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public safety

Anatomy of a robbery: St. Helena Police analyze last week's Rolex heist

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ST. HELENA -- There have been no arrests in connection with the Sept. 3 armed robbery at David’s Jewelers, which led to a manhunt that put St. Helena schools on lockdown.

Despite the unsuccessful search, which was hampered by a car accident and two reports of suspicious activity that weren’t reported until hours later, St. Helena police followed all the proper procedures, St. Helena Police Chief Jackie Rubin said Monday.

Police are still pursuing a few leads, Rubin said. An agent from the FBI is looking into whether the crime could be related to similar heists in Santa Rosa, but so far “they don’t think they’re connected at all, other than the similar (modus operandi),” Rubin said.

“(The FBI) says there’s a pattern of these going on throughout the state,” Rubin said, adding that in one incident a suspect escaped after being shot by the store owner.

Police have already ruled out any connection to the unsolved Jan. 24 strong-arm robbery of Footcandy, based largely on the differing modi operandi, Rubin said.

At Tuesday's City Council meeting, Mayor Ann Nevero praised the police department's response time and investigation, acknowledging that there have been "a lot of rumors" around town surrounding the incident.

"Job well done," Nevero said. "From San Francisco to Santa Rosa, (police) can't always catch these criminals even when they're wounded and bleeding. I think that we responded remarkably well."

According to Rubin, the initial report came in at 11:13 a.m. on Sept. 3, from a woman who’d seen a tan Dodge Caravan park in the red zone in front of David's Jewelers.

"When she saw two black males bail from (the van) and run into David's, she knew something was amiss, so she ran to get her cell phone," Rubin told the City Council Tuesday. "She came out and videotaped and took pictures of the suspects as they were leaving ... and then she called 911."

The two men are described as black and in their 20s wearing blue jeans and black hoodies. One was about 6 feet tall and the other was about 5 feet 10 inches. The two reportedly entered the jewelry store, one of them brandishing a handgun, and ordered the two people inside to get on the floor.

They smashed a few display cases and stole between 20 and 25 Rolex watches. Rubin said the department hadn’t received a detailed list of the stolen items and their value.

The men were in and out of the store in about 30 seconds, she said. They seemed to be targeting specific merchandise, which has led police to believe the crime was planned rather than spontaneous.

The initial call came to police at 11:13 a.m. Dispatch took down the information and relayed it to police at 11:14. Twelve seconds later, the first St. Helena police car arrived on the scene, Rubin said. A second marked police car arrived 25 seconds after the first one.

Police got a report that the men’s van was headed south on Main Street, so two police cars headed in that direction. Another police car headed for Pope Street in case the suspects were headed toward Silverado Trail.

Search begins

At 11:17 a.m., a caller reported seeing the men in some bushes on Madrona Avenue near Oak Avenue. Rubin now believes the they had probably turned right on Spring Street, then turned right again to head north on Oak Avenue before abandoning the van on Pine Street.

An officer responded to Madrona. Two minutes after the Madrona call, he talked to a witness who'd seen the two running east on Pine Street. That suggested to police that the men were headed back toward the Main Street area, but it later turned out the witness had apparently meant to say the men were headed west, toward Oak Avenue.

Meanwhile, in response to the Madrona report, the two officers heading south on Main had made U-turns and were headed north toward the Main/Adams intersection. They wound up right behind Rubin, who was driving her personal car equipped with lights and a siren. All three cars had their lights and sirens on as they reached the red light at the intersection.

Despite the green light, cross traffic on Adams Street had stopped for the sirens. But the driver of the second car in line on eastbound Adams Street turned her white SUV into the oncoming lane to get around the car ahead of her and enter the intersection on the green light, Rubin said. The driver later told police she'd heard the sirens but couldn't see where they were coming from.

Crash

Rubin, whose view of the SUV was blocked by a car in the left-hand turn lane to her left, was also entering the intersection. At 11:20, Rubin’s car hit the SUV, pushing it to the left and causing it to knock down a traffic light in front of the Chevron station in the northeast corner of the intersection. Rubin stopped her car in the gas station lot.

Contrary to rumors, nobody was hurt in the crash, neither of the vehicles' airbags deployed, emergency personnel did not have to use the Jaws of Life to extricate the driver from the SUV, and the accident was not a diversion intended to slow down police, Rubin said.

She said the California Highway Patrol is investigating the crash, but since it appears that the driver of the SUV was at fault for failing to yield to emergency traffic, it’s likely that her insurance company, not the city, will be financially responsible for the accident, which totaled Rubin's car.

An officer responded to the scene of the crash, where traffic lights were now flashing red in all directions. The two police cars that had been behind Rubin were delayed 20 seconds by the crash before continuing north to search for the men.

Search continues

At 11:20, a witness told an officer he'd seen the men running north on Oak Avenue toward Madrona Avenue. At the time the witness declined to provide his name or offer further information.

At 11:21, police found a black hoodie on Madrona, in the parking lot of the American Legion Hall, that matched the description of what the men had been wearing. At 11:27, police found the men’s van abandoned on Pine Street near Main.

As the search continued, St. Helena police notified local schools and issued a Nixle text/email alert at 12:10. Schools and the St. Helena Library voluntarily went on lockdown by 12:30. The lockdown was lifted an hour later.

