The couple walked into Kent Island Jewelry first. She wore dark sunglasses, scrubs and a stethoscope draped around her neck. He was well-dressed and meticulously groomed.
Trailing them was another man, in work clothes. He was looking for something special for his mother's wedding gift. "He ran me all over the store," shop owner Patricia Clowd recalled.
Clowd and police now say the hunt for the perfect gift was a distraction, providing the dapper Robert Weathers an opportunity to grab a tray of diamonds from an unlocked case. He and the scrubs-clad Robin Nelson strolled out of the store off U.S. 50, followed by the second man, and disappeared, police said.
"They're professionals," Clowd said of the suspects, who live in Baltimore and allegedly dressed as professionals to appear respectable and deflect suspicion, instead of relying on guns. "It's what they do for a living. I guess I wasn't smart enough."
In addition to the April 18 Kent Island incident, Weathers and Nelson have been linked to a string of thefts across Maryland — from Washington County to the Eastern Shore — as well as those in other states, from the Great Lakes area to Cape May, N.J., according to court records and police.
At Bijoux in Green Spring Station's Gatehouse Shoppes, for example, items taken included a black South Sea cultured peal and diamond necklace worth $14,000; in four Baltimore County cases alone, $90,000 in jewels and cash were stolen, police said. The final theft, in South Carolina, netted $100,000, authorities there said.
"These types of deception cases, you just don't do one," said Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger. "But this is a pretty extraordinary number."
Court documents show Baltimore County police had been closely tracking Weathers, Nelson and an ever-changing group of alleged accomplices for the past year. They had been arrested several times over the course of their alleged spree — sometimes days after a theft, thanks to surveillance video — but were repeatedly freed on bail, even as they became well known to law enforcement.
Most of the jewels have not been recovered.
Weathers, 53, and Nelson, 50, were arrested last month in a $100-a-night hotel off U.S. 40 in Catonsville, where a manager said they had stayed a few days, paid in cash, and had been scheduled to leave the day police showed up.
Police describe the two as the core members of the group. Each faces numerous charges of theft locally, and authorities say they also face charges in other states and in several Maryland counties. Weathers and Nelson — who are now being held without bail — have trials scheduled in Baltimore County this month.
Once their cases are concluded in Baltimore County, other jurisdictions can attempt to extradite them.
Weathers' attorney did not respond to requests for comment. Nelson's attorney declined to comment. No one answered the door at Weathers' mother's fieldstone home at Hicks and Liberty Heights avenues in Baltimore. Weathers has consistently listed the duplex with red metal awnings and tidy yard as his address in court records. A woman who answered the phone at the home declined to comment.
Authorities say the two tried to blend into their surroundings, though sometimes their dress raised suspicions — a clerk in Cape May thought it odd for a patron to be wearing a jacket and bow tie in a town accustomed to beach attire.
They quickly jumped across county and state lines, targeted small shops and rarely struck in the same locality twice, police say. It took time for various departments to catch up and string the cases together.
After their arrests in July, Shellenberger's prosecutors asked a court to revoke bail for Weathers and Nelson. "Now we are up to four [cases], and some of the cases involve greater sums of money," the prosecutor said.
Baltimore County Detective John Pundt and Weathers became like old acquaintances as Pundt followed the group's moves around the country. The detective for the Police Department's Organized Retail Crime Team wrote in court papers that he and the suspect met three times on arrests, and that Weathers would do a job three days after getting out on bail from another theft.
"It should be noted that this theft occurred while Defendant Weathers was out on three separate bails," Pundt wrote.
The thefts also confounded shop owners, many of whom were unaware anything was amiss until after the suspects had walked out the door. John J. Kennedy, president of the Jewelers' Security Alliance, said the old-school game of deception is effective.
By quickly jumping across counties and even states, Kennedy said, they were able to reduce their risk of getting caught. That they were unarmed and the crimes classified as thefts instead of robberies also helped them secure quick release from jails.
"They might be given extremely low bail because it's not known at that point that they have a very lengthy criminal history," he said. Police agencies, he said, "don't communicate on all this stuff."
On an initial court appearance questionnaire, Weathers said he's unemployed but listed Baltimore City as his last employer, and listed "evictions" as his occupation for the past 15 years. State court records show Weathers has a criminal record dating back to 1987, including a conviction for robbery with a deadly weapon.
He was released on May 13, 2013, from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, where he had been sentenced in December 2007 for theft, a spokeswoman said.
Weathers reappeared in Maryland court records four months later, amid allegations describing a crime spree that hit jewelry stores and other businesses across the state and beyond. The months-long trail began at the Kaylah Designs jewelry store on Reisterstown Road in Pikesville on Sept. 9, 2013, where police said he stole $2,075 worth of jewelry.
Three weeks later, police in Oregon, Ohio, a suburb of Toledo, said Weathers took $1,300 from the Johnny's on the Spot II convenience store. That same day, he and his group also completed a theft at a mall in Auburn Hills, Mich., northwest of Detroit, said Lt. Ryan Gagnon, from the Auburn Hills department. They were again arrested and released.
Police said the group returned to Maryland and committed more thefts in Anne Arundel and Charles counties. Weathers was arrested three separate times, and each time he posted $25,000 or $35,000 bail, court records show. By December, police say, the group hit stores in Rockville and Baltimore County, taking $46,250 in jewels from Ricardo's Gems and Jewelry in Timonium.
Next came the shop on Kent Island, according to police and then, in April, a store in Ellicott City. Police said they continued to employ deception as a weapon. At the Village Green Spirit Shop in Ellicott City, court papers said, Weathers made his way to an upstairs office as employees were distracted by three others. He kept the ruse going, picking up a bottle of "Mimosa," and a bag of "Utz Bar-B-Q chips," according to court papers.
Two days later, police arrested Weathers in connection with the Rockville case, but again he posted bail. On May 8, police said, he and another man were in Cape May, in the jacket and bow tie that made them stand out to the store manager.
That's when authorities realized the full scope of the case.
"I think immediately upon looking at the surveillance video, we were able to watch what they did and realize it was a coordinated effort," said Cape May police Sgt. Anthony Marino.
Still, police said the suspects were able to continue the spree. Five days after the Cape May theft, police said, a man and a woman walked into Bijoux Jewels at Green Spring Station — one in a T-shirt, baseball cap and shorts, a woman in a long dress and a large floppy hat.
They asked to see some butterfly items in a corner display.
Weathers and Nelson then came into the shop, police said. Weathers wore "a teal hard hat and reflective construction style vest." Nelson wore scrubs and a stethoscope. Court documents said Weathers managed to find an unlocked office in the rear of the store and steal $25,000.
About a month later, authorities said, they reappeared about 500 miles south, in Columbia, S,C., where surveillance photos show Weathers in gold-colored suit sliding $100,000 worth of diamonds in a jewelry tray from a safe into his coat pocket, according to police
Three weeks later, Baltimore County police arrested Nelson and Weathers at the Comfort Inn in Catonsville.
But this time they were ordered held until trial.
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