Brink’s heist timeline ‘doesn’t make any sense’

It has been more than two months since the multimillion-dollar heist of jewelry from a Brink’s big rig at a Grapevine truck stop, yet key facts about the high-profile crime remain in dispute.

There’s debate about the value of the pilfered goods, for example, with estimates ranging from less than $10 million to more than $100 million. And questions are now swirling around the timeline laid out in a Brink’s legal filing and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department documents, which suggest an almost impossibly swift journey for the tractor-trailer.

This much is known: a Brink’s big rig loaded with the wares of jewelers participating in the International Gem and Jewelry Show departed the San Mateo County Event Center on July 11 for a storage yard about 370 miles south in downtown L.A.

From there, the players in the case disagree. Brink’s said in a lawsuit that its two drivers made the roughly 298-mile, late-night trek from San Mateo to the Flying J Travel Center in Lebec in about 2 hours, 4 minutes, even fitting in a stop along Interstate 5. To traverse that distance so quickly, the vehicle would have had to drive at speeds upward of 140 mph.

It would take more than four hours to drive the route while adhering to speed limits.

Jerry Kroll, attorney for the victim jewelers, who number more than a dozen, said that the sequence of events described by Brink’s “doesn’t make any sense.”

“Why aren’t we being told what happened here? This can’t be,” Kroll said. “Our clients deserve an explanation. The victims suffered a life-altering theft … and they are given a set of facts that doesn’t add up.”

It is unclear whether the improbability of the timeline laid out by Brink’s and the Sheriff’s Department could be attributed to a simple misstatement or another mundane explanation. Similar caveats apply to questions about the timing of authorities’ response to the crime, in which thieves stole 22 bags of booty while, according to Brink’s, one of the drivers snoozed inside his vehicle’s sleeping berth and the other was getting food at the Flying J.

A Sheriff’s Department incident report reviewed by The Times said that both drivers told a deputy that their vehicle left San Mateo at about 12:01 a.m. — information also noted by Brink’s in a legal filing. At 2:05 a.m., the big rig arrived at the Flying J, and the driver went to get his meal, according to Brink’s. Upon his return 27 minutes later at 2:32 a.m., Brink’s said, the driver discovered that the 18-wheeler had been compromised. A news release issued by the Sheriff’s Department on July 18 said that the theft occurred during the same time frame.

The sheriff’s incident report, which was drawn from initial interviews with the drivers, said that deputies responded to a “vehicle burglary call for service” at the truck stop around 3:56 a.m. It did not say when the drivers alerted law enforcement, leaving unclear how much time elapsed between the crime, its reporting and authorities’ response.

Asked about the chronology, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Sgt. Michael Mileski said, “We are not prepared to provide updated information at this time,” though he noted that investigators with the department’s major crimes bureau had conducted in-depth interviews with all those involved.

Brink’s spokeswoman Dana Callahan said that the company is “continuing to work with the law enforcement agencies investigating this incident. We defer to those agencies on questions about their investigations.”

Kroll said the most unlikely element of the chronology disclosed by Brink’s relates to the 18-wheeler’s journey as it approached the Grapevine. Brink’s has said that the vehicle stopped at the Buttonwillow rest area about 1:49 a.m. so one of the drivers could use the bathroom, and then continued on to the Flying J, reaching it about 16 minutes later. The Buttonwillow rest stop is about 55 miles from the Flying J. Covering that distance in a little more than a quarter of an hour would require driving at speeds upward of 200 mph.

“There’s no credibility to it,” Kroll said.

Recently, two Times journalists made separate car trips down that 55-mile stretch of the Interstate 5. One of the drives took 46 minutes and the other, completed in traffic that was at times very heavy, took 1 hour, 21 minutes.

The Flying J Travel Center in Lebec was the site of a Brink’s jewelry heist in July.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

The timeline was first disclosed in an Aug. 4 lawsuit filed by Brink’s against the affected jewelry companies, whose merchandise the company was transporting to the L.A. area for another trade show. The complaint is part of a wider legal dispute between the Richmond, Va., company and the jewelers over the size of the stolen haul.

The Brink’s lawsuit alleged that the pilfered items had a declared total value of $8.7 million — a figure it said was drawn from agreements signed by its jewelry business customers. The complaint seeks to limit any payout Brink’s could have to make to the jewelers to that amount, alleging they “substantially under-declared the value of their shipments.” (Some jewelers have said that they assigned their merchandise lower values than their fair-market costs to reduce shipping fees.)

The jewelry businesses later alleged in a lawsuit filed against Brink’s and other parties that the unnamed tractor-trailer drivers’ conduct was “grossly negligent” — and that “lax security” by the company allowed the theft to occur. The lawsuit for alleged breach of contract and additional claims said the jewelry companies’ merchandise was worth about $100 million. It seeks at least $200 million in restitution and damages.

The sheriff’s incident report, dated July 11, reveals new details about the heist.

Written by a deputy who arrived at the scene, the report said that the driver who dined at the Flying J found upon his return to the vehicle that its lock had been “cut away and the latches, where the lock once was, were bent. The lock was no where [sic] to be found.”

The sleeping driver noted that he “did not see who committed the burglary or hear anything unusual, or notice that they were being followed by anyone,” the report said. But, it said, the thieves left something behind: “metal fragments at the base of the trailer’s locking mechanism.”

The incident report said that the tractor-trailer’s cargo — which included gems, jewelry, watches and other precious items — was contained in “orange marked Brinks bags.” It also said that the blue 2019 Volvo big rig was “marked Brinks.” It did not note the presence of vehicle security features that jewelers and others in the industry have told The Times they expected Brink’s to have utilized when shipping valuable merchandise. For example, the report does not mention an alarm on the door of the Brink’s trailer or cameras anywhere on the vehicle.

Jewelry on display.

An evidence photo provided by the FBI shows a sampling of items stolen in the Brink’s heist.

(FBI)

Arnold Duke, president of the International Gem and Jewelry Show, said he “always thought there was” an alarm on the door, “but certainly never checked it.”

“I was under the impression that everything had satellite tracking, cameras, alarms,” he said.

Callahan did not respond to a question about the vehicle’s security features but has previously said that Brink’s does not disclose information on the topic because it could compromise operations.

Investigators believe that the heist was the work of sophisticated criminals, given the lack of violence and the speed of the thieves’ work, among other factors. Sheriff’s Department investigators, who are working with the FBI, have said that they have obtained video footage related to the incident.

Jewelers say that their businesses have been upended by the loss of their merchandise. “For some of them, [the theft] has completely destroyed their financial lives,” Kroll said.

As for the vexed timeline, he said: “Brink’s has some explaining to do to the court — and to my clients.”