A case as cold as ice: Million-dollar Plaza jewelry theft remains unsolved

It looks as if the crooks behind one of the most audacious heists in modern Kansas City history are about to get away with it.

Three years ago in the wee hours on Labor Day, burglars looted an estimated million dollars in valuables from Vinca Jewelry in the Country Club Plaza by breaking into a service corridor, bashing through a concrete wall and slicing into the steel safe just inside the store.

Nobody’s been caught.

And unless something changes radically by next Friday, when the three-year statute of limitation runs out, it’s apparently home free for the jewel thieves.

Kansas City police acknowledge they gave up the chase a while ago after having developed no leads. The case is considered inactive, and the detective originally assigned to it has moved on to other duties.

Jeff Lanza, a retired FBI special agent and frequent lecturer on crime, said there was nothing to compare with the boldness and size of this caper in the recent history of the Midwest, let alone Kansas City.

“Not to pat criminals on the back; it’s maybe not the perfect crime, but close to it,” Lanza said.

Simon Zouein, the owner of Vinca, said the loss was uninsured, and his family owned business at 4801 Jefferson St. has struggled to get past the ordeal.

“We just work for the future and not the past,” he said. “We survived.”

When Zouein opened the store at 10:30 a.m. that fateful Monday three years ago, he noticed an odd coat of dust on the display cases.

The narrative from the police report laid out what happened next:

“He looked around to see if he could find the source of where the dust came from. A few minutes later is when they discovered a large hole in the wall at the back of the store.

“They then unlocked the safe and discovered someone had cut a hole into the back of the safe.”

Loose diamonds, gold chains, rings, necklaces, bracelets and other jewelry — worth $1 million, according to the police report — were gone.

Though the 1997 daytime holdup of $2.5 million in jewelry from Tivol Jewels on the Plaza was a bigger haul, those bandits were caught within two years and convicted.

By all accounts, what was pulled off in the service corridor along Vinca’s wall that night was quite a feat. The burglars broke a lock to the security door leading to the corridor and then quietly went to work — apparently for hours.

They knew exactly where to punch through the 6-inch concrete block wall. The 3- by 4-foot hole was directly behind the 6-inch, double-layered steel safe, which was then cut open. Police reported that large pieces of cinder block, concrete and wall board were found in the corridor.

Amidst the rubble were empty jewelry trays. Inside the store, wires to the phones and alarm system had been ripped out. There was no video camera, and the only trace of the burglars was some footprints in the dust.

“It was an extremely professional operation,” Lanza said. “They had to have the right tools and right way to get to the safe itself.

“It’s also professional in that they were able to keep it quiet; nobody talked and there’s been no evidence in the form of jewelry showing up. It was well planned and well executed.”

Kansas City Police Sgt. Michael Foster of the property crime unit said in an email, “We had no similar offense at the time or since.”

And Clarence Gibson, a longtime police employee and co-founder of the Kansas City Police Historical Society, said, “I cannot recall since I’ve been here a heist that big.”

He also noted that the crooks had been remarkably disciplined.

“I’ve don’t know if we’ve ever had one like that happen where they don’t spend the money,” he said. “Somebody always has to spend the money and can’t hold back.”

At the time of the crime, officials at Highwoods Properties issued a statement calling the burglary a “rare exception rather than the rule at the Plaza. The evidence thus far is suggestive of an extremely sophisticated and premeditated crime using highly specialized equipment.”

Looking back, Zouein is not satisfied with how the police handled the crime.

“I think the case has not been investigated intelligently,” he said.

The store owner said he told police there may have been potential witnesses who saw something odd going on around the service corridor area that night.

“If they had followed my leads, they would have found something,” Zouein said. “We were third class citizens to them. I think they had more important things to do. They said it was a robbery and not a killing or death.”

Police officials declined to discuss his allegations, but Foster did say in his email it was a difficult crime scene.

“The owner was not organized,” he said. “He wasn’t sure of his actual loss because he didn’t keep an inventory of his merchandise or photos. We had no physical evidence or video either.”

Zouein also did not report the burglary until around noon that day, about an hour and a half after he discovered the break-in.

“He stated he did not call the police immediately because he did not know what to do,” the original report said.

Vinca Jewelry has operated on the Plaza for 38 years, with about half that time at the current 48th and Jefferson location.

Zouein said his lease precluded him from suing his landlord. The service corridor and its entrances are Highwoods property and the responsibility of Highwoods security.

“J.C. Nichols made us sign a lease that doesn’t allow us to sue,” Zouein said, referring to the previous owner of the Plaza. “The robbery came from the landlord’s property and it was the landlord’s responsibility.”

Highwoods officials could not be reached directly for comment but did issue a statement: “This is a police matter and we hope the perpetrators will be brought to justice.”

Kansas City police described the case as “inactivated” because of the lack of leads, and would be reactivated only if new information came up.

Although the burglary could have been investigated by the FBI as a violation of interstate commerce, bureau spokeswoman Bridget Patton said that didn’t happen.

“To the best of my knowledge, we’re not involved,” she said. “It was strictly a local matter.”

And on Sept. 6, the clock for legal proceedings will expire on the Vinca burglary. That’s because Labor Day fell on that date three years ago and there’s a three-year statute of limitation on the crime, according to Foster.

After that date, the burglars could not be prosecuted even if they were caught.

Barbara Glesner Fines, associate dean of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, said statutes of limitation are imposed by the legislature as a check on government power.

“The clock starts ticking at the time of the offense, and when the alarm sounds, that offense cannot be prosecuted any longer,” she said.

“The most important reason is to protect the public from government abuse of power. Everybody has a constitutional right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and have the right to a fair trial.

“The longer the time passes, the less likely there will be a fair trial because memory is not reliable and physical evidence deteriorates.

“A statute of limitation keeps government working hard and being honest and effective. If the public, police and prosecutors felt crimes could be pursued forever, we’d be wasting resources.”

And then there’s an aspect of statute of limitation that should particularly appeal to the burglars who hit Vinca.

It’s a legal concept called repose.

“It means, after a period of time, we want people to have peace of mind,” Glesner Fines said.