Tuesday, June 25, 2024

$250,000 lost in Newport Beach smash-and-grab as state earmarks funds to combat retail thefts

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More than $250,000 worth of watches were recently stolen in a brazen smash-and-grab robbery at a Newport Beach jewelry store — the type of retail crime state officials are hoping to crack down on with new grant money to assist local police agencies and prosecutors.

It took less than 20 seconds for a trio in black masks to enter Jewelers on Time on Riverside Avenue, break two display cases and flee with at least three boxes of expensive watches, according to security footage from the incident and interviews with store staff.

Police responded quickly to his call, but Kenny Nguyen, the store’s sales manager who was working during the Sept. 8 daytime robbery, said the robbers were already long gone. He said 23 watches, worth more than $250,000, were stolen.

“Luckily no one was hurt,” Nguyen said. “It could have been worse.”

Steve Oberon, a spokesperson for the Newport Beach Police Department, said no arrests have been made in the case, but the investigation is continuing.

Security camera footage from the incident showed three men in black masks rushing into the store when a fourth man, dressed in plain clothes without a mask, held open the store’s locked door. Nguyen said he initially thought that man was a customer, but it turned out he was part of the group and aided in the robbery.

“We’re in a nice, busy shopping center,” Nguyen said. “We were just kind of surprised it happened because there are always people walking by too.”

Alberto Frosio, the store’s owner for 40 years, said his shop has never before been robbed, but he has been hearing about such crimes happening “more and more.”

Security footage from the Sept. 8 smash-and-grab robbery at Jewelers On Time in Newport Beach.

“The only thing we can do is put more security in our doors,” Frosio said.

A recent wave of grab-and-dash robberies or smash-and-grab burglaries has drawn increased concern from officials and residents in both Orange and Los Angeles counties, and across the state. Last month, a trend of “flash-mob style” thefts — when large groups brazenly ransack businesses — dominated headlines. Authorities said they became popular on social media and the activity spread to other malls and shopping centers nationwide.

While officials are warning that this type of retail crime appears to be becoming more popular, Los Angeles Police crime statistics show that robberies and burglaries this calendar year have fallen compared to 2022 but are up slightly from 2021. Orange County robbery and burglary statistics for this year were not immediately available. Oberon, the Newport police spokesperson, said his department has not documented a rise in such retail thefts.

In 2021, a similar wave of headlines about smash-and-grab thefts also drew increased concern, but robberies across the state actually dropped compared to prior years, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

State and local law enforcement officials say access to new state funds will help better address such retail thefts and robberies, especially those that are linked to larger organized crime — a growing issue that’s been a top concern in recent months.

After a year of reviewing grant applications, the Board of State and Community Corrections this week awarded a total of $267 million to law enforcement agencies and prosecutors across the state to focus on preventing and investigating cases of organized retail theft. The funds, which will be distributed among policing agencies in seven counties and 31 cities as well as 13 district attorneys’ offices, will be made available Oct. 1, state officials said.

“California is investing hundreds of millions of dollars to crack down on organized crime and support local law enforcement,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement this week. “Enough with these brazen smash-and-grabs — we’re ensuring law enforcement agencies have the resources they need to take down these criminals.”

California Highway Patrol Commissioner Sean Duryee said his agency has been helping spearhead an organized retail crimes task force since 2019 focused in San Francisco, L.A. and San Diego, but this new investment will allow that work to expand beyond the state’s largest metro areas.

“This is a sizable investment that will be a force multiplier when it comes to combating organized retail crime in California,” Duryee said at a virtual press conference Thursday.

L.A. County Asst. Sheriff Holly Francisco said her agency was thrilled to be awarded the roughly $16 million it requested. The Los Angeles Police Department was awarded a similar grant.

“It’s unacceptable for residents to feel apprehensive about shopping in our communities,” Francisco said at the press conference. “We’re pleased that the state recognized that these crime sprees and criminals are affecting all of our communities.”

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department was awarded about $15 million and its district attorney’s office $2 million, while police departments in Anaheim, Brea, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica were awarded $5 million to $6 million.

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