheetrock to expose a wood door between the two buildings. Sealed within the wall perhaps decades earlier, the door still held a glass panel in its upper half. After removing the glass, they cut a hole the size of a bike wheel through a second thin layer of sheetrock and plywood.

The opening revealed Lang's back office, the safes looming in the dark.

At least one intruder slipped into the store the night before the robbery to hang a small cardboard box over the office's wall-mounted motion detector. The movement triggered the shop's alarm on Sunday, April 6. But by the time police arrived, the man or men had crawled out, concealing the hole with white poster board, or hid in the bathroom, out of view from the storefront.

The alarm reset at 11:25 p.m. and the officers departed. With the motion detector disabled, the intruders could enter any time they desired.

The rear door of 1 Tillman faces an alley and the back side of the Saks Fifth Avenue building on Post Street. At 8:51 a.m. on April 7, Saks' security cameras captured video of three men walking toward the door. One carried a newspaper and what looked like a cup of coffee. A fourth man stepped out of 1 Tillman to let them in.

At 9:48 a.m., the four men emerged from the same door, their pace unhurried. Three of them wore black clothing, the fourth sported a white-and-blue ski coat. Bulging black garbage bags dangled from their hands.

The haziness of the images obscured their faces. But initial police suspicions that the robbery resembled the Smiths' past handiwork congealed when Frey, the store clerk, picked out Dino's picture in a photo lineup. Frey identified him as the gun-wielding intruder who had stood at the foot of the store's stairs.

Investigators also found fingerprints inside 1 Tillman on the poster board and a copy of the Chronicle sports page, dated April 7, left behind by the thieves. Forensic tests matched the prints to Troy Smith and George Turner, a longtime friend of the brothers and a twice-convicted felon. (As for the fourth man glimpsed on the security video, police have named no suspects.)

Robbery Inspectors Dan Gardner and Dan Leydon, assigned to handle the Lang case, organized stakeouts of the Smiths' Oakland apartments. The tactic paid off less than three weeks later, when an officer observed a man hauling clothes from Troy's apartment to a black Lexus. A search of the car's glove box turned up swag from Lang's: A $4,950 pair of diamond and sapphire earrings, the price tag still attached.

The man, Je Kim, described himself as a friend of Debbie Warner, a real estate agent who police identified as Dino's girlfriend. Court records reveal that, according to inspector Leydon, Kim claimed Warner asked him to move Troy's furniture to her apartment in Oakland. He further alleged that, as payment, Warner offered the earrings and told him to keep a handful of Troy's Armani suits, Leydon reported.

Police arrested Warner the following week in her home, where Leydon seized driver's licenses belonging to the Smith brothers and credit cards in Troy's name. She faced a preliminary hearing in May 2003 on charges of possessing stolen goods and acting as an accessory after a crime. Petite and pale, with short dark hair, she arrived in Superior Court wearing a black blouse over her swollen belly: She was pregnant with Dino's child.

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