Fort Worth suspect in jewel heist proclaims innocence

Posted Monday, Dec. 12, 2011  comments  Print Reprints
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They became known as the "rooftop burglaries." Time after time, thieves lowered themselves into jewelry stores, often through rooftop ventilation systems, to go about their larcenous business.

But those heists -- dozens of crimes going back as far as a decade -- had much more in common than that, such a similar modus operandi that insurance investigators, federal agents and police detectives became convinced that the jobs were the work of the same brazen crew.

The burglars had the expertise to disable the most sophisticated security systems. They had the tools and know-how to penetrate thick vaults of steel and concrete, and the audacity to linger in the vaults, sometimes for hours. Working at night, they loaded up sacks of gold and jewelry almost too heavy to carry -- tens of millions of dollars of loot over the years. Yet they never left behind so much as a fingerprint or a hair fiber.

Perhaps most frustratingly, investigators came to believe they knew the thieves' identity. The O'Brien brothers of Fort Worth were handsome ex-cons who police believe went about their crimes with seeming impunity and even had the nerve to open gold and jewelry stores themselves.

A $6 million heist in Houston in February might have been their undoing. No one saw them inside Karat 22 Jewelers. No definitive evidence was left at the scene. But the daughter of the store owner produced the big break. Seven months later, after an investigation that included Houston police, the FBI and the IRS, John Dewayne O'Brien, 47, was taken into custody. His brother Kelvin, 44, was nabbed, too. A third man arrested, Jason Clay Kennedy, 40, is a 7-footer from Crowley known as "Stretch."

Kennedy is said to be cooperating with authorities against the O'Briens. Police have heralded the end of a legendary spree.

John O'Brien says the celebration is premature.

"I know I'm innocent," he said during a recent interview. "I know I didn't do this stuff."

A few weeks after his arrest, he had managed to post a $750,000 bond. (His brother and Kennedy remain behind bars.) John O'Brien assembled a legal dream team that includes a former federal prosecutor, Terri Moore, and a former judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Morris Overstreet. Unbeknownst to his lawyers, he contacted the Star-Telegram and offered to tell his side of the story.

"My lawyers are going to kill me" -- they were indeed furious -- "but I don't care," he said at his business in north Fort Worth, John Henry Crane. The enterprise is named for O'Brien's father, John Henry O'Brien, who died in prison in 1999. The father had several convictions for theft and one for cocaine possession.

"I just want my side of the story to be heard," he said. "I don't have anything to hide. Ask me absolutely everything and I'll answer it."

'There is no evidence'

For the movie, and there could very well be one, Ben Affleck would be right to play John O'Brien. Running a few minutes late, O'Brien pulled up in a sleek black Mercedes, a guy with Affleck-like good looks and athletic build. He is amiable, if not downright charming.

"Let me turn that down so we can talk," he said of country music playing in his office.

At one point he lifted a pants leg and displayed an ankle monitor, worn as a condition of his bond. He talked of his children, a daughter and son; his love of playing baseball; his series of convictions for assault, theft and forgery that had him in and out of Texas prison for much of the 1990s. (He was last released in 1998, and within a few years, relatives noticed that he was driving luxury sedans.)

"The first charge I ever got was a bar fight: I shot a guy in the knee," John O'Brien said.

Mostly he attempted to describe how law enforcement officials had engaged in a widespread conspiracy, manipulating evidence to bring the O'Brien brothers down.

"There is no evidence, not one piece of proof, nothing, no video of us," he said. "I have cellphone records that I was here in Fort Worth. I have five individual witnesses that are going to get on the stand and swear under oath that I was in Fort Worth, Texas, when the [Houston] crime occurred.

"But what scares me is detectives getting on the stand and twisting the truth," he said. "Jason Kennedy is the only piece of evidence they have, and anybody who knows him will tell you he is a pathological liar. He's a complete idiot."

Police detectives and federal agents would not comment, but their investigations are summarized in two lengthy affidavits. The documents make clear that John O'Brien has a lot to explain.

"He is a con man. That's what he does," said Michelle Brown, a former detective who investigated a 2007 rooftop burglary in Pantego. That job probably put the O'Briens on law enforcement radar. "It will not serve him to confess to any of the other burglaries, unless you hit on his ego."

