EXCLUSIVE SCOOP: The smooth-talker who slipped out of an Englewood jewelry store with a 2-carat $29,000 diamond ring and from a Tenafly shop with another gem worth $19,850 isn’t your average jewel thief, police told CLIFFVIEW PILOT : Ex-convict Robert “Whitey” Petrino, a 55-year-old “Southie” from Boston, has been it at it for decades.
Petrino ( mugshot, above ) was already facing charges in connection with the thefts of five engagement rings worth $48,000 in West Hartford when detectives from Englewood and Tenafly tied him to their capers.
What’s more, Petrino is considered a key suspect in the attempted theft of a $58,000 ring from another Englewood jewelry store in April. In that case, a jeweler spotted the thief sliding the ring under his overcoat and stopped him.
It would be possible, then, to link the three Bergen crimes into a string that would bring significant prison time if Petrino is convicted.
“This guy was calm, cool and polished,” Detective Lt. Timothy Torell told CLIFFVIEW PILOT . “He knew exactly what he was doing.”
Petrino’s record goes back to 1991, when he was convicted in a string of jewelry thefts in Connecticut. He was also convicted for stealing two large diamonds valued at nearly $80,000 in Kansas City, as well as another theft in Maine.
He was released just last year, and is on probation, after serving five years in federal prison for interstate transportation of stolen goods, court records show.
This past June, Petrino turned himself in to West Hartford police on his birthday to face jewelry theft charges there.
It was that arrest that helped put Petrino behind bars in Bergen County yesterday.
On Jan. 26, Laviano’s Jewelry Store on South Dean Street reported the theft of a 2-carat ring.
Employees told police a “well-dressed and smooth-talking middle-aged man entered the store and began asking to see various rings,” Torell said. “At one point he sent the clerk to retrieve a bracelet he wanted to check out also, during which he slipped one of the rings under an overcoat he draped over the counter.
“He promised the clerk he would be back in a few minutes to purchase the bracelet but had to check with his ‘sister’ first,” the lieutenant said. “The man never returned and Laviano’s later realized the loss.”
Englewood Detective Chris Kedersha retrieved what turned out to be excellent images of the thief from Laviano’s security system, Torell said.
Kedersha then turned to a database run by the jewelry-store industry in which detectives nationwide share information about thefts and holdups. The detective posted the video and still shots, hoping someone would recognize him.
“Professional jewelry thieves we know are very transient in nature,” Torell said. “As soon as we see store security footage of someone who is in no way trying to conceal their face, we know we have a traveler. These people will crush an area in Jersey one month and in a state as far as away as California the next.”
Three weeks after the Laviano job, Tenafly Detective Sgt. Adam Kopesky caught a similar case, this one at the Orogio Jewelry Store. The thief pulled the same distracting stunt and walked out with a diamond ring worth nearly $20,000.
Kedersha and Kopesky got good news when a West Hartford detective cruising the database recognized the thief.
Petrino is well-known in New England. He has a thing for former mobster-turned-FBI-informant James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger, a Boston-area organized crime legend who fancied himself a modern-day Robin Hood back in the Twenties.
Bulger fled Boston and went into hiding in late 1994 after being tipped off that he was about to be arrested by the feds under RICO statutes. He was one of the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” fugitives until agents caught up to him in June 2011 in California. Bulger was sentenced this past June to 12 years in federal prison.
Petrino, who used “Whitey” as his nickname, has claimed to be Bulger’s stepson, CLIFFVIEW PILOT has learned.
Petrino, who was locked up in West Hartford, waived extradition on the New Jersey charges. So Kedersha and Kopesky drove up yesterday and brought him back.
He posted $70,000 bail Friday night on the Englewood and Tenafly theft charges and was released.
The detectives involved “did an outstanding job in tracking down this guy and arresting him,” Tenafly Police Chief Michael Bruno told CLIFFVIEW PILOT . “This is another example of law enforcement professionals working together to keep our communities safe and bringing another career criminal to justice.”