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Safecrackers stole millions in Florida. Here’s how they were caught.

The trio targeted jewelry stores, making off with as much as $18 million, authorities say. They were finally arrested in Chicago.

BROOKSVILLE — By the time they arrived in Hernando County, the burglars had refined their methods.

Michael Ornelas, 56, was a locksmith and expert safe cracker, investigators would later say, while William Granims, 57, knew how to monitor police radios, and Matthew Petruccelli, 67, served as lookout.

Ornelas and Granims had worked together a long time. In the late 1990s, they stole more than a million dollars of jewelry and money from stores in North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia.

They got caught. They did time. They got out. They moved to Florida.

From 2011 to 2012, they hit four stores, authorities say. More in the next couple of years. Over time, they would make off with what investigators now believe was as much as $18 million.

Hernando deputies knew nothing about those cases when they showed up at New York Jewelers in Spring Hill to investigate a break-in in May 2016. They found holes drilled into the safe, the shop ransacked.

Sheriff Al Nienhuis’s detectives had little experience investigating safecracking and stolen gold. At first, they figured the crime was an inside job.

Booking photos of Michael Clarence Ornelas, top left, William Anthony Granims, top right, and Matthew Petruccelli, are seen during a news conference Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019 in Brooksville. The trio of jewelry store burglars were arrested by Hernando County Sheriff's after robbing between $16 million and $18 million from places around Florida. [ ZACK SAMPSON | Times ]

• • •

A year later, in September 2017, owner Dan Short walked into Dan-Lo Jewelers in Spring Hill and noticed the buttons on his alarm system weren’t working. Then he felt a chill. The thermostat was set under 60 degrees. He never turned it below 73.

The door to his safe hung open. The finger pedestals for rings were piled in front. Much of his most precious stock and savings, which he tucked into the safe each night, was missing.

Thirty five one-ounce bars of gold. Sixty five pounds of silver dollars. Eight hundred $2 bills, which Short, 74, had been saving since he was a child. Those bills were how his grandmother had paid him for each A on his report card and the summer hours he spent helping her bake and deliver pies. He kept adding bills after she died, as a tribute.

About $100,000 in cash he’d squirreled away had vanished, along with hundreds of thousands of dollars in merchandise he’d saved, pieces he knew he could sell when he retired in 2020.

All told, the thieves had made off with $1.4 million of cash and jewelry, including some from his and his wife’s personal collection — her wedding set, which she had taken off to do some work, his custom gold Dan-Lo ring, and a 14-karat gold pendant he had designed for her, shaped like an upside down teardrop.

Short dialed 911.

Hernando County Sheriff Sheriff Nienhuis, center, along with others are seen during a during a news conference Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019 in Brooksville. A trio of jewelry store burglars were arrested by Hernando County Sheriff's after robbing between $16 million and $18 million from places around Florida. [ ZACK SAMPSON | Times ]

• • •

In January 2018, a man contacted the Palm Beach office of the FBI.

He was pretty sure he was the target of a criminal investigation, he said, and he wanted to talk to agents and a federal prosecutor. What happened next is described in a federal complaint, which only identifies the man as a “cooperating witness.” The description of the “cooperating witness” appears to match William Granims, who is the only member of the ring described by Hernando deputies who is not listed in the federal complaint.

By that time, investigators believed the thieves had committed at least 15 more burglaries, including at Dan-Lo. Detectives from the Hernando Sheriff’s Office had ruled out an inside job at New York Jewelers. They had read a bulletin from investigators in Sarasota describing a similar case, and were working another burglary at a Kay Jewelers, where the safe had been cut out of the wall in 2017. FBI agents had found stolen jewelry at the Secret Attic Thrift Store in South Florida, owned by Petruccelli. Hernando detectives visited West Palm Beach and took pictures. Some of it was from Dan-Lo and the local Kay.

The cooperating witness spilled details to the FBI.