Harris County prosecutor John Brewer, while intrigued by O'Brien's audacity, also scoffs at his innocence claims.

"A reasonable person, even if looking at the most basic evidence in the probable-cause statement, would come to another conclusion," Brewer said.

Dropped indictment

According to the affidavits, the arrows began pointing at the O'Briens on a hot summer night in 2007. Just after 3 a.m. on Aug. 14, Pantego patrolman Adrian Renteria noticed an Infiniti SUV parked near businesses in the 2200 block of Park Row Drive. The vehicle was not running, the windows were rolled up, and the man inside was asleep or unconscious and sweating heavily. Renteria awakened the man, who said he had taken hydrocodone and had pulled over to rest, according to Renteria's report.

The officer identified the man as Chalky O'Brien and took him into custody after learning he was wanted on outstanding warrants. Police found that the SUV was registered to his older brother, John O'Brien, and John's name was on a locked briefcase in the vehicle. From inside the briefcase that night, Renteria could hear faint transmission sounds. Four years later, an IRS affidavit was more specific about what he heard: a voice saying, "Are you there? Where are you?"

The next morning, Danny Cox found that his jewelry store had been ransacked. Cox's Jewelry was just across Park Row from where Chalky O'Brien had been found dozing and where transmission equipment crackled in the briefcase next to him. Burglars had entered through the roof of an adjoining store, cut through a wall into the jewelry business and sawed into the safe. They made off with about $170,000 in jewelry, including $35,000 worth of items that had belonged to Cox's late wife.

The day after the burglary, the IRS affidavit says, Kelvin O'Brien sold 13.5 pounds of melted precious metals and loose diamonds to Dallas metal broker Mike Follett.

Follett paid O'Brien $43,064.50 in five separate checks of $8,612.90 each, unusual transactions that were flagged on government computers. When investigators contacted Follett, he turned over the diamonds sold by O'Brien.

"They were positively from my store, yes," Cox said recently. "A diamond is like a raindrop. No two are alike. They were definitely identified by me as diamonds that were in our store."

John and Chalky O'Brien were never charged, but brother Kelvin was indicted for theft. The case never made it to court.

John O'Brien said the indictment was dropped because "the diamonds they got didn't match the diamonds that were taken from the burglary in Pantego." He also disputed the accounts of Pantego police, saying Chalky O'Brien was actually arrested miles from Cox's Jewelry, not across the street. "Chalky showed me where it was," he said.

In any event, John O'Brien said, "He's not the kind of guy you want to do a crime with, because he was an intravenous drug user."

The real reason for the dismissal was quite different, Tarrant County prosecutor Lucas Allan said recently. Shortly before Kelvin O'Brien was to stand trial, Follett, the Dallas metal broker, died suddenly of natural causes. That left Allan with no witness to connect the defendant to the stolen jewels.

"We looked at it every which way," Allan said. "We have a guy who is sitting in a parking lot passed out in a truck that belongs to his brother, in the vicinity of the store about the time that store was burglarized. That is very interesting, obviously, very unusual. ... But if I'm a defense attorney, there are a thousand different things I could say to explain why that guy was sitting in that truck. Without someone putting these guys in possession of the diamonds and the jewelry -- that would have been Mike Follett -- we can't get there.

"It was a tough one to let go of," Allan said. "We had a lot of arrows pointing at them, but we just came to the point where we didn't think we could prove it to a jury."

Kelvin O'Brien was sent to prison, though, for a tax violation, and released in July 2009, according to the IRS affidavit. From fall 2007, when he was incarcerated, until his release two years later, there were no rooftop jewelry store burglaries in North Texas, the IRS affidavit said.

Then, on Oct. 31, 2009, burglars hit Collections Fine Jewelry in Saginaw, making off with an estimated $2.4 million in merchandise.

"The burglary's mode of operation matched that of the Cox jewelry store burglary," the IRS affidavit says. "Collections Fine Jewelry employees selected [Kelvin O'Brien's] picture from a photo lineup as a person who had been in the store a week before the burglary."

But he was never charged in the case. Saginaw police say the crime is still under investigation but otherwise declined to comment. John O'Brien said his brother was out of town when the Saginaw burglary occurred.

