VERO BEACH — The lunchtime armed robbery of an Ocean Drive store last weekend – the first beachside robbery in memory in which the shopkeeper was attacked by the invaders and stunned repeatedly with a Taser gun – reportedly netted the thieves as much as $100,000 in jewelry and has left the oceanside business community more than a bit shaken.
Up and down Ocean Drive, shop owners were reviewing security measures in light of the robbery of Lou Wilson Fine Jewelry, where two robbers – described as white males between 25 and 35 years of age – entered the store not long after the end of the Saturday farmer’s market across the street and confronted the owner, Wilson.
As Wilson attempted to greet them, he was immediately hit with an M26 Taser, which was then cycled two more times.
“Your muscles just all start to quiver and the third shot dropped me,” Wilson said. “I guess they pulled the darts, and they half-carried me and half-pulled me to the safe.”
Wilson said he told the robbers, one blonde and the other dark-haired, that he had insurance and to take what they wanted. As the blonde robber ransacked the safe of rings, pendants and diamonds that Wilson estimates were worth as much as $100,000, customer Lewis Campbell attempted to enter the store.
The thieves had turned the sign around to read the store was closed, and as Campbell tried to enter, he was waved away by Wilson. One of the thieves noticed the interaction, and Wilson informed them he had just talked to Campbell and the customer knew the store was supposed to be open.
As the bandits fled, carrying their loot in a white pillowcase, Wilson said the dark-haired robber said, “I am sorry, sir. Times are tough. We need the money.”
The robbery marked the second time in four months that an oceanside jewelry store had been hit by robbers.
On March 22, Leigh Jewelers was victimized by a white male in his 20s who dashed out of the Ocean Drive store with a ring valued at $29,750 and jumped into a waiting car. And though nothing was taken, police were dispatched in April at 4:15 a.m. to check the back door of WM Dori jewelry store after an alarm went off.
Mark Leigh of Leigh Jewelers instituted use of the buzzer system after his store was robbed. The front door remains locked, and a sales person has to buzz a customer in.
“I hate it,” Leigh said. “I have had the buzzer system for 20 years and never used it until that happened.”
Leigh added that he and his staff have a host of security measures in place, including code words they use if they see something suspicious on the floor.
“You have to be on guard all the time,” he said. “I think this is just a sign of the times, we’ve had three incidents in the last four months all targeted at jewelry stores. Times are tough and Vero Beach has gained a reputation as a place for having some disposable income. I think that has led some people to target us.”
“You have to think of it as a sign of the times,” agreed Seacoast National Bank Senior Branch Manager Sandra Singer, commenting on the heist. “We all have to be careful and watch who comes in through the door, and if anything does happen, we need to follow procedures and everything will be fine.”
“When a 25-year-old kid comes in and starts asking to see $50,000 watches, you need to be ready,” another jeweler who wanted to remain anonymous said. The jeweler said among the security measures he employs are no fewer than nine panic buttons, which can send a silent alarm to police.
Spokesman John Morrison of the Vero Beach Police Department said he would have to check the records, but it was the first beachside armed robbery of a business he could recall.
Wilson, who has been in the jewelry business in Vero Beach for 15 years, estimated the entire episode took about three minutes. For added security, he said he now will keep his door locked during business hours and buzz customers in after he has looked them over.
“It wouldn’t stop somebody from a smash-and-grab, but you can check who is going into your store,” he said. “I don’t like it, but these guys didn’t look right with their dark glasses and hats and it would have stopped them from getting into the store.”
Leigh said he also plans to beef up his store security and is upgrading his surveillance system to include digital video, photo and sound to combat the typically grainy, silent renditions that older systems produce.
One thing he said he would like to see is merchants banding together to help one another after events like the Wilson robbery occur.
“After our incident, I called all the jewelers in town to let them know what had happened,” he said. “I’d like to see us get together, and as we become less isolated from these things, work to have our own network of merchants so we all can know what is going on.”
Officer Morrison said Monday the Vero Beach police were actively investigating the robbery, and declined to speculate as to whether the two robberies might be linked, or if the suspects were locals or out-of-towners.
The first suspect was described as a white male between 25-35 years of age, between 5-foot-10 and 6-2, an average build with dark brown hair and possibly with a goatee. At the time of the robbery he was wearing a straw hat, dark colored button down shirt, light colored shorts and light colored sneakers.
The other suspect was listed as a white male between 25-35 years of age, between 5-8 and 6-foot, a stocky build, blonde with a scruffy beard. At the time of the robbery he was wearing a dark-colored Hurley baseball cap, a Hawaiian palm tree button down shirt, tan cargo shorts and dark colored Converse sneakers.