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Cabbie Has Brush With 6-Figure Tip

His rider left behind a small bag. Inside was $350,000 in diamonds. They've been returned.

November 18, 2005|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer

In the end, no one seemed to think it was a big deal: a bag left behind, a bag recovered, a bag returned to its rightful owner.

Simple as that -- except that this bag contained some of the most valuable lost items Lt. Richard Hinkle had ever seen in all his years with the Los Angeles International Airport Police: $350,000 worth of cut diamonds.

The story of diamonds lost and returned by a taxi driver began Wednesday afternoon, when Heider Sediqi, 40, picked up a passenger from the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

He was an older man in business attire, and one of those passengers who preferred not to chat. Sediqi pulled his Checker cab to the curb at LAX, let the man out and thought no more about it.

He went to get gas. He went to the car wash.

Cleaning the car, he noticed something in the back seat: a small, brown pouch, zippered and plain. He stashed it in the front, thinking he'd deal with it later.

And there the bag sat in Sediqi's cab as it rolled through the car wash, then was wiped clean by workers.

It was still sitting unopened as Sediqi picked up a fare and drove to Long Beach; still there when Sediqi met a fellow cabby, Shafi Shalizy, for a quick lunch.

He told his friend he'd have to figure out how to return the bag and left him to ponder it as he went to the restroom.

When Sediqi returned, the bag was open and Shalizy was agape. "Oh, God," Sediqi recalled his friend saying, staring into the bag. "Look at those things."

There were several clear plastic boxes of cut diamonds in the bag, carefully mounted in Styrofoam. A fortune's worth. "Unbelievable," Sediqi recalled thinking.

A father of two with a pregnant wife, Sediqi is originally from Afghanistan and a self-described "hard worker." He has a dream of quitting his taxi job to go into the restaurant business.

But none of this was in his mind at that moment. He recalled thinking, "How am I going to catch that guy?"

Sediqi and Shalizy found a cellphone bill in the bag and called the number. Sediqi willed himself to sound nonchalant. A man answered. "Um," Sediqi said. "Did you leave anything?"

"Oh, my God," said the voice on the phone.

Jewelry businessman Eric Austein had not yet flown out of LAX to go back to New York. Sediqi arranged to meet him at the airport police station.

Sediqi had a friend at the station: Hinkle, his next-door neighbor in the South Bay.

Hinkle had always noticed what a "humble, honest gentleman" Sediqi seemed. He wasn't surprised when Sediqi told him the story. Just a day's work.

Hinkle assigned Officer Loretta Jones to inventory the diamonds. When Austein arrived, Sediqi identified him for Jones as the passenger.

Jones noticed that Austein seemed a bit nervous as he waited for her to photograph the jewels and confirm his identity. He paced.

But mostly, all described the proceedings as perfunctory. The diamonds were all there. Austein took possession of them, calm and businesslike.

He checked the bag. Then he turned back to Jones. He had been feeling low lately, she recalled Austein saying -- thinking, "Everything is going to pot."

He spoke of the war, of Hurricane Katrina.

But Jones said he told her before leaving: "This one simple act -- this one man's act -- makes it all worthwhile."

Sediqi went home to tell his wife, who loves gems. He shrugged off a suggestion that he might have acted otherwise.

Other people's jewels are "not what you earned," he said lightly. "Someone else earned that."

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