The Watch Thieves Who Picked L.A. Clean
In less than 10 months, a fledgling robbery ring smashed and grabbed its way to $6 million in stolen goods. But the leaders got greedy, plans got sloppy, and the police got smart.
Their story was always about time—time to plan, to execute, to get away—but in the end it was really about how quickly time could disappear. How fast a plan could dissolve, a getaway route crumble, or a profit margin explode, becoming greater than anyone had anticipated.
They’re accused of forming one of the most ambitious robbery rings in recent Los Angeles history. The group operated for less than 10 months, yet it allegedly brought in nearly $6 million worth of stolen jewelry and luxury watches. One of their attempted heists took precisely 61 minutes, from planning to execution, according to federal prosecutors, and we know this because they were already under ATF surveillance. They were turning heads. They had the authorities worried.
It all came down to time. Between a phone call and a robbery, an hour might pass or just a short car ride from one neighborhood to the next, or maybe a few days might slide by, but the clock was always ticking. There would be a donning of ski masks or more elaborate disguises—dressing up like construction workers seemed to work for them—and then a final check of a handgun or rifle. Then, of course, there were the heists. They were quick, explosive; one in February 2016, prosecutors claim, took less than a minute.
Based on the resulting federal indictment, as well as several affidavits filed by a special agent of the ATF, reviewed by The Daily Beast, we can reconstruct what allegedly happened. We can piece together, nearly hour by hour, how prosecutors say a multimillion-dollar watch-theft ring took shape, its momentum nearly overwhelming the powers of the federal authorities who investigated them.
The group is accused of carrying out a streak of high-velocity heists, from the San Fernando Valley to Orange County, from Malibu to Mission Viejo. It was an adrenalized blur of stolen SUVs and high school parking lots, of clothing thrown away in public trashcans and panicked cellphone calls to make sure nothing had been forgotten. They seemed to know the authorities were close—at one point, the group’s alleged leader suspected the police had been tracking a red BMW that one of the unindicted members of the crew had been driving—but they somehow managed to stay ahead of the game.
I call them the Watchmen, because they were stealing watches—millions and millions of dollars’ worth of watches—including Rolex, Breitling, Omega, Audemars Piguet, and Hublot. They knew exactly what they were targeting, and how to get it. One robbery alone nabbed an incredible $1.6 million worth of Rolexes from a dealer at the Century City Mall, and even their other heists were huge: $200,000, $500,000, $600,000, $1.4 million.
For all the rush and urgency, though, these guys studied. They practiced. They noted targets and escape routes. They were organized. They would walk into a store to browse the merchandise, checking out the shopping mall around them to make sure they knew how to escape. They took pictures. They planted getaway cars. They waited, their sledgehammers and masks at the ready.
Seconds, minutes, hours. It was all about time, until their time ran out.
The group consisted of at least 18 men, prosecutors say; however, at the time of this writing, two of them are still at large. Their ostensible leaders, the men who allegedly picked the targets, recruited the others, and assigned them all specific roles, were known as “D,” “Green Eyes,” and “Bald Head.” The nicknames for the rest of the crew are a cinematic grab bag of the humorous and the absurd. There was “Macc Attack” and “Tiny Bogart.” There was “Poncho” and “Bully Bad Ass,” “Hang Out” and “Snoop.” “J-Bone” and “Brownie” joined “Pitbull” for good measure.
Beyond that nicknamed core, things quickly splintered into a labyrinth of unindicted co-conspirators—or UCCs—anonymous figures who populate the indictment, from UCC-1 all the way to UCC-23. These were the lowest-level recruits, brought on as muscle, which meant that, increasingly, as the spree went on and the robberies occurred closer and closer together in time, as if everyone knew a clock somewhere was ticking, they were the ones taking on most of the risk.
“D” and “Bald Head” would hang back, according to prosecutors, waiting for things to go as planned, while paying outlandishly low fees to the guys who did the dirty work. It was $500 here, $750 there, for heists that easily netted seven figures. In the most extreme example, after pulling off a robbery that included more than one and a half million dollars’ worth of Rolexes, one UCC was paid $1,000 dollars—less than a thousandth of what those stolen watches were worth.
Looking at this from one perspective, we can speculate that these guys were just entrepreneurs, building a business profile for themselves, farming out the hourly work while paying themselves the big salaries. Like mini-godfathers, they wanted to outsource their crimes, to run an organization and go into business for themselves, hoping to reap the biggest profits. It could have been the first step in an empire—if only they had had more time.
What we don’t yet know—pending public confirmation from the ATF, which will only be available after the trial—is exactly how the wiretaps were set and how the group’s conversations inside stolen sedans and SUVs all over Los Angeles got recorded. But the wires were tapped; the conversations were logged. In a sense, these guys never stood a chance.
The day of the alleged Century City heist—the group’s biggest—the high was 86 degrees. It was Los Angeles at its least apocalyptic, when even the shortest cigarette break or run to the coffee shop is just an excuse to feel some sunshine; but it was also the kind of day when that perfect afternoon light shining down out of the west might blind outdoor surveillance cameras or make CCTV flare unusably.
