By Michael E. Miller
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It is a creepy feeling, knowing these masked men have cased you for weeks, studying your every move. Leon Rozio had crossed paths with their kind before — highly organized South American theft gangs that employ sophisticated surveillance and commando-style assault tactics.
Rozio, age 64, is one of a dying breed of independent jewel dealers, and part of his work involves ferrying tiny amounts of precious gems. A typical load easily runs into the six figures. This time South American jewel thieves had followed him from Miami, along the toll roads and through the SunPass lanes, all the way to the parking lot of St. Moritz Jewelers in Boca Raton. If he'd known they were behind him, he could have headed straight for the nearest police station, praying for green lights and no traffic. But he hadn't an inkling.
On this day, May 7, the owner of H&L Wholesale was transporting on the floorboard of his Ford Explorer a $100,000 bag of jewels. That's about three times what he takes home in a year. For independent, self-employed traveling salesmen such as Rozio, this is how it's done — with his head on a swivel and his eyes on the rearview mirror. Rozio can't afford security guards; he can't even afford to insure the cargo he takes from jewelry store to jewelry store while hawking colored stones and diamonds for a slim return. He worries about the risks. But what can he do?
It turns out, more than anyone ever expected.
Rozio must have dropped his guard for a moment, because he didn't notice the Saturn SUV pull up behind him. He didn't see the four masked men filing out of the vehicle, lining themselves up on either side of his truck. Everything happened so quickly he didn't see the blunt instruments that shattered the rear passenger window or whatever they used to bust the front side windows that imploded into his lap. He did see the man wearing a black T-shirt wrapped around his face like a Palestinian kidnapper lunge through the window and grab the duffel bag on the floor.
That's when Rozio reacted. He gripped the thief's shirt and held on tightly. The masked man pulled Rozio across the seat as the thief yanked his own body and the bag of jewels out the passenger window. Rozio hung on and wouldn't let go even as shards of glass gouged his hands. The crook finally wrenched himself from Rozio's grasp and hopped into the waiting Saturn.
Then Rozio did something the cops would never in a thousand years recommend. He had been robbed before, and a 911 call from a passerby gives the impression Rozio wasn't going to let it happen again. The former Army infantryman drew a 9mm Luger and chased the Saturn out of the parking lot on foot, his short, wavy gray hair fluttering in the breeze.
911 Caller: There's a shooting at Town Square. The man's running with a gun. He's shot three times. He's a gray-haired man with a brown shirt.
Operator: He shot three times?
911 Caller: He's running towards the Wendy's right now. He just shot again ... again ... again....
Operator: Lots of fire?
911 Caller: Still shooting, yes, he's still shooting.
As the Saturn tore out of the parking lot, Rozio opened fire, pumping anywhere from four to six rounds into the rear driver's-side tire and into the driver's window.
911 Caller: He shot somebody in a car. He shot the glass out. He's still shooting....
The driver, a young man dressed head to foot in black, threw the SUV into reverse. Three of the robbers leapt from the vehicle and ran. One of them staggered somewhere toward St. Andrews Boulevard. The Saturn sped northbound through the parking lot toward the nearby Wendy's, where it came to a stop. Blood was smeared across the back end, suggesting that at least one of the others had been hit. Inside, the getaway driver, a young man named Wilmar Sierra-Perez, bled onto the seat cushion. He died soon after arriving at the Delray Medical Center. The other suspects fled in a silver minivan.
It was only then, when Rozio closed his hands, that he noticed they were sticky. The trembling hands of the man with the short, wavy gray hair and the gentle, worn face — somebody's grandpa — were dripping with blood.
Family members would claim Sierra-Perez's body. Yet more than three months after the robbery, the Boca Raton Police Department has refused to release information about the case, citing an ongoing investigation. Rozio, on the advice of attorney Bill Matthewman, declined to discuss details of the shooting until police investigators file their report with the State Attorney's Office in Palm Beach County. Rozio could face charges in connection with the shooting.
Trade organizations such as the Jewelers' Security Alliance say law enforcement is finally getting a handle on off-premises jewel theft — despite a $7 million jump in goods stolen in 2007 to $39.5 million. Experts tracking gangs of jewel thieves, however, dispute claims these organized crime rings are coming under control.
"Crime's down?" Robert Taylor, director of the South American Theft Group Intelligence Network (SATGIN), a jewel theft information clearinghouse, asks incredulously. "Bullshit. There's no way it's down. That's a false sense of security. Wouldn't you say this is the most active year we've had?" Taylor asks Jeff Frau, a recently retired Miami-Dade Police detective and educational coordinator for SATGIN.