On June 20, as police detectives were on a stakeout in a rundown neighborhood north of downtown Oakland, a stretch limousine pulled up nearby and was flagged down by a man on foot.
The officers, who happened to be there on an unrelated case, watched as two men then approached the limo, one pulled a gun and the pair tried to rob the passenger, a woman from Colorado who had just flown in to sell a large diamond ring she had offered for sale on Craigslist.
That marked the beginning of the end for an alleged ring of jewel thieves – headed by a state prison inmate – who concocted an audacious scheme to rob sellers nationwide of large diamonds, gold watches and other pricey baubles they had advertised on Craigslist, according to newly unsealed documents filed in federal courthouses in Sacramento and Oakland.
“Federal and local law enforcement have been investigating for several months robberies of victims selling items on Craigslist,” FBI Special Agent Paul F. Healy wrote in an application seeking a search warrant for the Tracy home of one of the suspects.
By the time investigators cracked the case, they had identified numerous victims, including a Los Angeles man robbed of a 3-carat diamond in February; an elderly Denver resident who had his Rolex Gold Presidential watch stolen in May; and a Green Bay, Wis., woman who was robbed of a watch in September that the gang later sold for more than $12,000, court documents show.
Most of the robberies took place in locations throughout the Bay Area, although the group discussed moving its operations to Sacramento on Jan. 14 because they feared law enforcement was on their trail.
Their concern was so intense that the suspect who lives in Tracy said that he “looked out the window every morning at 5:00, had a bag packed, an escape route, and a motorcycle without a tag.”
That suspect, Michael Anthony Martin, marked his 40th birthday Monday in the Sacramento County jail, where he has been held since Wednesday on a charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Three of his alleged confederates – Keegan Leecodi Cotton Jr., Jaedon Evans and Rafael Davis – were named in a criminal complaint filed Jan. 21 in Oakland charging them with conspiracy to commit robbery, attempted robbery affecting interstate commerce and aiding and abetting.
The alleged ringleader remains in prison serving a sentence for robbery in a case that the FBI says is similar to the Craigslist caper. The FBI has not named him, labeling him a “confidential human source” – or “CHS” – who has spilled much of what he knows in an effort to shield his son from a long prison term for his role in the thefts, according to court papers.
“The FBI has made no promises to the CHS,” FBI agent Healy wrote in his search warrant affidavit. “The CHS has stated to law enforcement that he is hopeful they will give a better deal to his son” if he ends up facing prosecution.
The inmate was serving a seven-year prison sentence at the state prison in San Luis Obispo for a 2012 robbery conviction, his seventh felony conviction since 2004, when agents sat down to talk to him in December.
He apparently knew his way around the Internet as well as a prison yard. In his cell, investigators found a contraband smartphone.
“The browser history on the phone showed the user had been looking at Craigslist sales ads all throughout the country,” Healy wrote in his search warrant affidavit. “Text messages linked the imprisoned co-conspirator to other identified co-conspirators.”
According to the FBI, the inmate, Martin or another suspect would scour Craigslist ads looking for potential victims, then contact them through email or by cellphone to negotiate a purchase. Sometimes, the inmate himself would call sellers from inside the prison and arrange to have them flown to Oakland.
Plane tickets to Oakland were paid for with stolen credit cards or cash. The sellers would then be met by limousine, some driven by legitimate chauffeurs, some apparently by accomplices.
“The purported buyer tells the seller that the limousine will be taking the seller to a bank, jewelry appraiser or other safe-sounding public place for the sale of the item,” the FBI wrote in court papers. “The purported buyer will have the limousine driver go to another location, however, where individuals are lying in wait to ambush the limousine and rob the victim seller.”
The scheme apparently was a lucrative one.
Among the victims identified by investigators:• A Livermore resident who lost a Rolex Pearlmaster watch valued at $14,000.
• A Portland, Ore., resident robbed of a $90,000 Cartier ladies’ watch the gang later sold for $25,000.
• A Los Angeles man who showed up trying to sell a $175,000 4-carat diamond and two 2-carat stones. For reasons the court papers do not explain, the gang took only the two smaller gems.
Investigators began looking closely at the theft ring after the incident in June, when Oakland police witnessed the attempted robbery of a limousine and arrested Cotton, Evans and Davis, court documents indicate.
But the full extent of the scheme did not become apparent until investigators began looking at similar robberies, sifting through phone records and launching an undercover sting.
For the sting, investigators used phone records in December to find a potential victim the group had contacted and, in the victim’s place, sent an undercover agent to the Oakland airport to be picked up by a limousine dispatched by the robbers.
The agent concluded that the limo driver was an accomplice of the group and he ended the operation for officer safety, court papers state.
The agent told the female driver who he was and she left without the vehicle, which Martin had rented from an Avis outlet in Sacramento, court papers state.
After the aborted caper, Martin called police, saying he needed to know where the limo was because he did not want to accrue extra rental fees, the documents state.
“The police informed Martin that the limousine had been returned to Avis and Martin ended the call,” court documents state.
Agents raided Martin’s home in Tracy Wednesday and found a loaded .38-caliber pistol, something he cannot legally possess because of a 1998 robbery conviction.
He remains in jail as a flight risk and a danger to the community, but a bail hearing is scheduled Tuesday.