Annamarie Crescini had just finished lunch three blocks from her Hayward home last July when someone ripped a beloved possession from her neck -- a gold chain with a jade pendant she had treasured for 20 years.
"He asked me if I could spare 50 cents to help him buy groceries," Crescini said. "I told him I didn't have that, but I had a dollar, and he snatched the necklace as I was holding it out. And he still took the dollar."
Though she didn't know it at the time, Crescini, a 49-year-old woman of Filipino descent, was one of the latest targets of a prolific gang of thieves who admit to "hunting" residents of Indian, Filipino and Latino descent for their high-quality necklaces.
And police data confirms that women of Indian, Filipino and Latino descent are being robbed of gold chain necklaces at a higher rate than other ethnicities, Hayward police detective Michael O'Connell said.
Five of seven suspected members of the "chain-snatching bandits," as one suspect called the gang in his confession, have been arrested to date, all men between the ages of 18 and 20 from Oakland, Hayward, Union City, Fremont and Richmond. The group maintains ties to an Oakland gang, and are connected to other gold-chain robberies in Fremont and possibly Union City.
Though they have been charged with only four robberies thus far, the gang is believed to be involved in at least 18 other robberies that remain under investigation, Hayward police detective Michael O'Connell said. The numbers show them to be responsible for the bulk of the city's gold thefts, which accounted for 15 percent of the city's total robberies between May 16 and Dec. 7.
Police data also suggests that the suspects aren't deterred by daylight, Hayward Sgt. Eric Krimm said. Of the 28 gold thefts reported between May 16 and Dec. 7, none occurred before 8 a.m. or after 7 p.m. The pattern suggests the thieves, along with knowing when their most vulnerable victims are likely to be on the streets, prefer to act when they can get rid of an item quickly--during cash-for-gold business hours, police said.
Turning a stolen item into cash quickly
The thieves will often grab the chain and make a beeline for the nearest cash-for-gold store in one fell swoop, cashing in on the precious metal within a few minutes' time, Hayward Lt. Roger Keener said.
"They steal it on one corner, and two corners away they're getting rid of it for cash," Keener said. "It's tantamount to going to an ATM, only it's not their money."
Police say the impetus for stealing gold jewelry is enabled by the business end of the transaction, as retailers, some without a license to sell, can pay pennies on the dollar for high-quality gold as the cost per ounce continues to skyrocket. One suspect admitted to receiving only $500 for a chain that police later found to be valued at $3,000.
"It's not that these businesses are catering only to robbery suspects, but because it's so lucrative right now, it does make it easier for thieves to get the gold through robbery and get rid of it quickly," Keener said.
State regulations require retailers to photograph the item, obtain proper ID and keep the item for 30 days before turning it for sale.
"If we can bring them into compliance or stop them from operating illegally then we've reduced the opportunity," Keener said. "If these places aren't so prolific, it's a supply and demand thing."
A three-pronged approach
Keener describes the police response to the gold-snatching epidemic as a three-pronged approach: ensuring compliance with secondhand dealer requirements; identifying groups who are doing the robberies; and educating residents to avoid victimization.
"I would love people to stop displaying their chains so we can protect them--for the most part, it's a crime of opportunity," O'Connell said. "If something like this happens, be a good witness and try to see as much as you can and be distinct. What they said, how they looked, where they went, and vehicles associated."
When she was robbed, Crescini watched helplessly as her attacker stumbled backward, ran across the street and almost got hit by a car. The suspect, identified as Joseph Kelly, 20, of Richmond, was arrested by Hayward police, but the necklace was never recovered.
Crescini, a medical records technician who requires a cane to walk, was thankful for her safety but came away with a newfound fear of walking alone. She urges residents to be aware of their surroundings.
"Personal safety: Treasure it, please." Crescini said. "He didn't just take my necklace. He took my sense of personal safety as well. I hope it was worth it."