MEMPHIS, TN (WMC-TV) - A jewelry courier opened fire on four men attempting to rob him Wednesday outside a jewelry store, a theft similar to a wave of robberies targeting diamond couriers across the South last year, police said.
The shooting happened in the parking lot of the Hobson building, off Poplar in East Memphis.
Police said it appeared the four suspects had been tracking the traveling salesman for at least a week.
Building manager Joe Steffner said the salesman was in the parking lot when the botched robbery happened.
"There was a vendor calling on the tenant," Steffner said. "He went into the building...came out..there was a group of four men waiting on him."
Shots were fired, and two of the would-be robbers were hit. Investigators say the jewelry salesman is from Nashville, and has permit from Alabama to carry a gun.
One witness said the salesman held his gun on the two injured suspects until police arrived. They were both taken to The MED in critical condition.
The witness said she heard the jewelry salesman tell someone over the phone that Columbians had tried to rob him. It is not clear how he knew they were from Columbia. She said they spoke very little English."
Investigators say South American groups have targeted diamond dealers in the Mid-South.
The attempted robbery comes a year after masked gunmen and knife-wielding attackers robbed diamond couriers in Arkansas as part of a crime wave across the South. FBI and police suspected the previous thefts could be part of what the bureau refers to as "South American Theft Groups" targeting diamond couriers.
FBI agents say the groups, crewed by illegal immigrants from countries like Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, stake out traveling salesmen and jewelry shows, sometimes traveling across the country for scores. Other victims reportedly told police they heard the men speaking Spanish in the lightning robberies, conducted in parking lots of hotels, jewelry stores and restaraunts across the South.
C.M. Sturgis, an FBI special agent based in Memphis, told The Associated Press that the two men wounded in the botched robbery Wednesday spoke Spanish. Sturgis said FBI agents attached to a street crime unit arrived at the scene of the shooting with Memphis police officers and would provide any help they requested.
"Certainly, the serial robbery aspect of it is something the FBI would be interested in in ferreting out," Sturgis said. The agent said the bureau likely would send a bulletin out to other field offices to see if the wounded men were suspected in any other similar robberies.
Midtown Jeweler Las Savell said jewelry vendors can have a couple of a million dollars worth of gems. Savell said the jewelry business has gotten increasingly dangerous.
"When salesmen call on us now, when they get ready to go, some will ask us, but we always volunteer, and we go to the door and watch them till they get to their car," he said.
Savell has a safe to he puts his jewelry in every night.
Meanwhile, two other suspects left the scene in a white Ford Fusion, heading west on Poplar. Police are still searching for the men.