The crew spent at least a week planning the heist, the indictment explains, discussing specific watches to grab and which guard to expect. Prosecutors claim a member of the crew known as “Bones” even made an early surveillance run to the store, photographing the most expensive watches with his cellphone (an alleged witness would later identify the man in a police line-up). Defendant “D” then developed a getaway plan, almost painful in its simplicity, where “Pitbull” would wait for them in the mall’s lower-level parking garage before they all finally fled—a trick that appears to have actually worked, as responding officers wrongly focused their initial attention on the surrounding neighborhood.
As soon as the crew set their plan into motion, however, things began to go off-track. The security guard stationed in the Rolex store saw two guys running up the mall’s internal escalator—two guys who had, by now, put on ski masks, one of them actually carrying a rifle—and tried to block the door. If he could hold them off, the guard must have thought, then they wouldn’t be able to steal anything—but they also couldn’t hurt anyone, which had to be the larger concern.
It was at this point that one of the masked men—a still-unindicted co-conspirator, referred to in the indictment as UCC-4—leveled his rifle. It’s what anyone would do: you point a loaded, military-style assault rifle at somebody blocking your way and you hope it convinces them to back down. You hope they crumple. But the threat didn’t work and the guard held his ground.
UCC-4 apparently felt he had no other choice in that moment. He held the rifle tight and fired.
This was by no means the group’s first heist, prosecutors claim; it would also not be their last. But it would certainly be their biggest. They had hit a jewelry store in the Westfield Topanga mall, grabbing nearly $60,000 worth of watches, disarming the guard with a cloud of pepper spray; they had even mugged a hapless shopper at another L.A. emporium, stealing a Rolex off his wrist. But this heist, the first and only in which shots would be fired, set the pace for what was to follow.
Los Angeles, of course, has long been a global center for heists, at every scale and intensity. In the 1980s and ’90s, for example, as I detail in my book A Burglar’s Guide to the City, L.A. became the bank robbery capital of the world. Through unique tweaks in its urban design and transportation infrastructure, Los Angeles had inadvertently set itself up as a place ripe for robbing—and, with all those city-spanning freeways, as an all-too-vulnerable metropolis with multiple opportunities to get away. For a criminal gang to stand out in L.A., in other words, they really had to push the envelope.
As Sergeant Michael Maher of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, who helped investigate the case, explained to me, there was no doubt this group was sophisticated, even in a time of increasingly brazen bank robberies and home invasions. Sophisticated, he added, at least at the planning level.
Maher is head of the Burglary-Robbery Task Force (BRTF) of the L.A. Sheriffs’ Major Crimes Bureau. The Watchmen, he said, were well organized, but their heists got “haphazard and even dangerous,” he explained to me, as things increasingly got farmed out to these unindicted co-conspirators. The plans had made sense, in other words, at least on paper; but throw volatile amateurs in the mix, being paid just a couple hundred dollars a pop, and errors began to be made in the execution.
Consider the failed heist in January 2016, only one day after the new year, when three unindicted co-conspirators connected to the group raided a branch of Ben Bridge Jeweler in Santa Monica. Though two of them were armed with hammers, they were unable to break the protective glass of the jewelry cases. Battering the shatter-resistant displays again and again, they either didn’t have the arm strength or the right tools to break through. They left defeated, even humiliated, stealing nothing.
It was only when they went back in April, after meeting up in a tiny Inglewood park across the street from a graveyard to discuss how to hit the jewelry store the right way, that they finally pulled it off.
Or think of the robbery they allegedly planned for February 2016, when the group tried to hit a branch of Westime in West Hollywood. Everything would have gone as planned—but perhaps the traffic that day was bad. Perhaps they’d taken a wrong turn somewhere. Perhaps they’d just forgotten the directions. Either way, when they finally showed up, the jewelry store was already closed. They had to come back the next day—as well as rent a hotel room for the accomplices, prosecutors claim—but at least they finally pulled it off. They were dressed like construction workers and fully armed.
Captain Myron Johnson of the L.A. Sheriff’s Department echoed his colleague’s assessment. “They were pretty high up the food chain,” Johnson agreed; this meant they could farm out the worst of it, roping in people who might have intuitively known something didn’t quite add up, but who agreed under pressure, nonetheless. After all, it could be $500 for an hour’s work—no matter that they were actually stealing half a million dollars’ worth of Rolexes.
It was when the group “went and recruited these local gang members who weren’t afraid of using force to rob others,” Johnson suggested, that things really went wrong. This new layer of hired help was allegedly far more impulsive than the core group had anticipated, as well as far more willing to take risks—and more willing to hurt strangers. In business terms, it was a breakdown of middle management. These new guys issued death threats and forced a security guard down to the floor to steal his gun, the indictment explains. They hit another guard in the head with a handgun.
