Jan. 20--It wasn't so much the sight of five hammer-wielding men in black that sent terrified shoppers fleeing for cover at Wolfchase Galleria Saturday night. It was the sounds.
First there was the smash of hammers meeting plate glass, then the cacophony of a stampede punctuated by the clatter of metal gates being locked down.
And then, of course, there were the screams.
"That's all you could hear was people screaming, running, gates slamming," said Donnell Townes, an employee at nearby Robert Irwin Jewelers. "It was so loud ... I locked the doors and waited for the police to say we could leave."
The five, possibly six, bandits, all dressed in black with their faces covered, left with more than $700,000 worth of Rolex watches from Reeds Jewelers in mere minutes. No guns were seen, no one was hurt in the smash-and-grab, and the men fled through two separate mall exits.
It mirrored a similar heist in Atlanta last June.
No suspects had been caught Sunday, according to Memphis police spokeswoman Sgt. Alyssa Macon-Moore. Because the thieves did not engage directly with any of the store employees, the incident is being investigated as a theft from a business, not a robbery, she said.
Police have not yet released surveillance video of the suspects.
Townes said she believed the thieves must have known exactly what they were going for since each of the 65 Rolexes taken from Reeds retails for around $11,000.
The stolen watches can likely only be sold on the streets for a fraction of their retail value because their serial numbers are so easily traceable, she said.
"As with any legitimate jeweler, I guarantee you they've already got the serial numbers out by now," she said.
Reeds remained closed to the public Sunday afternoon, but lights illuminating the store from behind the mesh metal security gates showed at least a half dozen people working inside.
One man was vacuuming broken glass from inside a display case, while others appeared to be taking inventory and cleaning up. A man removed several large panels of cracked glass from the store in a shopping cart.
Curious onlookers occasionally tried to get a better look through the grates, but most were shooed away by Segway-mounted mall security guards who were patrolling the area heavily.
A woman who answered the mall office's phone said there was no official statement released by the galleria's management and that no one was available to speak with the media.
A spokesman from Reeds Jewelers corporate headquarters could not be reached Sunday.
In a similar incident at an Atlanta shopping mall in June, at least five men robbed a Mayor's Jewelers by smashing display cases with hammers. They fled with roughly $900,000 worth of Rolexes, according to various media reports.
In 2007, two masked men robbed the Reeds Jewelers in Collierville's Carriage Crossing, taking a variety of watches and other jewelry from the store.
For Tristynne Fraker, assistant manager at Windsor, a clothing store across from Reeds, the fear of watching the theft unfold was compounded by the lingering question of how five men who, she said, were dressed head-to-toe in black and carrying black hammers could walk unnoticed into a shopping mall. She described their tools as sledgehammers with handles about the size of regular claw hammers.
Their easy exit through an employees-only passageway was also cause for concern. "They had to have known about the access tunnels beforehand. No one would just run that way hoping to find an exit," she said, referring to a discrete side door tucked in the corner between Reeds and Sears.
Fraker said customers hid behind the registers as employees shut Windsor's gates and waited for the lock-down at the mall to be lifted. She was able to clearly see that the men didn't have any visible guns.
In preliminary statements to media Saturday night, a Memphis police spokeswoman said officers were responding to reports of men "armed with sledgehammers and guns," and that there were "reports of shots fired."