An hour before the Pico Rivera Indoor Swap Meet was to close last Thursday night, several young men ran to a jewelry store near the entrance.
Dressed in hooded sweatshirts and armed with only hammers, the men smashed jewelry cases and quickly fled with an estimated $15,000 in jewelry, most of it gold, witnesses later told Los Angeles County sheriff's investigators.
It was the second such robbery in Pico Rivera in recent weeks and part of a larger region-wide robbery spree, authorities said.
Since at least October, members of gangs in the Los Angeles area have been traveling to small and mid-size towns throughout Southern California, robbing largely unprotected jewelry stores and jewelry marts, authorities said.
Anaheim, El Monte, Fullerton, Glendale, Huntington Park, Pasadena, Santa Ana, Brea and Placentia have reported robberies nearly identical to the one in Pico Rivera in the last three months, police said.
In Los Angeles' jewelry district, smash-and-grab robberies "have been going on for years," said Los Angeles Police Det. Al Rasch, who investigates robberies in downtown L.A.
"It seems … to be getting more press now because it's happening in the outlying areas of L.A.," he said.
It also appears to have become a fashionable crime among some of South Los Angeles' gangs. Other departments report arresting members of the Rolling 60s Crips and Project Crips from South L.A. and Denver Lane Crips of Pasadena in the robberies.
One factor is the price of gold, police said. It has climbed as the recession sent investors searching for a safe place to put their money and now sells for just under $1,400 an ounce.
Another factor is that many suburban stores and jewelry marts don't have much security and aren't accustomed to these kinds of attacks.
"Most of the places don't have a security guard. They're in and out in less than minute," said Fullerton police Sgt. Mike Chlebowski. Gangs "have realized that, because of the skyrocketing price of gold, that this is easy to do."
Once such robbery occurred on Oct. 21, when nine men in three cars pulled up to a jewelry mart in the Metrocenter Fullerton Shopping Center. Six of them emerged wearing hooded sweatshirts and armed with heavy hammers. They ran in and smashed cases in three jewelry kiosks, Chlebowski said.
Owners reported losing more than $500,000 in jewelry, he said.
The Fullerton robbers even had two more men in a separate car ready to create a distraction should police arrive during the robbery, Chlebowski said.
With bulletins about the robbery circulating regionally, Santa Fe Springs police officers later that evening noticed 11 men coming out of a motel room in that town and were able to detain three of them. Eventually, five of the suspected robbers were arrested in the Fullerton case, all Project Crips members from Los Angeles, Chlebowski said.
Fullerton police have since been meeting with jewelry store owners to urge them to improve security, he said.
In most instances, the robbers appear without guns. When clerks in the Fullerton jewelry mart realized this, Chlebowski said, they "began throwing chairs and objects at the guys to get them to leave."
In addition to the Fullerton case, police have arrested suspected robbers in Pasadena, Glendale, Santa Ana and other areas.
Better video surveillance technology has helped in the apprehensions, said the LAPD's Rasch. "The cost of equipment has gone down substantially," while the quality has risen.
But in many cases, the arrests result from the pure brazenness of the suspects, authorities said.
Last month, Glendale police arrested three people and charged them with being among six who went into a jewelry mart on busy Brand Boulevard at lunchtime and smashed display cases.
With vehicle descriptions from witnesses, police tracked the suspects to a location on the 105 Freeway, where they were arrested.
During a chase after a Pasadena smash-and-grab last month, which led to the closure of offramps from the 110 Freeway and the arrest of four men, a youth who apparently had eluded police posted a Twitter feed taunting them for not being able to catch him, according to residents near the freeway who saw the feed while police helicopters hovered overhead.