A Unique Way to Get Some Jewelry on the Cheap

When Pratap Zaveri woke up on the morning of March 19, 1987, he probably didn’t realize that he’d spend most of the afternoon dealing with a lot of law enforcement personnel. By all accounts, Zaveri was a law-abiding citizen and one who probably made sure the people he worked with as well. That’s because Zaveri was the owner of Tribhovandas Bhimji Zaveri (TBZ) jewelers, and that day, worked out of the chain’s store in the Opera House in Mumbai. And it should go without saying that you’d want employees who aren’t sticky-fingered or the like, not with all those valuables around.

But at about 2:15 PM on that March day, Zaveri’s day went south, and quickly. A team of more than 26 agents from the Central Bureau of Investigation descended on the Opera House TBZ store to conduct an unannounced raid. The leader of the CBI team introduced himself to Zaveri as Mohan Singh, handed over the search warrant, and ushered the investigators into action. As a police official later told the Economic Times of India, the authorities “came in, pulled down the shutters, ordered customers and staff to wait and took the registers” — all of which was, in the words of the Times, “standard for the CBI, the feared criminal investigation agency.” Investigator Singh further ordered Zaveri to turn off the closed-circuit cameras, hand over a revolver, and to not make or accept any phone calls while the raid was on-going. Zaveri probably had no reason to believe he was guilty of anything, but he also wasn’t going to prevent the CBI from conducting their raid. The law enforcement agents bagged some jewelry samples as well, intending to check to see if they were genuine. They loaded two briefcases of the evidence onto the bus on which they came, and Singh then left to supervise another raid. The rest of the agents remained to finish the investigation.

About an hour later, the investigators will still on-site, and Zaveri had enough. He called the police, likely asking why this was taking so long. The answer was not what he had hoped to hear. The police informed him that they had no knowledge of a raid being planned on TBZ that day. And there was no officer named Mohan Singh. 

TBZ had just been robbed. 

When the real police arrived on the scene, they were probably confused as to why the fake police were still there. In fairness to the fake police, they were also confused. As Yahoo News reports, a few days earlier, Mohan Singh — not his real name — “had placed an advertisement in a leading newspaper seeking men and women for the post of intelligent officers.” Singh, purporting to be an actual CBI lead, hired 26 of them — some of whom were then currently employed in law enforcement but looking for better jobs — and put them right to work. The double-bakers-dozen was told that their first task was a training exercise — a mock raid on the TBZ store. Singh outfitted each of them with (fake) government IDs and briefed them on the assignment; with no reason to suspect foul play. Even the bags in which they placed the seized jewelry appeared legitimate — each one had an inventory slip bearing a governmental seal. Singh’s accomplices weren’t criminals; they were victims as well.

By the time the real authorities figured out what had happened, Singh was long gone. Per NDTV, “the police learned was that Mon Singh had booked a room at The Taj Mahal Palace & Tower on March 17” and that, after leaving TBZ, “Singh got off the bus at The Taj, asked the bell boy to call a taxi, and put the bags inside the vehicle,” then went to another location where he changed over to a car. After that, the trail went cold. Per the above-linked Economic Times article, the investigation left no lead unturned; the authorities “even sent a team to Dubai, because [they] heard he might be there.”

Ultimately, Singh’s caper was victorious, to the tune of about $500,000 in cash, gold, and jewelry (in today’s dollars). More than three decades later, his true identity — and the whereabouts of the stuff he stole — is as unknown as it was on that March day.

Bonus fact: In TV and movies, pimps are often depicted wearing a lot of jewelry, and there’s a reason for that — in real life, pimps actually do tend to wear a lot of jewelry. Why? To help them make bail if they’re arrested. In 2011, Rick Harrison, the star of TV’s “Pawn Stars” (and a real-life pawnshop owner) explained the strategy to NPR’s Fresh Air: “When you get arrested for pandering, they take your cash — because the cash was obtained illegally — but they don’t take away your jewelry. And a pimp knows that if he buys jewelry in a pawn shop, if [he] brings it back to a pawn shop and gets a loan against it, [they’ll] always get half of what you paid for it — as opposed to buying it in a jewelry store, when [they] don’t know what [they’re] going to get. So, when they get arrested, they will always have someone bring their jewelry down to me. I will loan them half of what they paid for it — and that’s their bail money.”

From the Archives: How A Nearly-Perfect Crime Became Perfect Again: Another jewel heist.