He and Ornelas had served time for the previous string of burglaries, he said, and in 2011 they started again. Petruccelli joined them about a year later. Before they were caught a decade earlier, Ornelas and Granims had teamed with John Mark Collins, a former Palm Beach County Sheriff’s detective who had worked with Granims in a private investigation company. Ornelas and Granims cooperated with prosecutors back then, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, flipping on the former deputy.

They made sure not to burglarize anywhere around Palm Beach County, where they lived.

Still a locksmith, Ornelas used drills and saws to break into businesses and crack safes. The Hernando sheriff said he even performed work for Kay Jewelers, breaking open safes when employees could not. If the trio stole from a Kay, Ornelas spent hours sawing into the safe rather than drilling, because he worried the company would recognize his method.

The burglars cased 200 jewelry stores but ultimately stole from only 23 in Florida, Hernando Detective Shawn Galarza said. They made note of police patrols, and Granims used radios to listen in on law enforcement, making sure cruisers were not nearby. They used a phone application, Silent Circle, to communicate without detection.

Galarza said Ornelas would break first into an adjacent business to a jewelry store, then cut a small hole in the wall to test if the alarm system went off. When they were sure no law enforcement was coming, the burglars ducked inside and Ornelas set to work on the safe. Using cameras and listening devices, Galarza said, Ornelas could crack open a lock. The burglars would ransack the store, detectives said, and almost never left any physical evidence. They often started around 10 p.m. and would sometimes work nearly until sunup.

If Ornelas got a bad feeling, Galarza said, they would abandon the job.

Items confiscated by the Hernando County Sheriff's office are displayed during a news conference Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019 in Brooksville. A trio of jewelry store burglars used these items to rob between $16 million and $18 million from places around Florida. [ ZACK SAMPSON | Times ]

• • •

The cooperating witness told detectives the burglars were about to expand beyond Florida. Ornelas sold safes through his locksmith business, according to the complaint, and he had been contacted by a marijuana dispensary in Chicago to install a unit that could hold more than $700,000 in cash. He thought it was a perfect target.

In Spring 2018, with their latest job approaching, the cooperating witness worked with the FBI to record meetings where the burglars planned their Chicago trip. They switched their phones into airplane mode before they talked, at a diner in Davie, so they didn’t ping nearby cell towers. They talked about getting a GPS, crowbar, extension cords and vice grips. They rented a car with an Illinois license plate from a local Thrifty for a scouting mission. They walked around shopping plazas, made notes of alarms and locks around dispensaries and jewelry stores.

In mid-May, they left Florida in a rental car, bound for Chicago.

The FBI, and Hernando detectives, were waiting.

• • •

Two tables at the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office on Thursday were covered with evidence detectives seized from the burglars after they were caught in Illinois outside a jewelry store: a heavy yellow drill, a long saw, some cash, multiple pieces of jewelry.

Galarza smiled while talking about the takedown. It’s not often Hernando detectives travel out of state with federal investigators to make an arrest. “It was pretty cool, I would say.” Ornelas and Petruccelli, he recalled, were shocked.

The men will face charges of burglary and racketeering connected to the Hernando cases, according to the sheriff. Ornelas and Petruccelli are in federal custody and faced charges related to the Chicago case, according to authorities. Granims is not, but could not be reached Thursday.

Galarza said the men used a particular person, or fence, to sell the jewelry, getting a percentage on the dollar. He said the buyer has not been caught.

To the side of the detectives, Dan Short stood gawking at evidence. “I lost so much money, I’m going to have to work until I croak probably,” he later told a reporter. He is considering suing the three men.

Denise Short, 56, said the burglars hurt mom-and-pop stores most. “When you take everything in our safe, which is all our good stuff, you ruin the jewelry store,” she said.

Her husband approached the evidence tables and scanned the plastic bags.

“Wow,” he said, pausing over one.

Detective Anthony Belmonte pointed to a piece of gold, shaped like an upside down teardrop.

“There’s your wife’s pendant,” he said.

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.