How a Laguna Niguel merchant hatched a plan to nab thieves who stole $1.2 million in jewels from him
Brian Hassine’s heart raced as he stood alone in the dark behind the Nuggets & Carets jewelry store in Mission Viejo he co-owns with his brother.
It was after 11 p.m. April 14, and the burglars suspected of stealing more than $1.2 million in diamonds and assorted baubles from his other store in Laguna Niguel three weeks earlier were just a few feet away preparing to strike again.
Hassine had waited for this moment for hours. And now it was happening at the exact time and location he had predicted.
With his ear up against a fence, he could hear the unmistakable sound of a handsaw cutting through the jewelry store’s roof.
He was euphoric and careful not to panic. After all, he had set what seemed like the perfect honey trap so Orange County sheriff’s deputies could swoop in and arrest them.
But even the best laid plans can go awry.
Though Hassine believes he handed the thieves to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department on a silver platter, the agency allowed them to walk away scot-free.
“They let go of the very men who robbed me three weeks earlier at my other store in Laguna Niguel,” he said. “I told them how, who, when, where and why the second (burglary) was going to happen in Mission Viejo. I gave them all plenty of time to prepare. It was incredible.”
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department denies it bungled the burglary case.
The suspects who were detained following the Mission Viejo incident were interviewed and released due to a lack of evidence, department spokeswoman Carrie Braun said.
“It’s completely understandable that Mr. Hassine is frustrated, and we also want nothing more than to hold accountable the individuals who committed the burglaries,” she said. “We will continue to actively investigate.”
Affable and street smart, Hassine — a 55-year-old New Yorker who has lived in Southern California since 1982 — is best known for designing the wedding ring of Tamra Barney, who stars on Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Orange County.”
The first heist
However, on the morning of March 25, the jeweler to the stars found himself in the middle of a drama far removed from the bright lights of Hollywood.
As Hassine stepped inside Nuggets & Carets in Laguna Niguel, he immediately found the store’s back door open and a pile of rubble on the showroom floor.
His worst fears had come true.
“A group of burglars had spent hours destroying 32 years of a family-owned-and-operated jewelry store,” Hassine said.
Soon, clues began to emerge suggesting who was responsible.
A black SUV and gray Chevy Suburban were captured on a security camera arriving at Nuggets & Carets around 11 p.m. on March 23.
Three men could be seen on the video behind the store, where Hassine believes they opened an electrical box and pulled the fuse that was labeled with the suite number of the business.
Once the power was cut, the store’s alarm system remained armed by back-up batteries for about 12 hours, Hassine said.
“The alarm monitoring company failed to notify us … and created an untenable situation, where a team of criminals could arrive, check if power was still out, and proceed to cut a hole in the roof and open a door with no fear of interruption,” he added.
Hassine estimated the thieves likely spent several hours in the store undetected, enabling them to cut a 3-foot hole in a 5,000-pound steel-and-concrete safe and carry away a smaller safe. The contents of the two safes, which included store merchandise and customer jewelry awaiting repair worth a combined $1.2 million, could have easily been concealed in a single duffel bag, he said.
The store’s insurance will only cover the loss of jewelry belonging to customers, Hassine said.
Devastated by the heist, he notified the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
“I realized quickly detective work would one day lead to arrests, but my heart remained in recovering my clients’ jewelry. I knew I needed a miracle,” he said.
The trap is set
Over the next three weeks, Hassine hunted for clues that might identify the thieves. He spoke with detectives from various police agencies and jewelers in Southern California about similar burglaries. A common theme emerged.
Hassine concluded his store likely had been hit by Chilean nationals who are in Southern California on travel visas and belong to so-called burglary tourism gangs. They target high-end homes, businesses and automobiles.
Hassine received a major break in the case about 5 a.m. on Sunday April 14, when his ringing phone jolted him awake. His older brother, Sam, who co-owns the Nuggets & Carets in Mission Viejo, was on the line with some odd news.
That store’s power box had been broken open and the fuse inside was removed, just like with the previous burglary at the Laguna Niguel store.
Hassine had an immediate epiphany: The same group of robbers had targeted both stores. They had cut the electricity Saturday night to the MIssion Viejo store and would return Sunday night, he reasoned.
As long as the electricity was not restored, the thieves would then cut through the roof confident that burglar alarms would not sound and they could remain inside undetected for hours, Hassine concluded.
“But this time we would be there waiting with the police,” he said. “I could catch my own crooks and just maybe find some of my clients’ jewelry.”
With less than 12 hours to prepare before the anticipated strike, Hassine hustled over to a Ralphs market near the Mission Viejo store.
An employee allowed him to watch security video from 11 p.m. Saturday, April 13, showing a black SUV, which appeared identical to the vehicle in the Laguna Niguel burglary, outside Nuggets & Carets.
With the clock ticking, Hassine huddled with sheriff’s officials and planned a stakeout of the Mission Viejo jewelry store. Hassine asked deputies to wait in the wings while he, his brother, and Terry Walters, an armed private security officer, watched for the burglars to arrive.
About 11 p.m. Sunday, just as Hassine had predicted, it happened.
‘Bingo,’ the burglars are back
“The same black SUV as in the Laguna Niquel robbery passed right by us,” Hassine recalled. “Two cars veered right to go back behind the building and the other two vehicles parked right in front and next to us.”
Sensing danger, Hassine and and his brother, who were in separate vehicles, pulled away from the parking lot. Hassine parked on Mustang Run behind Nuggets & Carets. He got out of his car, walked up to a fence and began to listen.
“Bingo,” he said. “Someone was sawing the plywood off the roof with a handsaw. I could hear it as clear as day.”
Hassine quickly called 911 and, within a minute, two cruisers arrived with blue lights flashing and sirens blaring.
“I turned to my right and there they were,” he said. “The same black SUV that robbed me in Laguna Niguel was leaving the scene followed by the two sheriff’s cars. I was standing there feeling total exhilaration. I had just caught my own criminals. My miracle had happened.”
But the magical moment quickly faded.
Deputies searched but never found the burglar who cut two holes in the store’s roof, and three vehicles possibly carrying some of the thieves got away because deputies did not block entrances to shopping center, Hassine said.
Suspects released next day
Five people in the black SUV taken into custody on South Margarita Parkway were released from Orange County jail the following day, he said. Authorities told him they were Chilean nationals without identification.
Walters, who remained at the rear of the Mission Viejo store during the burglary attempt, praised Hassine’s tenaciousness.
“Brian stopped the Mission Viejo store from getting burglarized,” he said.
In retrospect, Hassine wishes deputies had viewed the Ralphs security video and conferred with him about the SUV matching the vehicle at the Laguna Niguel burglary before freeing the occupants.
“They (those in the SUV) must have laughed at our system when they were released and, surely now, any miracle of finding our jewelry was also gone,” he said.
The operator of the SUV, who wasn’t identified, was cited for driving for without a license, Braun said.
Meanwhile, a gaping 3-foot-wide hole made by one of the burglars remains in the ceiling at Nuggets & Carets in Laguna Niguel. Hassine has no plans to repair it.
“I want to make sure people know why we have no jewelry in the store,” he said. “I want to memorialize it until we are made whole.”