SANDY — A tall blonde woman walked up to the Sierra-West Jewelers store here Wednesday and tugged on the door.
Nothing happened. Never mind that it was just after noon and the business was clearly open. She waited only moments before a uniformed security officer let her in.
Had she visited the store a week ago, she would have opened the door and walked in unhindered, but security has tightened up in the wake of an armed robbery at Sierra-West's Murray store Dec. 23.
"Frankly, we just have to change things to protect our employees, our customers and our stores," said Tim Branscomb, president and founder of Sierra-West Jewelers.
Two employees at the Sierra-West Jewelers store at 6190 S. State were forced into a room at the back of the building while two alleged robbers broke into jewelry cases and stole what they could from the safe and cash register before driving away just after 6 p.m.
Store manager Jack Barton said he tried to look up to get an identification of one of the men and was told, "Don't look at me or I'll put a bullet in your head."
Branscomb said the whole thing lasted about three minutes. It is estimated the thieves got away with at least $150,000 in jewelry and $3,000 in cash.
Branscomb said he believes the thieves must have been casing the store for a few weeks before the robbery because they knew where the most valuable cases were, even though they had been recently moved.
"It's surreal," he said. "You just don't expect it to happen to you. You're doing so many things to teach your employees and to be careful. … I don't know that it's totally sunk in."
There were security measures in place at the store, including a silent alarm system that alerted police in the area. But fluke circumstances made the Dec. 23 incident a "perfect storm," Branscomb said. A random power surge he was unaware of fried the security camera system, employees forgot to lock the store's doors a half-hour before dark as they typically do, and the $3,000 dollars had missed the hourly bank deposit.
"You can only be so prepared," Branscomb said. "I'm just glad nobody got hurt."
Following the incident, Sierra-West updated cameras to film close to 500 feet away in the dark. The company added systems that require patrons to be buzzed both in and out of the store, and armed security officers will be present at various times.
Branscomb has been in the jewelry business for 36 years. It's been 33 years since he founded Sierra-West Jewelers, but never before has he seen crime like he has recently.
"Because of the recession, it's been worse in the last four years than in the past 30," he said Wednesday, sitting in his office at the Sandy Sierra-West store. "It's really frightening and sad for what our society is headed to, even in Utah."
Three years back, someone managed to find a low window that wasn't coated with bulletproof vinyl on both sides at the Sandy store and broke in. The glass has been cracked at the Murray store a few times before, but typically that was after hours.
Both the Sierra-West robbery and a similar incident at Losee Jewelers in Provo on Nov. 22 took place around closing time, after dark, but when the stores were still occupied.
Provo Police Sgt. Mathew Siufanua said the two robberies do not appear to be related.
In the Losee robbery, employees were tied up for close to an hour while the robbers had "free reign" of the store. It is estimated more than $500,000 in gold and jewels were taken in that incident.
Branscomb said it was his understanding that the thieves in the Provo robbery spoke a foreign language, while those in the Murray robbery spoke clear, unaccented English.
Siufanua said Provo police is pursuing a "relentless investigation" into the incident and have called in the FBI to assist. Thus far, police have received about 20 tips.
Murray police officer Kenny Bass said the investigation into the Dec. 23 robbery is under way, but police have yet to have any major breaks in the case.
Branscomb said the two employees present at the time of the robbery are now doing "surprisingly well." Counseling has been made available to them, but Branscomb said he and other employees with proper licenses have started carrying guns.
"About half of our crew has now gone into owning their gun," he said. "You never know, when these folks come in, what they might do."