In march 2019, the retired police detective Mike Crowley met me in the lobby of a hotel near the Miami Dolphins’ stadium. Crowley, a 71-year-old Vietnam vet, was wearing shorts, a white undershirt, and a camouflage baseball hat that said marine in block caps. Over the course of three hours, he sipped a single rum and Coke.
Four years earlier, Crowley said, he’d noticed a pattern in a string of jewelry-store robberies happening all over Florida: The same means of entry had been used every time. As he spoke, I eyed a large stack of paperwork teetering on the table in front of us, including thick folders labeled drill team in black marker.
At first, Crowley had had multiple suspects for these crimes. He walked me through a laundry list of itinerant safecrackers who had passed through Florida in recent years, pulling off heists in various cities throughout the state. Florida, seen through Crowley’s eyes, is a migratory stopover for the most elite burglars and safe teams. If you rob banks because they’re where the money is, you rob Florida because it’s where the jewels are. The retirees are covered in them, the newlyweds fawn over them in palatial beachside shops, and the tourists haul them home to remember the romance of a special trip.
The police reports Crowley showed me made the burglars sound like ghosts. At one crime scene, detectives found a single footprint left behind in the drywall dust. At another, investigators were reduced to watching hours of traffic-cam footage, trying to decipher the robbers’ movements based solely on headlights reflecting off the back of nearby buildings. In a frustrating near-miss, a baker came to work at 4 a.m.—while a burglary was under way—and parked his car close to where the perpetrators had stationed their own vehicles. Unfortunately, he saw and heard nothing. In some cases, the target store’s air conditioning would be cranked up, which police later surmised was the thieves’ way of avoiding leaving DNA behind in their sweat. One store was so cold when the owner showed up the next morning that the windows had fogged up like a winter holiday display.
Across their six-year run, what appeared to be the same crew committed a virtually identical crime over and over again, Crowley explained. They targeted jewelry stores in strip malls, usually on the edges of small towns whose local police had not yet experienced this kind of sophisticated burglary. The crew struck in the middle of the night, sidestepping stores’ advanced alarm systems with an electronic jamming device. The crew also picked targets that shared a wall with a business that had no real reason to install an alarm of its own. It might be a travel agency, where customers rarely, if ever, paid cash, or a nail salon; an empty storefront was also ideal. They would break into the neighboring business, and then cut entirely new doors through the walls and step through to the jewelry stores. The crew earned Crowley’s nickname—the “Drill Team”—by cracking supposedly impenetrable safes in record time, often drilling just one precise hole. They seemed to have an intimate knowledge of every make and model on the market.
A savvy burglar knows that opportunities for crime are often designed directly into the built environment; architecture itself can be a source of vulnerability. A business protected by even the most advanced alarm system can still be betrayed by something as simple as a repetitive floor plan shared with neighboring storefronts, Crowley explained. Casing one place means casing the other. This Florida group also found that the bathrooms of adjacent stores are often placed back-to-back to take advantage of shared plumbing and that, for reasons of privacy, each bathroom would be free of cameras and other alarms. The use of cheap, insecure building materials to separate one shop from its neighbor—just some two-by-fours and drywall—meant that getting from one business into the next was trivial. All the crew really needed was a handsaw in order to safely emerge in the bathroom of a neighboring jewelry store within minutes.
Read more about the rise and fall of an all-star crowd of jewel thieves on TheAtlanta.com website HERE