Steal City A Gem Of A Snafu City Liable For Stolen, Trashed Jewelry - 130g Worth

Posted: October 15, 1997

More than $70,000 worth of jewelry, watches and cameras has vanished from the offices of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, in what the police are investigating as a theft.

The stolen valuables were part of a $600,000-plus trove of merchandise that the agency accepted ``for safe-keeping'' in July 1990, when it condemned two Market Street jewelry stores to clear land for the Marriott Hotel.

``We've had control of that stuff for years, so it has to be an inside job,'' said an official, who asked not to be identified. ``Nobody came in here and cracked the safe to get the jewelry. Nobody knocked a door down in the maintenance office to get the cameras and watches.''

In addition to the missing merchandise, the remaining inventory suffered damage totaling $59,000 while in the authority's possession. The damage included bent, broken and scratched jewelry, and cameras and watches harmed by battery leakage and excessive heat.

Authority officials acknowledged that they have filed an insurance claim of $130,000 to cover the costs of the stolen and damaged merchandise. The officials said that since the authority's insurance policy has a $5,000 deductible and the thefts occurred at two locations, the agency will have to pay out $10,000 that came from taxpayers.

That acknowledgement was just the latest development in a bizarre tale of a public agency agreeing to ``hold and maintain the inventory safely and securely'' until a settlement could be reached with the owners of the merchandise.

Seven years after taking control of the valuables, the authority has yet to reach a settlement with either owner. One owner, whose inventory is intact and undamaged, does not want the merchandise back and is insisting the authority pay $250,000 in cash. The owner whose merchandise was stolen and damaged has indicated a desire for cash instead of the return of inventory worth an estimated $350,000.

``We've had to pay for machinery and equipment in buildings we've condemned before,'' said one RDA official. ``But jewelry? What are we going to do with half-a-million dollars worth of jewelry and watches? Hold a garage sale?''

During the time the authority has kept the valuables, the jewelry led a nomadic existence, being carted around the city from place to place in a three-foot-high agency safe.

At one point in the early 1990s, the safe was placed inside 6221 Osage Ave., the address of the MOVE house on which police dropped a bomb in May 13, 1985. When the West Philadelphia neighborhood was redeveloped after the ensuing fire, the authority retained ownership of the newly constructed 6221 Osage, which has been used as a mini-police station.

``The contents were transported to Osage Avenue because there was 24-hour police protection there, and the Redevelopment Authority owned the MOVE house,'' said Robert J. Guerra, the authority's lawyer.

Executive Director Noel Eisenstat said the merchandise was acquired before his arrival at the RDA in June 1992. He said he never had a key to the safe and had nothing to do with the jewelry kept there or the cameras and watches stored at the maintenance building at 253 S. 13th St.

At various times, the safe was kept at a police warehouse on E. Erie Avenue and at authority offices on the 8th and 16th floors of 1234 Market St.

It was not until after the discovery of missing and damaged valuables that the jewelry was placed in a safety deposit box.

On Sept. 10, according to sources who asked not to be identified, Guerra, administrator Rick Adriano and financial office staffer Dave McCormick removed jewelry with an estimated value of $250,000 from the safe. They placed the valuables - rings, earrings, bracelets and chains made of gold and precious gems, including diamonds - into three green plastic trash bags.

Then, without escorts, they walked from 1234 Market St. to the PNC branch at Broad and Chestnut streets, where they deposited the material in a safe deposit box.

Eight days later, on Sept. 18, watches and cameras valued at $350,000 were turned over for safekeeping to Ira S. Davis, Inc., a storage firm.

Eisenstat said the original decision not to place the valuables in secure, off-premises locations like bank vaults had been made ``long before I got here.''

As to why he did not reverse that original decision during the five years he had ultimate supervisory authority over the valuables, he would say only that he had ``assumed'' keeping the merchandise in RDA offices ``was a function of expense and risk.''

James Vaccara, a former deputy executive director of the authority in charge of operations, said the jewelry, cameras and watches were all intact when he left the agency on a disability pension in May 1996.

``It was all there, as far as I knew,'' Vaccara said. ``I was surprised to hear that this stuff was missing. Those cameras, though, they were just junk, outdated stuff.''

According to reports prepared by Det. Paul H. Wong of the Central Detective Division, Adriano first reported jewelry missing from the agency's safe last April 29. Adriano told Wong he opened the safe on April 14 to examine the jewelry to prepare for settlement discussions with the owners of the properties, and found about $9,000 worth missing.

The owners whose merchandise was stolen, Susan Zeitoune and Benzion Razon, operated Gifts Galore at 1225A Market St., one of the condemned properties.

A second report by Det. Wong, dated last Aug. 19, revised the amount of merchandise missing sharply upward, to $71,303.

According to an inventory prepared by the authority, the owners are claiming that $13,538 in jewelry was taken from the agency's safe, and $57,715 worth of cameras and watches was stolen from the maintenance office at 253 S. 13th Street, for a total of $71,303.

In addition, the inventory said, the owners claim damage to jewelry of $49,923 and to watches and cameras of $9,416, a total of $59,339.

The grand total of the claim is $130,642. The authority said the total should be $127,150, arguing mathematical errors and mistaken valuations overstated the claim by about $3,500.

Authority lawyer Guerra said the claim was pending.

Lewis Kates, attorney for Gifts Galore, declined comment.

The authority paid Gifts Galore $112,500 in July to cover damages the jewelry store claimed it suffered as a result of its property being condemned.

That payment is in addition to whatever amount Gifts Galore will receive as reimbursement for the $130,000 in stolen and damaged merchandise. Also, under an agreement with the authority, Gifts Galore is entitled ``to remove any or all of the inventory it left with the Redevelopment Authority for safekeeping on July 23, 1990.''

Still pending is the claim by the second jewelry store, Manhattan Jewelers, which wants at least $250,000 for its inventory of gold and other precious metals. None of that inventory has been reported as missing or damaged as yet, but the owners, Moshe and Adrienne Sasson, say the merchandise now is unmarketable and they want cash.

And they want 14 percent interest dating back to 1990, when the authority removed the inventory from their store at 1237 Market St.

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