Meanwhile, neighboring law enforcement agencies were arriving to help the five St. Helena police officers who were already on duty.

From the Calistoga Police Department, Chief Mitch Celaya and a police dog unit responded. After being given the scent of the black hoodie, the dog headed down Main Street, leading police to believe the men might have walked down Main Street earlier in the day before committing the robbery.

Five CHP units responded, including a CHP helicopter that arrived in St. Helena at 12:18.

In addition to the 12 initial police responders, three law enforcement personnel have been involved in the follow-up: two investigators from the Napa County Sheriff’s Office who processed the car and the hoodie as evidence, and the FBI agent investigating a possible link to the Santa Rosa robberies.

Despite the heavy police presence, the men were not found. Police called off the search at 2:30, concluding that the two had left town. It wasn’t until later that they got two reports that might have aided the search.

Late reports

At 3:30 p.m., a man came to the police department and said that between 11:25 and 11:35 a.m. he’d seen two white or light-skinned black men running up Madrona Avenue and getting into an unoccupied white American-made four-door mid-sized car that was double-parked on the north side of Madrona near Scott Street, with its lights on.

Details were vague and the timing was slightly off, but the incident's location was consistent with the 11:17 report of men in the bushes on Madrona. Rubin said that if the men did use the white car to leave town, it had to have been double-parked on Madrona for at least 11 minutes with its lights on while the robbery was being committed.

At 4:46 p.m., police received a report that suggests a possible alternate theory: at about 1:30 a black man matching the description of one of the suspects had been seen coming out of the creekbed near Gott’s Roadside.

The Dodge Caravan found on Pine Street hasn’t produced any useful leads, Rubin said. It belongs to an Oakland resident, and had not been reported stolen. The owner told Oakland police she hadn’t seen the Caravan since it was towed six months ago, Rubin said. Police haven’t found any records of the car being towed, and the owner never made an effort to reclaim it.

Police have filed a written request with the Department of Motor Vehicles for records that could shed light on the car’s recent history, Rubin said.

On Monday, the witness who'd seen the men running north on Oak Avenue contacted police again after reading about the crime in the paper. He still refused to provide his name, but Rubin said he "gave more detailed information that has been extremely helpful and could lead to a possible ID. He still remains anonymous ... although we did get a contact number for him."

"He stated, and I quote, 'I didn't want to call at the time because I didn't want to call out two black guys in St. Helena,'" Rubin told the council.

Prevention

Rubin, City Manager Jennifer Phillips and Nevero met with local jewelers on Friday to talk about crime prevention and hear the jewelers' concerns.

Rubin mentioned three preventive methods high-end jewelers can use to prevent robberies: install a buzzer and require customers to sign in before entering the store, maintain quality video surveillance systems, and keep the most expensive merchandise hidden away and made available only upon request.

The last method is especially advisable for Rolexes, which are more frequently targeted during robberies than other pieces of jewelry, Rubin said. David’s had just started carrying Rolexes, she added.

“If there’s a buzz-in door and your Rolexes aren’t displayed, they’re not going to hit you,” Rubin said.

Of course, merchants should always call the police at the first sign of suspicious behavior, Rubin said. For example, Footcandy has been able to thwart habitual shoplifters by alerting the police whenever they enter the store, she said.

Phillips and Rubin will host a public meeting at 9 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 17, at the St. Helena Fire Department for any business owners or concerned citizens who want to talk about safety and security.

David Clark, proprietor of David's Jewelers, declined comment.

Lessons

Rubin said there are several ways the public can aid future investigations. First, “if you see suspicious activity, report it immediately, regardless of the description of the suspects,” Rubin said.

Judge whether a person is suspicious based on their actions, not their race or physical appearance, she said. Don’t worry about being discriminatory just because a suspicious person is non-white. Police dispatchers are trained to ask the pertinent follow-up questions to obtain a proper description, Rubin said.

“People say all the time, ‘I didn’t want to sound like I was discriminating against that person. I knew it looked suspicious, but I didn’t want to make the call,’” Rubin said.

Second, go to nixle.com and sign up for Nixle text and email alerts of urgent police-related matters, such as road closures and major crimes. When the CHP helicopter was circling overhead, police got calls asking why it was there, even though a Nixle alert about the robbery and manhunt had been issued at 12:10, eight minutes before the helicopter arrived.

“If you hear the helicopter overhead, do not call dispatch to ask why it’s there,” Rubin said. “The phone was ringing off the hook with people asking about the helicopter, and we don’t have time to answer those questions in the middle of an investigation.”

Third, lock the doors and windows of your house whenever you leave. After the Nixle alert was issued, police received numerous calls from people who were out of town but wanted police to check their unsecured houses.

“That took us away from the investigation,” Rubin said. “So we would encourage people to lock their doors and windows when they leave."

"Otherwise we’ll have to come and search their house. We might let those calls pend for about an hour, but eventually we’re going to have to search all those houses," especially if they’re in the area where the suspects were believed to be, she said.

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St. Helena Editor

Jesse has been a reporter for the St. Helena Star since 2006. He became editor in 2021.

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