Tri-City jewelry stores, pawn shops on alert after robbery

Always be on the ball. Always be watching.

That's what Tri-City jewelers and pawn shop owners say they're doing after a Kennewick jeweler's family was tied up at home and he was forced to take masked gunmen to his store so they could rob it.

It's been a week since Touchstone Jewelers co-owner Mark Welsh and his family were victimized in a well-planned robbery of a type usually imagined only on TV or in movies, and it's put other Tri-City business owners on high alert.

"I've been talking to several jewelers and pawn shop owners who are really concerned .... It rattled their minds," said Vincent Rundhaug, owner of Desert Gem Studio in downtown Kennewick. "It's like a wake-up call to run your security program to test it and make sure everything's in place."

Jewelry store owners said that they always have safety measures and security systems in place and keep an eye out for anything that seems suspicious.

It's always been a concern that they can be targeted, but having something so brazen happen so close to home adds a new level of concern, said Scott Smith, who owns Brothers Jewelers in Richland with his brother, Mark.

"What happened with that store (Touchstone) is something that's happened in the big cities all over the states for quite some time," Smith said. "Once we heard that it had happened to them, it is something you always watch. You watch when going home or when you're coming to work. Always be on the ball."

Smith said they're taught not to make judgments about customers when they first walk into the store, but he admits, there are certain things to observe, such as making a mental note of who has been in the store, especially if someone asks lots of questions or looks around in an odd way.

"It's every day, all the time," he said. "We're like bankers."

Rundhaug said he always has been security-oriented and knows he needs to check his rear-view mirror and be on alert if somebody looks out of place. It's a state of mind jewelers have to have, he said.

But it's easy to become complacent, he added. Just as a teller dealing with cash all the time starts to think of it just as paper, for jewelers, "after a while, it just becomes a bunch of rocks and metal."

"The top three things people want are cash, jewelry and guns. If you're dealing with that, you gotta just assume (you're a target)," he said. "It's a little disturbing that it happened in our own backyard, but quite frankly, am I surprised? No."

Rundhaug said he suspects a connection between the robbery and gang activity in the Yakima Valley that's spilling into the Tri-Cities.

Kennewick police haven't released any additional information about the Touchstone robbery, but Capt. Trevor White said, "We're still working every angle we can."

No arrests have been made, and no suspects have been named.

He said detectives are following leads and talking to other police agencies -- including Yakima -- with similar cases.

Last month, three masked men burst into the home of a Wapato pawn shop owner, held his wife and children hostage and forced him to drive two gunmen to his store, while a third stayed behind with the family, according to the Yakima Herald-Republic.

The suspects got cash and jewelry from the pawn shop, then drove its owner back home and fled in his vehicle, which later was found outside Wapato, the newspaper said.

Randy Harris of Ace Jewelry & Loan in Kennewick said he was aware of the Wapato robbery when it happened and has been more cautious since then.

"Certainly there is great concern anytime something like that happens," Harris said. "We're always on alert -- maybe even a little more now since that happened. ... I hope that we would not be considered a likely victim."

Harris said he wishes police would provide more information about the robbers so shop owners would know what to look for.

"We're all thinking maybe we're being cased as being next," Harris said. "We look at everybody maybe a little more differently. We know probably those people were at Touchstone Jewelers (beforehand) and they looked those people in the face."

Kennewick police said that they don't have descriptions of the suspects because they were wearing masks. And while police haven't disclosed that the jewelry store didn't have security cameras, they have not released any photos or video of the suspects, as is customary if it's available.

From a crime prevention standpoint, shop owners, regardless of their business, are encouraged to ensure they have good operating security systems and are aware of what's going on around them.

"It's apparent that ... (the Touchstone suspects) must have had both the home and the business under surveillance for a while to be able to establish patterns of when these people were coming and going and where they live," said Mike Blatman, Kennewick crime prevention specialist.

Business owners need to look beyond their front door and pay attention to what's happening outside, he said. If someone's sitting in a car for a long time and not doing anything, that should attract closer scrutiny. If something looks suspicious or out of the ordinary, report it to police.

Security cameras also should be checked to ensure they're working and are in the proper position.

"So many times, a lot of financial institutions have cameras that get pictures of the top of somebody's head," Blatman said.

Similar steps can be taken at home to stay safe, including questioning people when they knock on the door or asking to see ID's if they say they're with the power or water company, Blatman said.

"This is an extremely unique situation for this area," he said. "It may be a once in a lifetime thing, and that's why people get complacent."

But it's also an opportunity to ensure security is in place and to talk about the "what if" with employees and family so people know what to do if something happens.

"Not that they (the Welsh's) did anything incorrectly as far as complying. Nobody was hurt," Blatman said. "Once a robbery starts, it's not going to stop. The idea is to survive and be a good witness. No heroics. Safety first."

Paula Horton: 582-1556; phorton@tricityherald.com