A Gem of a Caper

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

Three years removed from the heist, he speculates the Smiths may have targeted his store as payback for his testifying against them years ago. Or, more likely, he says, the gleaming cascade of necklaces, bracelets, and brooches in Lang's display window tempted them.

Gardner and Leydon disagree. They say Dino Smith spilled a different story.

The investigators thought Dino might hide out in New York. His estranged wife lives there with his two oldest sons, and Smith's fugitive status aside, Gardner and Leydon knew he fancied himself a devoted father. In June 2004, a desire to see his third and youngest child would end Dino's freedom.

Debbie Warner flew from Oakland to New York that month. A year earlier, a judge had dismissed charges alleging that Dino's girlfriend helped the Smiths elude capture. Authorities continued to track her, surveillance that paid off after she and the couple's infant son touched down on the East Coast.

New York police tailed Warner until Gardner and Leydon arrived the next day. The investigators followed her to a train station in Queens, and a short time later, they saw Dino walk toward her. He sported sunglasses and a goatee, a backpack slung over his shoulder. He looked gaunt from 14 months on the lam.

A coterie of New York officers backed Gardner and Leydon as they moved in and cuffed him. Smith squirmed. "You got the wrong guy," he said.

"You're Dino Smith," Gardner replied. "We're San Francisco police." His body fell limp.

Police escorted him to a Queens precinct station. Denying he took part in the Lang heist, he admitted to "several" meetings with Zimmelman to plan the job, Gardner and Leydon claim. Smith also disclosed that Zimmelman provided details about the hidden door, the cops contend, and promised him that the brothers could earn up to $2 million apiece. The shop owner, Smith said, felt he owed the duo for testifying against them in the Magana case, according to Gardner and Leydon.

Smith fought extradition to California and refused to divulge where he lived in New York. Authorities had yet to solve the riddle when, in August 2004, Gardner received a call from Brian Boucher.

A writer and art critic, Boucher had rented the bedroom of his tiny New York apartment to a man named John Williams for 10 months. Boucher explained that he last saw Williams in June 2004, and, frustrated by his tenant skipping two months' rent, he decided to search Williams' room.

Boucher found a laptop, and asked a tech-savvy friend to crack the password. A sign-in name popped up on the screen: Dino Smith. The computer contained a diary, and a few of its entries made Boucher suspicious about his elusive roommate. He decided to type Smith's name into Google. Moments later, after clicking on the Web site of America's Most Wanted, he sat staring at Dino's mug shot.

Gardner traveled to New York to seize the contents of Smith's room. He found stolen photo ID cards and a diary book in which Smith imagined casting his life as a movie. Denzel Washington would play him, and Laurence Fishburne would portray his brother. Angela Bassett would star as his wife and Halle Berry as his girlfriend. (Dino's wife, Angela Taylor, in her only comments to SF Weekly, says she owns the film rights to his story.)

Authorities argue that other diary entries, dotted with references to "Mark" and "MZ," corroborate their theory that Zimmelman may have conspired with Dino. One, dated March 5, 2003 — a month before the Lang robbery — asks simply, "Meet with MZ again?"

The computer journal contained similar musings. An entry dated April 27, 2003, three weeks after the break-in, reads, in part, "I should have called the cops as soon as he walked up to my car. Why did I even give MZ the fucking time of day. I know, the money right? ... How the hell do I prove I was not there? When I truly was not there? ..."

During Smith's trial last June, prosecutors and defense attorneys alike invoked the Lang owner's name in arguing their case. Prosecutor Jerry Coleman dubbed the robbery "a Mark Zimmelman inside job."

Defense lawyer Jonathan Rutledge wondered why prosecutors had failed to charge Zimmelman if they believed he conspired with Smith. He further posited that if Zimmelman were involved, then the alleged crime constituted insurance fraud, not robbery.

The statute of limitations to charge Zimmelman on theft-related charges expired earlier this month. Prosecutors are still weighing insurance fraud charges. For his part, Zimmelman shrugs off Smith's journal entries, maintaining that Dino may have created the diaries after reading news articles about the robbery as a ploy to implicate someone else.

"This guy was on the run for a year," Zimmelman says. "He had time to try to figure out how to get out of this."

In mounting his defense, Rutledge, who declined to comment to SF Weekly, attacked Gardner and Leydon. The attorney pointed out that they failed to record or take notes of Smith's alleged admissions in New York, writing up a chronology of the interview two days later. Rutledge accused the cops of concocting Smith's statements, contending that a man who spent 14 months on the run would have the restraint to keep quiet.

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