Two men with sledgehammers smashed counters at a jewelry store inside the Brea Mall on Friday evening before fleeing, startling shoppers and prompting a manhunt.
The crime was the latest in what an industry security analyst on Saturday described as a wave of smash-and-grab robberies in California.
Police were called to the scene at Kay Jewelers just before 7 p.m.
The suspects, who wore black hoodies and red sweat pants and facemasks, were in their late teens to early 20s, police said. The pair carried a single red backpack between them.
What was taken, its value and the extent of the damages were not immediately available.
Stunned shoppers and mall employees initially mistook the sound of glass breaking for gunshots, leading to false rumors of an active shooter. Many raced for cover.
“I saw parents who were sitting on couches throwing their kids over the fence to grab them and run,” Shannon Escobar said on Saturday, describing the chaotic scene in the kids’ play zone. “They left their strollers and just tried to get out.”
The robbery happened just as the Easter Bunny was wrapping up photo sessions for the evening.
“It was really sad because there were so many families here taking pictures for Easter,” Escobar said.
She and her mother own M&R Jewelers, which opened last October next to Macy’s. Shannon Escobar heard screams and also thought there was a shooter, so she immediately went into lockdown mode. The doors of the store were shut, lights turned off and everyone hid. Just last week, she said, mall security had conducted a drill on what to do in an active shooter situation.
On Friday night, Brea police briefly closed the mall’s exits, and with the stores closed, parents didn’t know where to run. She directed shoppers through a mall employee exit next to her shop.
Some employees at other stores tweeted their fears. “I work at Aveda, we heard people running and screaming. Didn’t know what was going on. It was super scary,” wrote one. “We ran to the back room and hid in the bathroom.”
No injuries were reported.
The Brea Mall has over 175 shops and restaurants, and four department stores.
Earlier this month, two men used sledgehammers to target Kay Jewelers at the Westminster Mall, where they stole over $200,000 worth of jewelry. Westminster police have asked for the public’s help in identifying the suspects.
Brea police contacted the Westminster Police Department and other agencies to look for connections.
There have been at least 35 smash-and-grab jewelry store robberies in California since May of 2021 — a number disproportionate to other states, said John Kennedy, president of the Jewelers’ Security Alliance, an industry nonprofit organization formed in 1883 after a spree of jewelry store robberies struck New York City.
The number is not solely attributable to the size of California, he said.
“That’s way off the charts of being unusual. It scares people in the industry,” Kennedy said. Industry leaders worry that there will be copycat robberies, he added.
He attributed California’s robberies to a number of gangs.
“Crime has its fashions, as it were. So one group does it and other groups get the idea that they should do it,” Kennedy said.
Brea Capt. Phil Rodriguez said Saturday there were no new descriptions of the robbers or possible getaway vehicles. Kay was still working on an inventory of what was taken and the value, he said. A person who answered the phone at the store Saturday said no one was available to comment.
Rodriguez had advice for anyone in the area of a robbery. He said those who fled the mall or hid inside businesses and locked the doors made good decisions. And while police benefit from videos and photos shot by witnesses, they should never compromise their safety just to film a crime.
“First and foremost, we want them to be safe,” he said.
Escobar opened her store a little late on Saturday, unsure if people would be out shopping. But the mall was packed with people enjoying the holiday weekend.
Her aunts own shops at Westminster Mall and Main Place Mall in Santa Ana, she said. In 2019, it wasn’t jewelry that smash-and-grab thieves at Main Place targeted, but pricey bottles of Chanel perfume.
“We were just waiting for it to happen here,” she said.
Smash-and-grab at Brea Mall part of wave of jewelry store heists around California