SAN FRANCISCO — A suspect in this city's record jewel heist -- which netted more than $6 million in rare gem-studded pieces -- allegedly confessed to police that the jewelry store's owner ordered and helped plan the robbery, court testimony revealed Wednesday.
The allegations that Mark Zimmelman orchestrated the April 2003 robbery of Lang Antique and Estate Jewelry came in a preliminary hearing for Dino Smith, 46. Zimmelman denied the allegation.
"Absolutely, positively not," Zimmelman said in a phone interview, noting that he passed a lengthy polygraph exam shortly after the theft and that the alleged account of Smith -- a felon -- cannot be trusted.
The courtroom testimony adds a new twist to a story that could have been written in Hollywood: two charismatic brothers with a notorious criminal past and their years-long journey through the courts that includes disappearing evidence and a stroke of fortune when previous misconduct by police and a defense attorney prompts two overturned convictions.
Zimmelman is no stranger to the Smith brothers: He testified against them more than a dozen years ago after authorities charged him with knowingly buying stolen jewelry from Dino Smith. Zimmelman says he never knew the goods were stolen. Zimmelman also owns upscale Frances Klein Estate Jewels in Beverly Hills.
In the latest chapter, visiting Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ronni B. MacLaren on Wednesday ordered Dino Smith tried on 14 felony charges in connection with the Lang theft, including robbery, burglary and kidnapping for the purposes of robbery.
Smith is one of three suspects whom police contend tunneled through the wall of a vacant restaurant and into the Lang store on the night of April 6, 2003, in the exact spot from where the safes had been moved March 31 during a remodeling.
The drywall gave way easily because it covered a hidden doorway that once existed between the two businesses. The prosecution and defense contend that Zimmelman learned of the hidden doorway days before the robbery, and that he and the store manager ordered the safes moved and had a third safe brought to the store from another building days before that.
The robbers allegedly crawled through the hole late at night and disabled the alarm's motion detector. Then, authorities allege, two of them waited for employees to arrive the next morning and forced them at gunpoint to open the safes.
Dino's brother, Troy Devin Smith, 40, remains at large with a $50,000 reward offered for information leading to his arrest. George Turner, 45, a childhood friend of the Smiths who was arrested with $600,000 of the Lang jewelry, is in custody awaiting a separate hearing. Fingerprint evidence allegedly links Troy Smith and Turner to the scene. A Lang clerk identified Dino Smith in a photo lineup.
Investigators say that Dino Smith waived his Miranda rights and agreed to talk after his arrest in New York City last year, but declined to be tape-recorded. San Francisco Police Lt. Daniel Leydon testified Wednesday that Dino Smith said he was not present for the robbery but admitted that he planned the theft after Zimmelman asked him to. Leydon said Smith also told investigators that Zimmelman requested that Troy Smith participate. Dino Smith met Zimmelman several times over five months to work out the details, he allegedly told police.
Smith's attorney, Jonathan Rutledge, maintained that his client had nothing to do with the robbery. He argued to MacLaren that the eyewitness account, by store clerk Richard Frey, could not be trusted since Frey's recollections of how the suspects were dressed were inconsistent.
Frey also mistakenly picked out San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice in a mock lineup presented to him by a defense investigator last week, before recanting and stating that he did not wish to participate in the exercise, testimony revealed.
Rutledge added that police fabricated the alleged confession by Dino Smith.
"My client says, 'I wasn't there. I didn't do it, and I never said a word to those cops in New York,' " Rutledge said outside court.
MacLaren disagreed. In ordering Dino Smith to stand trial, she said she found Frey to be "an exceptionally conscientious witness."
Dino and Troy Smith are well-known to San Francisco authorities for a series of high-profile trials in the 1990s -- one for a plot to kidnap and possibly kill a flamboyant San Francisco club owner and another for the home-invasion robbery of the widow of a Nicaraguan drug lord. In a similar defense, the brothers argued that the widow hired them to carry out the robbery in the presence of a drug dealer to whom she owed money.
Both convictions were overturned by appellate courts for unrelated reasons. The brothers were retried on the home-invasion robbery case and received lesser sentences.