“It was ‘Ocean’s 11’ meets ‘The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.’” — New York Post reporter and author Phil Messing
During midnight hours of Sept. 4, 1994, Tiffany & Co. on New York City’s famed Fifth Avenue was robbed of nearly $2 million worth of jewelry by six men.
The men, two of whom were armed, managed to make their way into the iconic store, tying up four security guards on duty and making off with over 400 pieces of jewelry totaling $1.9 million.
The heist was, according to experts, perfectly executed: No one was injured, no shots were fired, nothing was broken and not a single safe was opened.
It was the aftermath that the seemingly clever criminals did not plan for. About two weeks later, the six men, who ranged in age from 24 to 31, were all arrested, and eventually almost all of the jewels were recovered.
Twenty-four years later, it remains the biggest robbery in the store’s 181-year history. So how did the perfect plan go perfectly wrong?
Tiffany’s sits on Manhattan’s ritzy Fifth Avenue among high-end shops like Bergdorf Goodman and Bulgari, and landmarks including St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Trump Tower.
The art deco store known for its fine jewelry and robin’s egg blue boxes has been an American staple for nearly two centuries.
“It looks like a church, with its stately elegance, and it has understated class. It is not gaudy, not flashy, it is and was sophisticated,” former New York Post reporter and author Phil Messing told InsideEdition.com.
The store’s windows were famously featured in the beloved 1961 Audrey Hepburn film, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and have since been a popular destination for tourists from around the globe.
“People going into Tiffany’s were then and are now la crème de la crème, the 1 percent. Other people would shop there to make a statement,” Messing said. “People go to a store like Tiffany’s so they can feel the luster of legitimacy.”
In 1994, New York City crime was on the decline as then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani had implemented strict plans to “clean up” the city and help bring it out of the economic doldrums.
“In the 1990s, things had chilled and Giuliani allowed us to do our jobs. It wasn’t as bad as [the crime] of the 1970s and 1980s,” former NYPD Commanding Officer of the Third Division Sal Blando, who spearheaded the investigation of the Tiffany’s heist, told InsideEdition.com. “[The] mid-'90s the city was coming back. We had gone through difficult times.”
“This was at a time when the city was turning around with the bad crime,” added former New York Daily News journalist Patrice O’Shaughnessy. “They were making a dent in crime.”
But it was in the midst of this emerging new era that New York City was thrown a curveball with the Tiffany’s robbery.
In August 1994, six men, including two cousins, crafted a masterful plan to rob Tiffany’s. The strategy emerged in part thanks to the fact that two of the six worked for the company in its security department.
Tiffany’s security supervisor Scott Jackson, the alleged mastermind of the plot, recruited his two cousins Mark Klass and Derrick Jackson, and his colleague, Tiffany’s security guard Mark Bascom, plus two other friends, Theodore Johnson and Charles Gillyard, to aid in the heist.
Prior to working his night shift the Sunday of Labor Day weekend in 1994, Jackson called out sick. Bascom was working the midnight to 8 a.m. shift that day and was on duty during the crime.
As Bascom was entering the building to work his shift, he linked up with his accomplices and helped them gain access to the store by making it seem as though they were with him and just needed to use the facilities.
“He was waiting to cross Fifth Avenue, at which time two men approached him and showed him guns. They said, ‘You're going to walk us into the employee entrance. You're going to tell them that we're your cousins, and we're going to gain entry that way, and that we need to use the bathroom,’” Blando said.
Bascom was approached to make it look as if he wasn’t in on the heist, even though he was.
Soon after, the rest of the criminal team joined in.
Once inside, the men each had various tasks. Some tied up the four other security guards who were not in on the scheme, others started stealing from the store, and the rest went to take the security tapes, removing any evidence that showed what had happened.
In just a few minutes, the criminals were in and out of the store, making off with over 464 pieces of jewels totaling an estimated $1.9 million at the time (roughly $3.2 million in today’s market).
The pieces included bracelets, watches, rings, diamond earrings and necklaces, all stamped with the Tiffany & Co. insignia.
As soon as the thieves left, the security guards who were tied up managed to get free and immediately called police, who rushed to the scene, according to Blando. Tiffany’s top brass was also alerted.
“There was no bloodshed, but it was a sinister crime to rob one of the citadels of American commerce,” former Post reporter Messing said. “You don’t have to be Lex Luther to do a crime like this, all you need is the inside info and you have the keys to the kingdom.”
“For someone who wrote about crime day in and day out, it was a breath of fresh air that no one got hurt,” O’Shaughnessy echoed. “It is an iconic name, an iconic store; you think [Tiffany’s] would be untouchable.”
At first, some believed it was the work of the mafia or professionals because of how clean the heist was. Then, as detectives under the direction of Blando started going through the case, they realized it seemed to be an inside job.
“They obviously had inside information because at certain counters … certain ones, not all of them, had mats behind them, which were wired to an alarm system. Those cases, they didn't go near, they avoided those mats,” Blando said. “There was a security director's office on another floor, and he had a locked cabinet with three camera recordings, I believe, separate from the ones down in the main security booth.
“They knew about those hidden recorders up in his office, and went up there, broke into the cabinet and took the video tapes, the VHS tapes.”
By the morning after the heist, word was everywhere and the rush to solve the case was on.
“It certainly was odd that Tiffany's would be robbed. I knew it was going to be a high-profile case, going to get a lot of attention on the news and a lot of pressure to solve the case,” Blando said.
As it turned out, the criminals helped detectives by failing to keep a low profile, trying to get rid of their score on the streets of Harlem, a sign of poor planning and inexperience.
