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FBI: Ring pulls off $5M in mall heists

'Gate Cutters' are suspected of hitting 56 stores in 31 months

From Terry Frieden

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The alleged burglars are seen walking through a mall in this security video released by the FBI.

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Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The FBI on Thursday asked for help in apprehending members of the "Gate Cutters Jewelry Crew," which authorities say has made off with more than $5.1 million in jewelry and gems from 56 stores along the East Coast.

The agency has offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the crew's members. It also released photos, sketches and surveillance video in hopes of catching the sophisticated ring that has burglarized closed jewelry stores in shopping malls from Florida to New Hampshire.

The burglaries have spanned 10 or 12 states and have targeted 16 different companies over the past 31 months, according to an FBI press release.

"They're in and out in four minutes," said Assistant FBI Director Chris Swecker, who announced the formation of a Gate Cutters Task Force.

As FBI officials were preparing Wednesday to announce the establishment of the task force, the thieves struck again -- this time at a mall store in Bay Shore, New York.

The crew appears to consist of four or five people who employ surveillance techniques, circumvent security systems and even disable mall security vehicles during their heists, Swecker said. Officials say the core crew may have help from outside "cells," but declined to elaborate.

"They're operating with impunity on the East Coast," Swecker said. "It's not an accident they haven't been caught. There's a real level of sophistication here."

The crew's first job came in April 2003 at a Hicksville, New York, store and has continued without interruption. Most of the robberies took place in the Northeast, but stores in the Southeastern United States have been increasingly targeted recently. Authorities believe the crew may have plans to move into the Midwest.

The crew is probably New York-based, and it tends to hit malls near highways to ensure a speedy getaway, investigators said. Witnesses have said the crew makes its getaway in a van or SUV, according to an FBI press release.

In almost every robbery, the thieves used special tools to cut the roll-down gates to closed mall stores, hence the group's name. Most stores were hit just after closing or just before opening, while patrons were still milling about, authorities said.

In a press release, Swecker said the bureau was concerned that the potential for violence would increase as the holidays lured more shoppers who stay later.

In most cases, two or three of the crew's members -- in hooded sweatshirts -- will enter the store, one will serve as a lookout and one or two will remain in the getaway car. Once inside, authorities said, the thieves know exactly what they're looking for, but often leave behind high-end items. They never try to open safes.

Instead, they take men's gold jewelry, including chains, bracelets, rings and Movado watches. There seems to be a ready market for the watches, and authorities say they hope publicizing the crew's methods will help spawn leads from pawn shops or flea markets.

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