"How about the nose?" Police Detective Emmett G. Badar asked.
An intense Khatchik Djigardjian, whose wholesale jewelry company had been hit the day before by a team of armed robbers, studied the crude beginnings of a composite picture of one suspect.
The detective prodded him. "A broader nose? Skinnier nose? Longer nose?"
"I don't remember that nose," Djigardjian said finally.
Scarcely 24 hours after Djigardjian and six others were handcuffed and gagged by two intruders who threatened to shoot them, Los Angeles Police Department investigators were on the trail Thursday at Djigardjian's Rope Mine Corp. in the city's vast jewelry district.
The case promised to be a challenging \o7 whodunnit. \f7 It was Djigardjian, 42, who opened the door to the robbers in the belief that they were customers. They made off with an estimated $1 million.
But Djigardjian said he could not recall the taller suspect at all. He was hazy about the shorter one, recalling the man's eyes, hair and lips, but not his nose, forehead or sideburns.
"It was so fast," Djigardjian said with frustration. "I cannot say, 'That's him, go and get him.' "
Detectives said the robbery, the largest in the jewelry district in years, could take months to solve--if indeed it is ever solved. But they said a rough composite sketch, fingerprints from the scene and a fuzzy videotape taken from a security camera in the lobby of the jewelry building had provided a good start.
In the days ahead, investigators said, they hope that laboratory analyses will determine exactly what fingerprints they have, enabling them to run a computer search to try to match them to identities. They also hope that artificial enhancement of the videotape or improvements in Djigardjian's composite picture will give them a passable image of one suspect, a balding, thick-lipped man who was described as Asian or Middle-Eastern.
Badar, a detective for 18 years, punctuated an hour of tedious questioning by asking Djigardjian if he could recognize the suspect in a police lineup.
"Sure," the company owner said.
The detective said vital information was somewhere in Djigardjian's memory. "We have to get it out," Badar said patiently. "All the questions are directed at one thing--to get something out of you that you don't realize you remember."
Before leaving Rope Mine Corp.'s offices at 610 S. Broadway, detectives conceded that they face potential roadblocks. It is possible--perhaps even likely--that the suspects have fled town. The stolen gold--in the form of 24-carat gold dust, 14-carat bars and 14-carat jewelry chain--is easily transported or sold.
"No way to trace it," Detective C. E. Gordon said.
Sources within the nation's second-largest jewelry district said it is possible that the gold already is changing hands in other forms.
"I would guess that anybody who took this material will just melt it down into ingots . . . and sell it as scrap," said Nelson Colton of A-Mark Precious Metals Inc., a leading wholesaler. "Gold melts at a reasonably low temperature. You can almost melt gold in your kitchen."
Actually, it would require a hot furnace to bring the metal to its 1,900-degree melting point, but professional refiners routinely carry out such work in large cities. Once melted, the same gold could be sold for more than 95% of its market value--$406 an ounce on Thursday--at any number of small shops in the jewelry district that advertise that they buy gold, Colton said.
"You can go down to the Hill Street area, you'll probably see a lot of signs of people who will buy gold," he said.
Police, however, said the gold's liquidity should not jeopardize the hunt.
"It would be nice to (recover) some of the property, but it's not necessary," said LAPD Lt. Robert Kurth, the commanding officer handling the investigation. "What we need for successful prosecution is to establish that the crime was committed and that those (suspects) are the people who committed the crime."
Insiders believe that the robbery was carried out by men with at least some knowledge of the jewelry trade. If that is true, police hope the composite picture will be recognized by someone within the district, where about 2,000 merchants, wholesalers and manufacturers occupy about a dozen high-rise buildings, regularly buying and selling from each other.
"These guys all know each other," Badar said. "It's a very close-knit community."
Moussa Hassid, business manager of the Los Angeles Jewelry Center, a building that contains about 200 different jewelers, said it is true that "a lot of people in the trade . . . know almost everybody."
On the other hand, new faces enter the district daily, he said. The thieves easily could be from jewelry centers elsewhere.
"This is a big country," Hassid said. "You have so many jewelry districts throughout the United States."
Kurth said police already are asking law-enforcement agencies nationwide for information that might turn up. Conceivably, he said, the same two robbers are wanted for crimes elsewhere, where perhaps their identities are known. If investigators get lucky, they may be apprehended on some unrelated charge, found out and extradited to California.
"It could take anywhere from a few days," Kurth said of the hunt, "to a few years."