Investigators link Naples jewelry heist to South American theft ring

Owner tells first hand account

Robbery at jewelry store

Robbery at jewelry store in Naples

Robbers hit jewelry store in Naples

The chaos that erupted outside Thalheimers Jewelers in February after a jewelry heist turned into a shootout was the work of a highly-organized South American theft group, investigators now believe.

No arrests have been made in the Feb. 8, armed robbery that ended in Naples jewelry store owner, Sandy Thalheimer, exchanging gunfire with the thieves. But Naples Detective Robert Young said Wednesday that he has his eye on five Colombian suspects from Miami.

“I can’t even begin to tell you how many hours I’ve put into this,” Young said of the case.

Young has arrest warrants for two suspects, and three more pending. He declined to give names out of concern that publishing them would cause the suspects to scatter.

The three get-away cars, which the suspects transferred between in the minutes following the crime as they fled police, were rented from Miami using false identification and fraudulent credit cards, Young said.

Young is narrowing in on those suspects who fled with about $279,000 worth of jewelry taken at gunpoint from traveling salesman Gregory M. George of Melbourne.

“It’s not unusual to not have an arrest (four months later),” said Robert Taylor director of the South American Theft Group Intelligence Network (SATGIN).

Taylor’s nonprofit organization trains law enforcement agencies nationwide — including the Naples Police Department in 2009 — on how to combat organized South American theft groups.

“They’re hard to track,” Taylor said. “They’re transient. They change their names, addresses, identifications, everything. They create false documents and six of these guys can be linked to another cell that can include another 32 criminals.”

“Believe me, (Naples police) have leads on this case,” he said.

George, an employee of the New York-based jewelry manufacturer Frederick Goldman, Inc., could not be reached for comment.

“Mr. George was followed from his residence. He’s taken measures to change his phone number, move,” Young said. “He’s a little unnerved that these guys sat and watched him for a couple weeks.”

George is not the only person to be unnerved by the crime that occurred in the middle of the day in early February.

Thalheimer said he thinks about that day all the time, as do his neighbors. Thalheimer was impressed with what he’s hearing from Naples investigators.

“They are getting close,” he said.

It was the first time Thalheimer, who owns a Fort Myers gun school, ever fired his gun at a human being, he said.

“I’m pretty certain I hit the first guy,” he said. “It took me a couple days to come to grips with that idea.”

Thalheimer attempted to block the suspects from driving out of his parking lot by ramming their vehicle with his truck. He then got out of his truck and began shooting at them.

He said he did everything out of instinct, and, while he said he may not have reacted perfectly, he has no regrets.

“I’ve thought about this a thousand times,” Thalheimer said. “The whole thing took maybe 20 seconds. It’s not like I had time to think ‘I’ll do this and they’ll do this.’”

Nearby business owners said they never thought much about their safety prior to hearing several shots fired in the middle of the day just feet away from the busy traffic of U.S. 41.

“It was just really wild. My 7-year old daughter plays out back just 8-feet from that parking lot,” said Joa Coveney, co-owner of Amazing Pets, a store that is just a few doors down from Thalheimers store.

Coveney was sympathetic with Thalheimer’s decision to return fire with fire, but said it was scary.

“I was (upset),” said Coveney. “For someone to have bullets whizzing by — return fire kills kids too.”

While some fear a return visit, Thalheimer does not.

“I spanked them pretty good,” he said. “I’d like to think these guys wouldn’t mess with me again”

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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