"Why didn't they rewind the tapes and show [Kelvin] on the video?" John O'Brien said. "There is at least 15 cameras in that jewelry store. At least 15 cameras. Someone can pick him out of a lineup, but they can't find him on the video?"

An aggressive player

John O'Brien and Brian Wallis had known each other for years, introduced by O'Brien's girlfriend, Derenda Neatherlin. Wallis said that Neatherlin was always pleasant and that O'Brien was a handsome and soft-spoken guy who ran his own construction company. A few years ago, John O'Brien told Wallis that he had won a large legal settlement from a construction accident and wanted to use the proceeds to get into gold. Wallis, one of the most established gold refiners in Dallas, said he reluctantly agreed to show him how.

"I was getting older. The price of gold was going up. It was a good business," John O'Brien said in the recent interview. "It started out not as a jewelry business but as a gold refinery. We'd buy from pawnshops and jewelry stores and melt it down and sell it."

In the years to come, Wallis said, John O'Brien became an aggressive player in the North Texas gold business, opening storefronts in Dallas and Tarrant County, advertising on trucks, and soliciting business by phone. He regularly took Wallis gold to be refined, typically about $100,000 worth at a time.

About two years ago, John O'Brien bought land in north Fort Worth and opened another business, renting industrial cranes. He said he came to employ about 30 people at John Henry Crane, and his lots were filled with expensive equipment. In late 2010, at an auction in Las Vegas, O'Brien had the winning bid for $1.25 million in machinery, including a crane valued at $900,000. In November 2010, Neatherlin signed a $100,000 check as down payment, according to the affidavit.

On Feb. 10, the sellers received payment in full, a wire transfer from O'Brien for $1,146,342, affidavits said.

'They weren't stupid'

Five days earlier, late on Saturday, Feb. 5, a burglar alarm was set off in Karat 22 Jewelers, a thriving family establishment in Houston. When notified by the alarm company, store owner Chitranjan Patel checked feeds from security cameras that were transmitted to his home computer. Nothing seemed amiss. He thought it was a false alarm and went to bed.

The next day, Super Bowl Sunday, the owner's son, Anant Patel, arrived in the late morning to open Karat 22. Inside the immaculate store that specializes in the highest-quality (22-karat) gold, he saw chunks of concrete and dust everywhere. Anant Patel discovered the vault open and the jewelry trays gone.

"I was so scared, just trembling," Patel said.

The burglars had entered through the roof of the one-story building. They had disabled the security cameras and a sophisticated alarm system.

"They weren't stupid," Patel said. "They knew the security system so well that they took out a backup cellular chip in the control panel."

They had penetrated 6 inches of concrete and steel to enter the vault, apparently using 5-inch saw blades that were left at the scene. The thieves spent up to six hours inside, making off with 155 kilos of gold and several watches and other jewelry pieces. Anant Patel lost his wife's wedding ring and other priceless family heirlooms. Security videos showed two masked, black-clad men about 4:30 a.m., struggling to pull a heavy sack and a container away from the store and loading them onto the bed of a pickup that had appeared to be waiting.

FBI and IRS agents joined Houston police in the investigation. But Anant's sister, Rachna Patel, took it upon herself to collect weeks of surveillance videos from surrounding businesses. Several days after the burglary, while studying the video, she saw a dark Ford pickup driving suspiciously near the store hours before the burglary.

"It was very odd," Anant Patel said. "It was circling, parking for five minutes, driving around, parking for five minutes, driving around, without ever getting out of the vehicle. She managed to get a license plate off that truck, and she gave it to police."

Detectives discovered that the truck was registered to Jason "Stretch" Kennedy of Crowley. There was another possible connection to the Metroplex. Early in his investigation, Houston police Detective Frank Quinn spoke with the Karat 22 insurance adjuster, Dennis Loop. Loop told the detective that he had investigated a series of similar burglaries in Texas and Oklahoma and had identified John and Kelvin O'Brien as suspects.

Police found that another vehicle registered to Kennedy, a van, had been used by Kelvin O'Brien for business.

"Based on that registration," Quinn wrote in an arrest affidavit. "I was able to link Jason Kennedy with at least Kelvin O'Brien."

