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Five in court over jewel heists as hunt for fugitives continues

By Anna Leask

Five Latin Americans accused of being part of an international gang that stole $770,000 of jewellery faced court yesterday as police searched for two more suspects.

Cesar Orlando Romero, 43, Javier Espinosa Agreda, 26, Maria Teresa Martinez, 37, and a mother and daughter aged 43 and 25 who cannot be named, appeared before the Auckland District Court.

All five face a charge of obtaining material benefits from aggravated robberies, knowing it was actively contributing to the objectives of an organised criminal group. The mother and daughter are also charged with receiving stolen jewellery.

The daughter's lawyer, Barry Hart, said the pair believed they were taking the items out of New Zealand for tax evasion purposes. They would "hotly contest" the more serious charge.

Two other suspects, Juan Leal Casillas and Jose Roberto Jimenez Perez, are still at large. They are believed to be Mexican nationals and were seen in Christchurch last month.

Police said a lot of information had come in from the public after their photographs were published yesterday.

The alleged victims of the group were dealers from Australia and Asia who were in New Zealand to buy and sell jewellery.

One dealer from Sydney was robbed of jewellery worth $110,000 in suburban Parnell on May 2. Two other international dealers were robbed of more than $600,000 in gems outside Rydges Hotel in Auckland's CBD on May 17.

Concierge Kofi Tano saw the robbery and said the offenders were well prepared.

"I heard a noise ... turned around and there were guys with masks on their face," he told One News.

The offenders then went inside the hotel and tussled with the dealers, he said.

"They were just screaming at them, saying, 'What's going on?' They were trying to get the bags back off them."

Most of the stolen jewellery was recovered - some during the arrest of the mother and daughter at Auckland Airport last month.

The women, who are United States citizens but thought to be Colombia-born, stood together in the dock as they were remanded on bail to an Auckland hotel.

Earlier in the day, Romero and Agreda appeared in court via a videolink from Auckland Central Remand Prison. Court documents gave Romero's nationality as Colombian, but Agreda's was not listed.

The men sat side by side in the cell, arms crossed and looking stony-faced during their short appearance. They did not apply for bail.

Martinez appeared next, flanked in the dock by two police officers and visibly upset. She began to sob and shake when told she faced up to 14 years in jail if convicted.

All five accused will reappear in the Auckland District Court on June 24.

anna.leask@nzherald.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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