“It was ‘Ocean’s 11’ meets ‘The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,’” Messing said. “They sold [some of] it on the streets of Harlem and you can’t effectively maximize your score.”
“It seemed like every day it was in the news, it was on television,” Blando said. “I know I did several press conferences, I couldn't tell them how the investigation was proceeding because I didn't want to give up what we knew, but I did say, ‘We're going to get them.’”
The thieves didn’t have what professionals call “a fence” to safely unload their score, and this poor exit strategy was what led to their being caught.
Larry Lawton, who is one of the most successful jewel thieves in American history, explained what went wrong to InsideEdition.com. He had no involvement in the Tiffany’s heist.
“A fence is a person that takes stolen property of any type and gets rid of it,” he said. “He's going to take that jewelry or that item and get rid of it to the next level. He's gonna make it clean…. A criminal has a fence. They go to somebody to get rid of something else.”
Lawton, a reformed criminal who served 11 years behind bars for racketeering, runs the Reality Check Program, which helps kids get off a path of crime.
During his reign as a jewel thief, Lawton made off with between $15 million to $18 million in stolen goods. He examined the Tiffany’s case and said the robbers’ execution and plan to get the jewels was good but they failed to think beyond the immediate crime.
“They were smart enough to plan it, but they weren't smart enough to totally plan it,” he explained. “... Getting rid of the jewelry or any item you steal is the most important part of a robbery. Knowing where your out is ... knowing where to get rid of something is more important or as important as doing the robbery itself.”
Lawton called the six men who pulled off the Tiffany’s heist “idiots” because of how things played out for them in the days following the robbery.
“They went up to Harlem in drug-infested neighborhoods, and tried to pawn the stuff to regular people, which is the biggest no-no, because everybody knows there are snitches, and there's informants in those neighborhoods that are hooked into the police, so it was a foregone conclusion,” he explained.
Blando agreed. “I just assumed that they had a fence and they would be able to dump all this jewelry out, turns out they didn't,” he said. “What they were attempting to do was sell it on the street, and at discount prices, which would prove to be their undoing.”
A heist of any kind needs to be planned “backward then forward,” Lawton added.
“When I heard Tiffany was robbed, my first thought was, ‘I wonder where they got rid of the jewels?’ Because it's a very close-knit society, the jewelry industry,” Lawton explained. “I never robbed in New York City, because you didn't rob in New York City if you want your life to be intact to organized crime.”
As the police followed all leads and continued to examine the case, they put out a tip line for people to call with any information.
A few days later, they received a call from someone in Brooklyn who said a bike messenger was trying to sell him a Tiffany’s bracelet at a cheap price.
Blando said his team staked out the employee and eventually caught him.
“It becomes a game then of ‘who talks first gets the best deal.’ He gave us another person's name that was part of the group. Picked him up and the domino effect,” Blando recalled.
As the perpetrators were taken into custody, they began to turn on one another. Eventually, the last suspect, Klass, surrendered on Sept. 10, 1994.
“I told him, ‘You didn't hurt anyone. Rule No. 1, don't hurt anybody and it's a crime of property, it's not a big deal. Empty your pockets,’ and there is a ball of bracelets, necklaces all intertwined, jangled, a clump,” Blando said.
It took less than two weeks to solve and arrest everyone. Police recovered almost all of the jewels that were stolen, minus a few items.
“It took balls. Sometimes I'm surprised what people have the balls to do,” Blando added.
Lawton said that ultimately the group failed because they turned on each other.
“These were opportunist criminals. These guys had an opportunity in a robbery. They weren't professionals. They didn't do this for a living,” he said. “... If they would all shut their mouth, they couldn't have got the evidence they did and some of them would have got off.”
Tiffany Chairperson William R. Chaney thanked police profusely at the press conference and said the company was “shocked” that a robbery of this nature had occurred in the first place.
“Our next step is to continue to maintain the type of tight security we have maintained for over 150 years – except one night,” he said.
To date, Tiffany’s Fifth Avenue has faced just one robbery since the 1994 heist when a Tiffany executive was caught stealing more than $2 million in jewelry between 2011 and 2013. That employee was given a year in prison.
“The luck was certainly with us in the fact that the guys that did this job didn't figure it out to the end,” Blando told InsideEdition.com. “Certainly, if organized crime had done this, it would've had a different ending, I believe.”
In the months after the arrests, the six men were all tried separately.
Theodore Johnson’s case is sealed according to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.
Mark Bascom pleaded guilty to one count of robbery in the first degree on Oct. 26, 1994. He was sentenced to two to six years in prison in June 1995 and was released in December 2000.
Mark Klass pleaded guilty to one count each of robbery in the first and second degrees on Nov. 11, 1994. He was sentenced to seven-and-a-half to 15 years in prison in June 1995. He was released from prison in May 2007.
Derrick Jackson pleaded guilty to robbery in the second degree on April 27, 1995. He was sentenced to eight years to life. Jackson was released in August 2017.
Charles Gillyard pleaded guilty to one count of criminal possession of stolen property in the fifth degree in May 1995. He was sentenced to conditional release and never served any time.
Scott Jackson, the so-called mastermind of the Tiffany’s heist, was acquitted of charges against him stemming from his 1994 arrest. He was, however, convicted of plotting an earlier $750,000 robbery of a Tiffany’s executive in July 1992. On April 19, 1995, Jackson was convicted of robbery in the second degree and was sentenced to five to 15 years behind bars. He was released in November 2006.
Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Edwin Torres said that “notwithstanding that verdict,” Jackson “was the main architect of all these transactions” and told Jackson that he was “quite fortunate” in escaping further penalties.
Tiffany & Co. declined to participate when asked by InsideEdition.com for comment on this story.