Buckets of gold

On Feb. 7, the day after the Houston heist was discovered, John O'Brien walked into Brian Wallis' business, Millennium Precious Metals in Dallas. O'Brien struggled to heft two Home Depot buckets filled with bars of gold, an amount many times more valuable than O'Brien had ever tried to sell before, according to affidavits and a recent interview with Wallis.

"Wow," Wallis said he told O'Brien that day. "What happened? How'd you get this?"

O'Brien explained that he had bought out the gold inventory of another company and was liquidating his own stock with plans to get out of the business, Wallis recalled. A few days later, O'Brien was back with two more buckets, a slightly lesser amount. Because of the amount O'Brien had delivered, Wallis said, the refining would take longer than usual, which would also delay payment.

O'Brien seemed in a hurry to get the money, Wallis said.

Kelvin O'Brien was antsy, too. The day after John O'Brien's last visit, Kelvin also showed up, a muscular, handsome man, who caused a scene in the Millennium lobby. He said John had cheated him out of his gold money and was gambling it away in Las Vegas, Wallis recalled.

"My brother has effed me around a million times already," Kelvin said, according to Wallis. "If I don't get it [the money] from you, I'll never get it from him."

Wallis told Kelvin that there was nothing he could do: Because John O'Brien had brought in the gold, the money would need to go to him. Kelvin eventually calmed down and left. But a day later, Wallis said, Millennium had another visitor, a gangly, 7-foot man with a shaved head and glasses.

"I'm Stretch," the man said. "I've been sent by the O'Briens to collect. They give me jobs to do, and I get them done. I'm not supposed to leave here empty-handed. I'm going to take something of value with me."

Wallis said he and other employees laughed at the overt attempt to intimidate them. He said he told Stretch that he could wait as long as he wanted, that the O'Briens would not get paid until the refining was complete. Stretch sat down in the Millennium lobby and started making phone calls. When two armed security guards showed up and sat down on each side of him, Stretch got up and left.

Wallis soon wired $3 million to John O'Brien, in two payments. The appearance of Stretch certainly soured his business relationship with the O'Briens. But Wallis said it was not until federal agents appeared last summer that he learned of their suspected involvement in the jewel heists.

Spending spree

Whether Kelvin O'Brien ever squared up with his brother is unknown. But according to the IRS affidavit, two weeks after the Houston burglary, Kelvin O'Brien's wife, Maggie, used a cashier's check for $106,000 to buy a new Land Rover. The same day, Kelvin used a $161,000 check for a Ferrari. There was no trade-in.

On March 23, Kelvin paid cash for a $445,000 home in Lewisville. That same day, he bought a boat for $175,000, again with a cashier's check for the full amount.

John O'Brien said his brother's spending spree was financed with legitimate company funds. He said he can prove that the gold he took to Millennium had not been stolen.

"We have receipts," he said. "We have absolute 100 percent proof of where every piece of that gold came from, the customers, the company names."

A bittersweet wedding

Last Aug. 23, Derenda Neatherlin wore a sleeveless white gown for her wedding to John O'Brien. The ceremony took place in the twilight, next to the waterfall of the backyard pool behind their Fort Worth home. The groom, best man Chalky O'Brien and groomsman Kelvin O'Brien all wore starched white dress shirts and bluejeans. About 150 guests were in attendance, sharing champagne toasts.

"It was an amazing night," John O'Brien said.

But he concedes that it was bittersweet. A few weeks earlier, the IRS had seized one of John O'Brien's cranes for what he thought had to do with a tax lien. In reality, agents were preparing to close in and were trying to take back family assets that they believed were purchased with stolen loot.

Chalky was dying of cancer and had risen from his deathbed for the wedding.

And Kelvin's wife, Maggie, in two July interviews with authorities, had provided what seemed to be more incriminating evidence against her husband and John, affidavits show.

"She told me that she remembers the weekend of Feb. 5 because it was Super Bowl weekend and she had planned a large party," wrote Quinn, the Houston detective. "She said she recalls arguing with Kelvin because he told her he was going out of town to do a 'job' and that he was meeting his brother John and a third man she knows as 'Stretch.'"

She also told investigators that she believed her husband was burglarizing jewelry stores, Quinn wrote.

