Crime

5 Charged in March Armed Robbery at California Store

CrimeAug 08, 2023

5 Charged in March Armed Robbery at California Store

GPS tracking information from a stolen Rolex helped investigators identify the suspects wanted for the robbery at Heller Jewelers.

Stock image of hands in handcuffs
GPS tracking information from a stolen Rolex watch led to the arrest of five of the almost dozen individuals allegedly involved in the March armed robbery of Heller Jewelers in San Ramon, California.
San Francisco—Five individuals have been charged for their alleged roles in the million-dollar armed heist that took place at Heller Jewelers in San Ramon, California, on March 17. 

According to a statement released by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in California’s Northern District, the defendants are Sunia Mafileo Faavesi, 30; Ryan Kentrell Montgomery, 35; Paul Christopher Tonga, 33; 34-year-old Kyle Vehikite; and John Ioane Tupou, 30.

All but Tupou, who remains at large, were arrested July 26 and made their initial court appearance July 27. 

All five face a charge of conspiracy to commit robbery affecting interstate commerce, and the government has filed a motion asking they be detained pretrial, the statement says.

An affidavit, signed by a special agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), was unsealed at the defendants’ initial appearance. 

It outlines how GPS information from one of the Rolex watches stolen from the store helped investigators identify Tonga as being involved the day of the robbery and led to a covert investigation resulting in the identification of the four other suspects.

 Related stories will be right here … 

According to court papers, a week prior to the robbery, the individuals cased the store, returning in the afternoon on March 17 with at least 11 others, some armed, to execute the approximately one-minute robbery.

Seven masked suspects approached the store, with one holding the door security guard at gunpoint while the other six entered.

Once inside, another suspect pulled out a gun, pointing it at customers and employees and demanding they get on the ground.

The remaining five individuals smashed display cases with hammers and stuffed jewelry and watches into a duffel bag. All suspects left in getaway vehicles with more than $1 million in jewels and Rolex watches.

Court papers said approximately 10 people were inside the store during the robbery, which took place at the crowded City Center Bishop Ranch shopping center in the middle of the day. Multiple bystanders, including children, fled the scene.

Surveillance footage showed two cars leaving the lot with suspects; the vehicles were found abandoned later in the day.

Witnesses helped law enforcement identify two additional cars, including a blue Toyota Sequoia registered to a family member of Tonga. It was involved in a hit-and-run collision leaving the mall, resulting in two injured victims.

Officers from the San Ramon Police Department arrived as the four cars were fleeing.

Court papers said that following the robbery, investigators were able to quickly activate a GPS tracking chip embedded in the cushion of the packaging of one of the stolen Rolexes.

They were able to watch the Rolex move in “precise concert” with Tonga’s Toyota Sequoia, which was seen by live surveilling officers traveling across the San Mateo Bridge, leading them later to the abandoned cars.

During a search of the Sequoia in the days following the robbery, investigators located weapons, drugs and masks that were matched through Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) to Tonga and Tupou.

Tonga’s iCloud data and phone records revealed “tightly coordinated movements across multiple parties—including both the defendants and as-yet unidentified co-conspirators—both the day of the robbery and at a casing event,” according to court papers.

Also, the defendants’ phone data places them simultaneously with the watch GPS at the site where the two cars were dumped after the robbery.

“But for the good fortune of the identification of Tonga’s vehicle on the day of the robbery and the activation of the GPS chip, none of this may have been possible, and defendants may have avoided prosecution,” court papers state.

The FBI is investigating a claim in the affidavit that one of the suspects was receiving inside information on the investigation via text from a clerk at the local police department.

If convicted, the defendants each face a maximum sentence of 20 years, and a fine of $250,000, according to the statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

News of the charges in the March armed robbery in San Ramon comes amid a string of smash-and-grab robberies that have been plaguing California jewelers over the last few months.

The Jewelers’ Security Alliance’s most recent annual crime report shows that the number of smash-and-grab robberies nearly doubled in 2022

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