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NY: Indian-origin jewellers on trial for 'fake robbery'

By Arthur J Pais
February 26, 2011 02:00 IST
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Guy Ritchie's cult film Snatch detailed the misadventures of amoral boxing promoters, violent bookmakers, a Russian gangster, incompetent robbers, and 'Jewish jewelers' in the race to track down a priceless stolen diamond. Benicio Del Toro dressed up as a Hasidic Jew to trick his way into a jewelers' backroom and steal an 84-carat diamond. The Hassidic Jews were not happy with the film. They are unhappier with the just-started court case involving fake robbers dressed up as Hassidic Jews.

There is no evidence that business partners Atul Shah and Mahaveer Kankariya, each facing 15 years in prison for allegedly hiring two men dressed up in orthodox Hasidic Jewish clothing, saw Snatch. But prosecutors insist that Shah and Kankariya hired two men to rob the wholesale gems and jewelry shop that they ran in New York's diamond district.

The shop was located on the fifth floor of a building, which means they paid less than half the rent companies on the lower floors paid. Hasidic Jews make up about 60 percent of the diamond traders, followed by Armenians and Indians. The Hassidic men wear dark clothing, fedora-style black hats, and long beards and earlocks.

Shah and Kankariya, the prosecutors say, sought to use the December 31, 2008 daytime robbery of their money-losing jewelry business, hoping to collect $ 7 million from insurance. The court papers say the dealers were six months behind on rent and had a $ 1 million debt. The duo said they lost diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, rings, pendants. While some people in business believe the 'stolen' goods were worth at least $ 4 million, in the insurance claim the stated figure was $ 7 million.

The two men were arrested nearly a year after the alleged robbery.

'This is a theory without a case, your honor. This is a theory without a witness,' Shah's lawyer Benjamin Brafman told Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Thomas Farber. Since both men rejected trial by jury, Farber will decide their fate soon. The police have not arrested the alleged robbers but the New York Post revealed that one of the phony bandits is being questioned at the Midtown North stationhouse.

Shah, 49, and Kankariya, 44, who have been in the jewelry business for over a decade, are charged with insurance fraud, attempted grand larceny and falsifying business records. Court documents say they allegedly took out 'a massive liability plan' just before the alleged fake robbery, but they have not been able to collect any money from it because of their arrest.

Brafman claimed the DA's theory was the work of a detective 'who had twisted the evidence to fit the story.' Michael Bachner, a lawyer for Kankariya, said his client was not even at the jewelry store when the robbery occurred after Shah was gagged and tied up. He lost no time in declaring that the robbery was real. 'This insurance company (Lloyd's of London) had seven million reasons to ensure this claim never got paid,' he said.

Authorities said the maintenance workers had unearthed hidden toy pistols in the tiled ceiling of the room occupied by the defendants, indicating the phony nature of the robbery. More than the fake weapons, the authorities found a videotape that showed the two men empty their jewelry safe.

'They filled the safe with empty jewelry boxes so they could be strewn around the room by the fake robbers,' District Attorney Eugene Hurley said on the opening day of the trial.

Prosecutors say the two men took a major misstep and could not destroy the evidence, though they were not aware that evidence had remained. To prepare for the staged heist, the men allegedly poured industrial-strength drain cleaner onto a digital video recording device that took electronic feed from security cameras, the media reported. The chemical did not damage the recording, and digital footage recovered by investigators show Shah and Kankariya filling the safe with empty jewelry boxes, according to the court papers filed by the prosecutors.

The point of destroying the DVR was 'so no one would see how fake the robbery seemed,' Hurley asserted in court.

Newspapers quoted him adding: 'Unfortunately for the defendants, the drain cleaner had to seep down into the motherboard of the DVR in order to (destroy) it.'

Shah, who had been tied up for over an hour along with another employee, claimed the robbers had used force to throw him onto the ground. Detective Kevin Buehler testified in court that Shah had told him that the gunmen had threatened to 'blow him away.'

Prosecutors insist the account was part of a well-rehearsed story meant to distract the police and impress the insurance company.

'These guys basically made their own, real-life Coen brothers movie,' wrote the Village Voice. 'As the trial progresses we'll probably find out that Kankariya is a robe-wearing slacker who loves to bowl, or that Shah worked at a gym and was trying to get money for a boob job.'

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