“Macc Attack” and a small group of UCCs allegedly stole 66 watches worth $1.4 million in Malibu. “Bully Bad Ass” and “Hang Out” are accused of nabbing nearly half a million dollars’ worth of watches from a smash-and-grab in Torrance. “Pitbull” and “Snoop” allegedly scored watches worth $595,000 from a shop in Mission Viejo. A group consisting entirely of unindicted co-conspirators stole 36 watches worth $662,000 from a store in Canoga Park, prosecutors say.
As the list of stores across Los Angeles targeted for their luxury timepieces lengthened, the Watchmen’s outlines as a group gradually became clear. Meanwhile, “D,” “Green Eyes,” and “Bald Head” could hover in the background and watch the money roll in with every tick of the clock.
The shot fired at the Century City Mall that day missed the guard, slamming instead into the store window. But the guard dropped, anyway—leaving the door unprotected. The masked men got in.
A display case full of Rolex watches is a beautiful thing. Precision metal work and lush settings make for an almost museum-like experience. It is quiet, even reverent, inside the shop itself, as if this is a place of contemplation, not commerce. But, hammers in hand, the men began to smash through the cases, sending ice-like chunks of reinforced glass flying. There was so much debris, in fact, that one of the men allegedly cut himself on the sharp edges, leading to the later forensic recovery of an incriminating DNA sample.
That was when the frenzy really began, as they allegedly grabbed watch after watch—and not just a handful or even a dozen, even two dozen, but 40. Forty watches priced at $1,633,250 thrown into black backpacks while the guard lay on the ground and the other customers prayed they would escape with their lives.
Functionally now millionaires, the two men ran back along the pre-rehearsed route to find “Pitbull” idling in the parking garage in a stolen Toyota, prosecutors say. The two men hopped in the car as police looked elsewhere, apparently expecting to see them fleeing through the streets, but, in just a few minutes, they were gone.
The Watchmen allegedly met all over the city to plan their crimes, but they often came back to one place in particular, according to the indictment: a charter high school in Inglewood less than 60-seconds’ walk from “D”’s own home. In fact, schools seemed to play a strangely important role for the ring, as members of the group would often meet near them to make plans. They even dumped a bunch of incriminating clothing at a middle school in Calabasas.
But it was often at this schoolyard in Inglewood, if the indictment is to be believed, that core members of the group, including “D” himself, would get together to hand out guns, masks, and other intangibles, such as advice for immobilizing security guards, or how to hammer through the display cases right the first time.
It’s not hard to speculate about the group’s overall motivations. The money was insane. They were nabbing $40,000 watches after mere minutes of action—and they were getting away with it. Local news didn’t know who they were; the authorities were only just picking up on them. It was a get-rich-quick scheme made real, a proto-empire on the up and up.
It took a while for a clear pattern in the crimes to emerge, Captain Johnson told me, but then the dots—these high-intensity raids on luxury watch shops all over the Southland—were finally connected. “Any time you have a unique crime,” Johnson said, “and it starts happening more than once, you gotta ask yourself if there’s a pattern. Investigators will start sharing different nuances from each crime—and, if there’s a pattern, that’s when you see it.”
On the day of their final heist, a clear Sunday afternoon in April 2016, the Watchmen met at a small park in Inglewood. It has an outdoor area for public seating and a few coiled children’s slides, colored red and green, swirling down to meet the ground. There are wooden benches beneath healthy trees. A community mural—colorful shapes of paint on chipped concrete—stretches from north to south along one side of the park, as if to help block what would otherwise be visible in a visitor’s most peripheral vision: a seemingly endless cemetery across the street, surrounded by a chain-link fence.
The Ben Bridge Jeweler they allegedly hit that day in Santa Monica was the exact same place where, only a few months earlier, their unindicted co-conspirators had, for whatever reason, been unable to break the display cases—a mistake that would not be made this second time around.
When they got to the mall at Santa Monica Place, walking past a Coach and an Emporio Armani, wearing dark sweatpants and masks, carrying hammers, catching fractured reflections of themselves in the mirrors of a nearby Tiffany, tourists and families alike would have been out alongside them for a leisurely day of shopping.
The group couldn’t have known this heist would be their last—and there’s no way they would have wanted it to be. By Watchmen standards, the take that day was terrible: a mere $67,000 worth of TAG Heuers. In retrospect, they never should have bothered.
But it was also the day their time ran out. The authorities had put the puzzle together. The lines had converged. Other members of the crew had been arrested, following DNA evidence pulled from fragments of glass at earlier crime scenes and even from the discarded clothing thrown away so impulsively following otherwise successful heists. The police now had names; they had started wire-tapping; this particular jewelry store had already been hit—and the Watchmen, after all, seemed to really like shopping malls. It was a pattern.
Many secrets of the case are still pending—how the ATF and the L.A. County Sheriffs got onto these guys for the very first time, and when their earliest wiretaps were initially set—but those details will become clear this summer after the cases go to trial.
But it seemed like the clock would always be ticking. Hours, minutes, seconds—there would always be more. Until it finally hit zero, and the Watchmen were finished.