The Heist: Hamptons Handbag Theft Would Be Quite Different in the Old Days

The heist - East Hampton handbag theft cartoon by Dan Rattiner
Cartoon by Dan Rattiner

On the sunny afternoon of March 3, an SUV pulled up in front of Balenciaga, a store that sells $2,000 handbags on Newtown Lane in East Hampton. Five masked individuals hopped out, ran into the store and in about 30 seconds rounded up as many handbags as they could carry — 48 in all, with a total value of $94,000 — and ran back out to their SUV and drove off at a high speed. The store employees watched, amazed.

Across the street, a clerk at the Oliver Peoples high-fashion sunglasses store saw all the commotion and reported to police what had happened, and that the getaway car was a black Dodge Durango. Others called in the incident with their cellphones. The police gave chase, but soon, when things hit 100 mph, gave up.

Forty-five minutes later, the Durango, trailing smoke, pulled over on the shoulder of the Long Island Expressway at Exit 69 and came to a halt. The police, following at a distance, arrived and after some drama, arrested four of the five occupants. The fifth, a woman, got away on foot and has not been seen since. They all were from Newark, NJ.

I have been wondering how this elaborately planned heist might have played out if it had happened years ago when I first came out to the Hamptons as a teenager. It would have been very different.

For one thing, back then there were no $2,000 handbag stores in the Hamptons as I remember. Instead, $10 pocketbooks would have been available at Anita’s Women’s Wear. If masked robbers went in, they would have stuffed the glittering bracelets, earrings and necklaces perching on the glass counters into the pocketbooks before zooming off. No sense spilling any jewelry on the floor.

The getaway car would probably have been a van. We had vans back then. But no SUVs. The perps would slam the doors shut and leave in a screech of smoke and exhaust fumes. No catalytic converters. No seat belts either.

The sharp-eyed merchant across the street, of course, would not have been in a luxury sunglasses store, he’d have been Bob Otto, optician, who gave eye tests and sold moderately priced glasses he made in the back. And on this day, in the absence of cellphones and 911, anyone reporting the crime would probably have run down the street chasing the van a little ways, then gone to the payphone at the corner of Main and Newtown from where, after putting in a dime, they’d call the cops.

Alternatively, the crime may have been witnessed by an officer walking the beat. The cops were always around. After the stores closed at the end of the day, they’d check the front doors. If they found one unlocked, they’d call the merchant at home and he’d come down. Actually, there was little crime downtown. The stores didn’t have much worth stealing then.

The van from years ago would probably have also led the cops on a high-speed chase heading west. But with only a single two-lane road straightway through farmland and with only four traffic lights in the four main downtowns, the cops would stay on the robbers’ tail for as long as 50 miles and bring them to a halt at a road block. Probably in Eastport. Stupid when these up-island people didn’t know there’s only one way in and one way out.

That’s not what happened in this heist. Today, there are 22 traffic lights on that same getaway road. Running that many red lights at high speed could cause a catastrophic accident. And so, soon, after a short chase, the cops pulled up.

And back then, nobody would stop at Exit 69 on the LIE. The LIE, under construction, hadn’t been built out here yet. Where the chase would more likely end would be on the Montauk Highway at Eastport, where a dozen stinky duck farms sat along the side of the road separated from the highway by turkey wire. With more than a thousand ducks all over the place, some would get into the road — a flurry of feathers, loud quacks, yellow eyes and duck poop. Tourists driving by would often pull over so their kids could feed the ducks pieces of bread. That’s probably where the cops would have set up the roadblock.

The perps would come out of the van with their hands up, the ducks pecking at their ankles, and get hauled away. All the jewelry and the pocketbooks would then be returned to Anita’s Women’s Wear.

In the recent handbag heist, however, there’s something baffling about why these perps pulled over at Exit 69. They’d gotten away free. Newark loomed. But then, bang! The Durango wobbled, bounced and shivered, and they had to pull over. They’d gotten a flat tire.

I can’t explain this. Today, nobody gets flat tires. Tires are strong. In my day, flat tires were happening all over the place. Let’s just say this notable reverse is the exception that proves the rule.

Anyway, there they sat. And soon the cops, their lights flashing, pulled up. Seeing that, three perps in the Durango leaped out and ran into the nearby woods. The two others stayed in the SUV with their hands on the dashboard. The cops then called in the K-9 dogs and helicopters. (There were no police helicopters in my day.) The choppers circled around aiming infrared and heat-monitoring cameras down into the woods, and soon spotted the glowing white outline of two perps in the bushes. “Come out,” they shouted down over their loudspeakers, “The jig is up. Come out with your hands up.” They’d be behind bars for a long time.

Well, no they won’t. The next morning, a judge charged them with second-degree grand larceny, second degree being in possession of stolen property and seventh-degree possession of a controlled substance — some meth pills in a bottle. The judge ordered one held at Suffolk County Jail because he had multiple prior felony convictions. Today, the four are probably back in Newark meeting with lawyers about mounting a Robin Hood defense.

You know, I’ve lived a long time, been to a lot of interesting places, done a lot of nice things. But I’ve never been part of a heist. I’d like to do one before I go.

If you know of one, let me know.

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