A Berkeley couple who lost a safe containing a $500,000 jewelry collection during a home burglary in August announced a hefty reward this week in the hopes of enticing the culprits to return the priceless family heirlooms.
Burglars used a handmade red-and-white vintage cross-stitched quilt to drag the 300-pound safe through the Berkeley Hills home and make their getaway. Inside the safe, the couple had kept a treasured collection, including a $5 gold piece, set into a pendant, that had belonged to a great-great-grandfather, family pocket watches dating back three generations, diamond rings, South Sea pearls that had been a 30th-anniversary gift, designer gold bracelets, an arrowhead collection and much more.
“Many of those things have memories: celebrations of occasions or trips we had taken,” said George Martin (a pseudonym). “These were things we would be happy to pass on to our children and grandchildren. Now it’s just all gone.”
The Martins are just one of a half-dozen or so older residents in the Berkeley Hills whose jewelry collections have been stolen in recent months, said the couple, speaking on condition of anonymity. On Aug. 3, the day of the Martins’ burglary on Alvarado Road, it is believed that the same crew struck two other homes nearby, including on Hillcrest Road and, across the Oakland border, on Chabolyn Terrace. Those incidents followed similar reports in the neighborhood in May and July.
The Martins immediately reported the Aug. 3 burglary to Berkeley police but, after learning there were just two detectives handling all the property crime reports in the city — with hundreds of open cases — they decided to take matters into their own hands.
So they asked around for recommendations for private investigators and received three, all for the same firm: Immendorf Investigations, which has been headquartered in San Francisco since 1966.
This week, the firm announced the $40,000 reward to the media, promising “no questions asked” for the return of the stolen safe and its contents.
“We’re not looking to prosecute,” said General Manager Jack Immendorf on Wednesday. “We’re simply looking for the return of the merchandise.”
The firm has retained San Francisco private investigator Bob Trent to field inquiries by phone, at 415-961-0980, from anyone with information about the case.
“He will arrange for a private turnover of the safe and will not notify police,” the PI firm said in a prepared statement. “All information is confidential.”
Immendorf said the firm has already learned quite a bit about the burglars, including the vehicle they may have used (a white crossover SUV), and the very distinctive outfit worn by one of them: a hooded sweatshirt reading “Push It To The Limit,” dark skeleton-print gloves, “fashionably ripped” jeans and Adidas Yeezy shoes, which retail for hundreds of dollars. Police also found blood and a burglary tool near broken glass at one of the crime scenes, said Immendorf.
“Our hope is the burglar might like to trade the stolen items for upfront cash that would help him now,” he said. “It would mean a lot to us to receive back the family’s history.”
On Thursday, Berkeley police said this is still an active investigation, so they could not talk about leads. They did approve the Immendorf statement, however, and said they are “still looking to see what other cases might be related to this one.”
The Martins said part of their goal with this week’s announcement is to let neighbors know what’s been going on. They are working to flier the neighborhood along the flight path of the thieves to let people know what happened.
They said they have already made plans to bolster their own security system and hoped to encourage others to remember to lock their doors and consider installing their own cameras, too. One neighbor, who recently found an intruder in his secluded yard charging a tablet via an outdoor outlet, has already expressed interest, said Martin.
“The technology is not expensive today,” he said. “The more neighbors who can contribute information, it helps the police a lot.”
Broken glass, an open door
On the day of the burglary, the Martins left home shortly before noon to run some errands. It was a Tuesday. They had lunch in Pleasant Hill. Then Martin dropped off his wife at home while he went grocery shopping.
When he got home at about 3:15 p.m., he used a downstairs door to get inside. He immediately saw there was a problem: The door was open and there was broken glass. His first concern was for his wife.
“I was afraid she had been hurt,” he said. When he confirmed she was OK, he told her someone had broken in. “She ran upstairs. The entire safe was gone.”
From security footage, the Martins learned that the first burglar — who is wearing a mask but appears to be male — had arrived at 2:20 p.m. Footage shows him walk up to the camera and turn the lens. In the background, there is the loud sound of repeated blows and then glass shattering before he cut the camera wires.
The burglar walked up two flights of stairs and somehow located the 300-pound steel and concrete safe where it had been concealed.
“It wasn’t something where you just walk in and say, ‘Aha, there’s a safe.’ He found the safe in a very cramped area,” Martin said. “And it’s not a piece of cake to struggle with that to get it out.”
The Martins believe the burglar then called for backup once he realized the task ahead of him. Security footage shows an associate reversing down the driveway in what may have been a white Chevrolet Equinox.
A neighbor noticed the unfamiliar vehicle in the driveway but dismissed it, assuming it belonged to one of the Martins’ kids.
It was a challenge for the burglars to move the safe: Initial efforts left deep gouges in the hardwood floor. The pair then snatched the vintage quilt, which had been handcrafted by Martin’s mother, off the couple’s bed. They wrapped it around the safe to sling or slide it through the house. They managed to get the safe down two flights of stairs and into the getaway car within 20-30 minutes.
“We’ll probably never see it again”
Martin said it was surreal to realize what had taken place while they were out.
“At first, you’re just incredulous,” he said. “You just did not think they would necessarily find it. Secondly, the physical effort it takes to get it out. We just thought it was highly unlikely, especially during the middle of the day.”
They called the Berkeley Police Department immediately. Officers came quickly but not right away: They first had to finish up taking a similar burglary report just down the hill on Hillcrest, Martin said.
When police got to Alvarado, they dusted for prints and did everything they could. Within days, beat officers had given the case to detectives to dig deeper. But progress seemed slow and resources were limited, so the Martins turned to Immendorf for more legwork.
Martin said it had taken time to come to terms with what had happened. His wife had spent a lifetime on the collection: She had approached jewelry the way others might amass art.
“The first thing you think of is the total loss. But then you start thinking about the individual pieces, ‘Oh my gosh, your great-grandfather’s pocket watches,’ her mother’s engagement ring,” he said. “We’ll probably never see it again. We hope — but we doubt.”
After the burglary, the Martins talked with neighbors about what happened and also posted about it on NextDoor. Through those efforts, they were able to piece together a broader picture of recent burglaries in the area.
They found two main themes: that jewelry had been the primary or only type of property taken and victim age: “All of us are in our 70s and 80s,” Martin said. “He’s targeting an elderly crowd.”
They said they thought it was important for neighbors to know there appeared to be a pattern.
From visiting pawnshops and speaking with police and investigators, Martin said there seemed to be quite of few of these property crimes taking place in the Bay Area.
“There just aren’t very many deterrents right now,” he said. “Everything’s in kind of a state of flux.”
He also said the family had tried to set the reward high enough to make it worth someone’s while.
“This is a chunk of money that maybe someone could use to their advantage to maybe find a different way of life,” Martin said. “This would appear to be someone who’s smart and enterprising. They could certainly do a lot more productive things if given the opportunity.”