ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – Detectives are investigating three smash-and-grab car burglaries that occurred Monday night in parking lots in and around the St. Augustine Outlets, according to the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office.
News4Jax has learned that the crimes, which happened between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m., have prompted outlet security officers to step up efforts to keep shoppers and employees safe.
Two of the smash-and-grabs occurred in the parking lot of a Cracker Barrel near the outlets.
Deputies said crooks smashed the windows of two vehicles and then grabbed purses containing cellphones, IDs, credit cards and Social Security cards.
Surveillance video captured a large SUV pulling up next to the vehicles that were broken into, and then taking off two minutes later, investigators said.
News4Jax crime and safety analyst Gil Smith said it’s all part of the thieves’ plan.
“They will come in a van because it also provides concealment for them. Now you have an area where people can’t see. They do this very quickly. They look to see if something is in plain view of the car and do a quick smash. It doesn’t take long. It takes a matter of seconds to smash a window. That doesn’t make a lot of noise," Smith said.
Around the corner at the St. Augustine Premium Outlets, deputies said, a woman came back to her car in a back parking lot and noticed the window had been shattered and her gun, which she kept in the glove compartment, had been stolen.
According to Smith, the Jacksonville metropolitan area, which includes St. Johns County, ranks second in the United States for weapons being stolen from vehicles.
“Atlanta is No. 1 and Jacksonville is No. 2, so you’re looking at two East Coast cities. These weapons don’t always stay in the area," Smith said.
Instead, Smith said, guns that are stolen from smash-and-grabs typically end up on the black market in cities farther up the coastline, where gun laws are much tighter.
An employee at one of the outlet stores told News4Jax on Tuesday that outlet security officers have taken steps to ensure safety for employees and their vehicles.
“They have asked us not to park in the back parking lot. They have asked employees to park in the front and make sure that you leave in groups of two. If you need to be walked to your car at night, they’ll be willing to walk you to the car if you feel uncomfortable," said store employee Maryann Choi.
Smith said it's possible that crooks are intentionally looking for cars that have National Rifle Association stickers or another type of stick that would identify the vehicle's owner as someone who owns a gun. He said that's sometimes how they know which vehicles to target when they are searching for a weapon to steal.