"When I asked her why, she said on this occasion he came home wearing all dark clothes, he washed his clothes immediately after returning home and she found loose diamonds ... in the washing machine," Quinn wrote. "Maggie also told me that after she learned about a large amount of money being transferred into Kelvin's bank account, around March 2011, Kelvin told her they needed to 'spend it fast.'"

Further, in a search of their home, investigators reported finding written appraisals for diamonds "nearly identical" to diamonds taken from Karat 22.

John O'Brien said statements attributed to his sister-in-law are part of the law enforcement conspiracy.

"This is really hilarious," he said. "They come in with a search warrant. They got her sitting on the couch. They're telling her there's a possibility that she's going to jail. She's crying. She's scared to death. They said, 'Where was Kelvin on the 5th and the 6th?' And she said, 'I don't know. It was seven months ago.' 'Could he have been in Houston?' She said, 'I guess he could have been.'

"She's gone back and done a deposition with our attorneys, swearing under oath that she never told them that," he said. "She didn't say she found diamonds in the dryer the day after the burglary, like they put in their affidavit. The diamonds she found in the dryer were from months before."

When contacted by telephone, Maggie O'Brien agreed that she had given another statement to attorneys saying "what things are true and what aren't."

She declined to comment further.

'The FBI knows the truth'

But even more circumstantial evidence had piled up. A day before the Karat 22 heist, credit card receipts and surveillance video at a Home Depot near his home showed that John O'Brien had bought the same kind of saw blades as those used to penetrate the store's safe. (O'Brien says he regularly bought the blades for his own business.)

In early September, while John O'Brien was with Chalky at a hospice, the call came from his attorney, Terri Moore. He had been charged in the Karat 22 heist and was to turn himself in. He complied and was in jail when Chalky died a few days later at age 45. Kennedy was arrested at his Crowley home. Kelvin remained at large until he was tracked down and arrested in late September at a posh Dallas nightclub.

At an arraignment in Houston, John O'Brien said, he heard prosecutors tell a judge that Kennedy was cooperating with authorities.

Later, Kennedy and John O'Brien were reunited in the same holding cell. (They had first met in jail in 1995, O'Brien said.)

"I said, 'Did you tell them I did this?'" O'Brien said.

By O'Brien's account, Kennedy said he did. Authorities had found drugs in his home, he said, and threatened to charge his pregnant wife if he didn't cooperate. According to O'Brien, Kennedy also said: "They put me in their truck and drove me around and showed me these other jewelry places and they asked me if I did those and I said, 'Yes.'"

"I said, 'Did you implicate me in those, too?'" O'Brien said. "And he said, 'No, I implicated your brother.' I said, 'Why did you do that?' He said it all goes back to them catching him with drugs, and his wife being pregnant. I said, 'Why didn't you indicate somebody else?' [Kennedy said,] 'You're the only ones they are interested in.'

"But this is the thing," John O'Brien continued. "They can't find me on any cameras. They can't find a fingerprint or DNA or anything because I didn't do it. So in a way I'm not worried. If it's just him saying we did it with him, if that's all it takes, then I'm worried."

O'Brien said he believes that Kennedy himself was involved with the burglaries.

"I do think he was, absolutely," he said, adding that his attorneys might have identified Kennedy's actual accomplices.

On a recent night at her home in Crowley, Kennedy's wife, Holly, was told that John O'Brien had put the finger on her husband.

"That's nice," she replied. "The FBI knows the truth. That's all that matters."

'They need to pay'

News of the three arrests spread rapidly in the community of Texas jewelers. Danny Cox, whose Pantego store was hit in 2007, said he heard this fall at an industry meeting in Dallas.

"My reaction at the time was, 'Thank God,'" Cox said. "They need to pay, you know."

A lawsuit filed last month alleges that the O'Briens and Kennedy committed another jewelry store heist in Austin on Jan. 30, 2010.

"The modus operandi is close to identical of the jewelry store heists which have taken place in the Southern United States, which the three individuals are being implicated as perpetrating," the lawsuit says.

But John O'Brien will not hunker down. Weeks after an initial newspaper interview, he also consented to do a long photo shoot and to tell his story to a video camera.

"You've got to keep your head up," he said. "You've got to stay positive. You've got to fight back and that's what I'm doing, fighting back. If you have any other questions, just call."

Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544

Twitter: @tsmadigan

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