A Gem of a Caper

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

Police later learned the baubles came from the home of Victoria Magana, the drug kingpin's widow whom authorities accused the Smiths of robbing. But Zimmelman insists the two men told him the jewelry belonged to John's mother.

Failing to reach a deal that day, Dino returned with Troy. The pair struck Zimmelman as "club guys," dressed in designer silk shirts and dropping the names of pro football players they supposedly knew. Zimmelman bought the jewelry for $30,000 and eventually sold it.

A year later, with the Smiths charged in the Magana case, a customer claiming to know Greg West offered to sell Zimmelman "very warm" jewelry, court records indicate. Zimmelman agreed to buy; the customer turned out to be an undercover cop.

Zimmelman pleaded guilty to attempting to receive stolen property and testified against the Smiths in the Magana trial. As years passed, he says, he forgot about them. When police mentioned their names in connection with the Lang heist, "I was like, 'Oy. I can't believe it.'"

Gardner and Leydon think otherwise. The two cops allege that Zimmelman, familiar with the brothers' criminal exploits and seeking an infusion of insurance money, conceived the robbery scheme with Dino. Their investigation unearthed what they consider circumstantial evidence that implicates Zimmelman:

— On January 30, 2003, less than three months before the heist, Dino's black Hummer received two parking tickets a block from Lang's. Gardner and Leydon allege he and Zimmelman may have met to discuss the heist.

— Zimmelman hired movers one week before the theft to slide Lang's three safes to a side wall of the back office. For years, the massive safes had covered the rear wall — the common wall with the hidden door between the shop and the then-vacant space at 1 Tillman. "Unless the safes are moved," Leydon says, "the thieves can't come through."

— A security company dispatcher phoned Zimmelman after the store's alarm went off the night before the heist. The shop owner said to call back if police suspected trouble. "You got a store with millions of dollars of jewelry," Gardner says. "Wouldn't you at least want to check it?"

— At the time of the break-in, the videotape that recorded Lang's security feed shut off every Sunday night, in effect blacking out the shop's surveillance until Monday morning. The thieves picked a Sunday night to enter Lang's and disable the motion detector.

— The robbers ordered store clerk Richard Frey and Suzanne Martinez, the shop's manager, to open the safes without asking who among the four employees knew the combinations. Singling out Frey and Martinez suggests someone told the crooks beforehand who could unlock the safes, Gardner and Leydon say.

— Martinez pleaded with the thieves to leave behind some $100,000 worth of customer jewelry under repair. In an oddly altruistic gesture, they obliged. Gardner and Leydon allege they did so because Zimmelman wanted to avoid the wrath of customers if insurance failed to cover their loss. (Authorities alleged that Martinez may have helped in the scheme, but she did not face charges.)

The two cops exude physical intensity in different ways. Gardner leans his broad, 6-foot-3 frame toward a person when talking, his brown eyes opaque and unblinking. The more compact Leydon, now a lieutenant, fidgets with the energy of a downed power line.

They grilled Zimmelman for hours the day of the break-in. He resisted calling an attorney then or in subsequent interviews — to prove he had nothing to hide, he says. He refutes their conspiracy charges with a mix of contempt and sarcasm. "They thought they were Sherlock Holmes," he says. "I think they're clowns."

Zimmelman, 49, bought Lang's from its original owner in 1990 and runs another shop in Beverly Hills. He concedes that, when he decided to close his second shop in San Francisco after the robbery, business had dipped since the dot-com collapse. But he contends his stores were solvent, and while authorities accuse him of planning the heist to commit insurance fraud, he points out that his insurer conducted its own investigation.

"They're more thorough than the cops," he says.

Possessed of an open face and a casual manner, Zimmelman disparages the alleged evidence against him as coincidences. He asserts that the parking tickets Dino received, rather than hint at a meeting between the two men, show Smith may have cased the store.

Moving the safes, he says, occurred in advance of installing cabinets along the office's rear wall, part of the store's renovation at the time.

Thieves with inside knowledge would have breached the common wall at a point opposite the back office's bathroom, he theorizes; that way, they could stay outside the motion detector's range and avoid tripping the alarm.

Zimmelman also defends his decision to stay home after the security company called. A rat darting across the floor or a truck rumbling past a store can touch off an alarm, he says. If he had received a second call, he insists, he would have checked on the shop, but he trusted the police to spot trouble.

Weeks after the heist, Zimmelman consented to a polygraph, hoping to persuade investigators of his innocence. A state law enforcement official administered the test at the Hall of Justice. Zimmelman passed.

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