It was “Ocean’s Eleven” meets “Fargo.”
Thieves allegedly tailed a van of jewelers 350 miles from a Chicago trade show — then nabbed them at an interstate rest stop near Rochester and escaped with at least $500,000 in jewels.
Authorities are still searching for the suspects, who abandoned their own van a mile up the interstate.
“It happened pretty quick,” said Capt. Scott Behrns of the Olmsted County Sheriff’s Office. “We’re talking 90 seconds and this deal was done.”
He said authorities responded to a disturbance at the Marion rest stop on I-90 just after midnight on Monday. Behrns said a man there told police that he and six employees had been traveling back from a jewelry trade show in Chicago when they pulled into the rest stop so that five could go inside and use the bathroom. The other two in the group stayed in the van, according to Behrns.
A yellow and orange van sped up next to them and four men dressed in black jumped out, smashed the victims’ windows and grabbed several suitcases filled with jewelry and loose diamonds, Behrns said. Witnesses didn’t report seeing any weapons.
The driver of the victims’ van put the vehicle in reverse and hit the side of the suspects’ van.
The Olmsted County Sheriff’s Office isn’t releasing the identities of the victims or where they’re from in an effort to protect them.
“He’s pretty shaken up,” Behrns said of the diamond dealer who reported the robbery.
Behrns and several people in the jewelry business suggested that the scheme was likely orchestrated by professionals who may have monitored the group over a long time.
“Unfortunately, it’s not as unusual as you might think,” said Bob Church, manager of Lasker Jewelers in Rochester. “Almost every traveling salesperson I know has either been robbed once — some more than once — or they felt pretty sure they were being followed.”
Church said that for salespeople, traveling with a lot of jewelry makes it difficult to stop while on the road.
“It’s dangerous work,” said Church.
It isn’t clear what kind of security the trade show van had, though some salespeople transporting jewelry hire off-duty cops as protection.
At Wisconsin-based Jewelers Mutual Insurance Co., director of loss prevention Mark Cumicek said his preferred transportation for jewelers traveling from trade shows is an armored car service.
“There are organized groups that definitely target the jewelry industry and this is an example,” Cumicek said. “… They target jewelry trade shows because they’re advertised, they know there’s value, they know there’s people in the industry. It’s certainly not uncommon.”
The FBI, which is investigating the case, says jewelry and gem thefts often cross state boundaries and are increasingly committed by organized crime operations, including South American gangs.
Acknowledging that three states was a long distance to follow someone, Behrns said a half-million dollars offered enough incentive for criminals.
“If your uncle called you in Chicago and said, ‘I’m going to give you $500,000 before I die,’ would you drive down there?” he said. “I would.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.