Thieves nab safe, $500K in valuables in surgical heist

Moe Hussain surveys the new hole cut between his southern style BBQ restaurant and Le's Jewelry. (Stu Mills/CBC - image credit)
Moe Hussain surveys the new hole cut between his southern style BBQ restaurant and Le's Jewelry. (Stu Mills/CBC - image credit)

Thieves robbed an Ottawa jewelry store of half a million dollars worth of valuables on the weekend in a brazen overnight robbery reminiscent of a Hollywood heist film.

The burglars also caused extensive damage to a popular restaurant next door. Both businesses are located in the Towngate Shopping Plaza on Bank Street, just south of Hunt Club Road.

When Moe Hussain entered through the rear door of Moe's BBQ on Sunday, there were no immediate signs of what had unfolded there just hours earlier.

He soon discovered that his southern-style smokehouse had served as a staging area for an Ocean's Eleven-style heist targeting his neighbour, Le's Jewellery.

"I am a fan of those movies, but it's not fun being part of the show," Hussain told CBC on Monday.

I am a fan of those movies, but it's not fun being part of the show. - Moe Hussain

Hussain said he watched as Ottawa police investigators reviewed security footage showing three masked men arriving at the strip mall in a white van around midnight Saturday.

The suspects then blacked out the plaza's exterior security cameras with spray paint.

When Hussain entered the kitchen on Sunday, he found the restaurant's large stainless steel sink hacked free of its plumbing and tipped on one end on the floor. He wondered if someone had played a strange prank.

He then noticed a gaping hole in the wall of the restaurant, offering a clear view into the back room of his neighbour's jewelry store.

"I was confused if it was a mirror or a picture because I had never been in this store," Hussain said.

He soon pieced it together and called police. An spokesperson told CBC Ottawa police won't comment on the ongoing investigation.

Looked like professionals

It appears that the thieves entered Hussain's restaurant through the plaza's rear service corridor carrying ladders and cutting tools. They cut his heavy metal door cleanly at the hinge pin to avoid any obvious outward signs of a forced entry.

Once inside the restaurant, the thieves disabled Hussain's security cameras, then cut circular peepholes through the wall into the rear area of Le's Jewellery. They then cut larger holes higher up, allowing them to disable the jewelry store's cameras.

Next, the thieves used a powerful saw to cut through the wood siding, drywall, metal studs and plumbing, opening up a two-metre-by-two-metre passage between the two businesses. Copper pipes severed in the process were neatly crimped to prevent flooding.

According to Hussain, investigators told him it looked like the work of professionals.

Stu Mills/CBC
Stu Mills/CBC

Le's Jewellery owner Lan Le told CBC by phone that the thieves made off with a modern steel safe the size of refrigerator and weighing about 2,000 kilograms.

The safe was so heavy, she said, that the professional movers who delivered it broke her ceramic floor tiles.

'Like in a movie'

Hussain said he also viewed a short length of security camera footage recovered from Le's that showed the burglars working calmly and in unison, as though it was a construction job and not a high-stakes heist. He told CBC that the men in the video spoke to each other in what sounded like a Slavic language such as Russian or Polish.

It appears they exited the same way they entered, though it's unclear how they managed to move the heavy safe.

Stu Mills/CBC
Stu Mills/CBC

"It's exactly like in a movie," Le said, adding she hadn't been able to sleep the night before.

Le said she hadn't yet added up her losses, but knows there was at least $500,000 in valuables in the safe.

"I worked so hard for 15 years," she cried. "What am I going to do?"

She said all the thieves left behind were a few silver trinkets — not enough to bother reopening the store, even if she could.

Before leaving, the thieves also stole a small amount of cash from Hussain's till.

Stu Mills/CBC
Stu Mills/CBC

The incident has Hussain recalling a strange encounter earlier in the week when he found a man who appeared to be homeless loitering in the service corridor. One of Hussain's employees snapped a photo of the man and one detail later caught everyone's attention.

"When we looked back at the picture, [his] shoes were brand new," Hussain said.

Hussain spent most of Monday hiring tradespeople to repair the damage to his restaurant and hopes to reopen Wednesday.