JC Penney caper nets $1.5 million
Carrying out a heist that could have been scripted in Hollywood, two men scaled the JC Penney store near Covington under the cover of darkness early Sunday.
They cut a hole in the building's roof, descended into the store using ropes and, somewhere along the way, disabled the security system, paving the way for them to browse the darkened store and stuff plastic garbage bags with jewelry, clothing and other goods.
After an hour in the store, the burglars disappeared through a fire door, taking with them more than $1.5 million in goods and pulling off what authorities called the largest burglary in St. Tammany Parish history.
It also was one of the most sophisticated.
The thieves planned their entrance and exit, knew how to shut down the store's security system and shielded their faces from the security cameras that dot the building.
It's expertise that may have come from practice.
Investigators said the thieves may be responsible for at least four other burglaries at JC Penney stores across the South and Midwest, including one in Lafayette on Wednesday morning.
Hours after that burglary and three days after the crime near Covington, St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain held a news conference and provided details on what he described as an "incredibly sophisticated" burglary ring.
"The deployment of their plan was flawless," Strain said of the break-in at the store in the Stirling Covington Center at Interstate 12 and Louisiana 21.
The Sheriff's Office released surveillance footage of two men walking through the store shortly after midnight carrying garbage bags, which they later used to haul off their loot, and 2x4s. The men apparently had T-shirts wrapped around their heads as makeshift masks.
Investigators are unsure whether accomplices were waiting outside.
Authorities do not know whether all the burglaries were committed by the same suspects or carried out by different members of a larger organization. But the break-ins bear similarities that have prompted cooperation between agencies in three states and the retail company itself.
JC Penney is offering a $10,000 reward for information on the burglaries, Strain said. The company's security officers are working with law enforcement, he said.
"No stone is being left unturned; we're doing a careful analysis of the evidence that's there," Strain said.
Investigators do not believe the suspects are from St. Tammany Parish but are executing several search warrants in the area. Officials refused to say what the search warrants targeted.
This kind of burglary is one of the most difficult types of cases faced by law enforcement, and the ability of thieves to melt down and dismantle jewelry can impede efforts to recover the stolen goods, Strain said.
Officials did not notify the media or public about the break-in for days, time Strain said was needed to collect evidence and conduct the investigation.
"We don't make decisions on when to release things based on the needs of the media," he said.
It is common for cases involving a particular chain to be traced back to someone with an inside connection, often a former employee. Investigators said they do not have any suspects but have not ruled out the possibility that it is an inside job.
"We're looking at all aspects of it, security, management and sales," Lt. Bobby Juge said.
Strain also noted the burglars seem to have chosen an unlikely target.
"Personally, I would be climbing on the roof of a bank or a gold depository," he said.
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