Alamo jewelry store owner talks about robbery

December 29, 2009 6:58:24 PM PST
As he prepares to re-open his Alamo Jewelry Mart for the new year, owner Oscar Herrera is talking for the first time about what happened the night a would-be customer turned into a violent robber inside his store.

"I was pleading, please don't kill me, please don't kill me," Herrera told ABC7.

According to police, the man Herrera encountered that night was local Alamo window contractor Thomas Bennett. Herrera says Bennett had visited his store on a couple of prior occasions to buy watch batteries and that the two men talked about their families, running a business and Herrera's trips to China to purchase jewelry.

At one point, according to Herrera, Bennett told the jeweler his business was doing so well, he wanted purchase a 4 to 4.5 carat diamond for his wife. Herrera told ABC7, he contacted his suppliers and on the night of Dec.3, Bennett came in to preview a 4.1 carat, $45,000 stone that Herrera had delivered to his store.

That night, Herrera says the two men engaged in their familiar conversation, about their kids and trips to China. At one point, Herrera said, Bennett asked to see a smaller diamond that Herrera had stored in a back workshop. When Herrera turned away from Bennett, the jeweler says he felt something behind him.

"A gun pointed at my head, with a handmade silencer," is how the 53-year-old Herrera described it.

For the next several minutes, Herrera pleaded with the suspect not to rob him. In response, the store owner says Bennett told him, "I have to do it, I'm really in financial trouble and I have to do it."

After a few minutes, Herrera says Bennett put the gun with the silencer back in his coat and apologized. Herrera promised not to call police if Bennett would just leave. But instead, according to Herrera, Bennett pulled out another gun, a 9mm handgun. This time, Herrera says Bennett checked the gun for bullets, and then it went off.

"I was in front of him and when he closed the clip, I felt the shot right here in my heart," Herrera said.

Herrera then ran into his office and tried to shut the door, but he says Bennett reached through the opening, gun in hand.

Herrera said he grabbed the gun, "I lowered it and that's when I felt something warm in my hand and it went through my chest."

Critically wounded by two shots to the chest and abdomen, Herrera still managed to find his own .357 magnum and fired twice at Bennett.

"He jumped up a little bit, and he said, 'Oh, you shot me,'" Herrera said.

Herrera says Bennett then begged the jeweler to shoot him again, so Bennett's family could collect on a $5 million life insurance policy. Herrera says he fumbled for his reading glasses, trying to put them on so he could see the numbers 911 on the phone. At one point, he grabbed the 4 carat diamond, still on the showcase and ran to put it in his safe, fearing he would have to pay his supplier for the expensive piece if Bennett managed to steal it. All the while, Bennett was threatening to take his own life, or begging Herrera to shoot him and end it all. Instead, Herrera says he ran outside for help.

Herrera says it was only later that he learned that Bennett stayed inside the store for another hour in a standoff with police. By then, Herrera was in surgery at John Muir Hospital to remove a slug from his ribcage. The other bullet that entered through his side is still lodged near his spine. After surgery Herrera learned from his doctor that the pendant he was wearing around his neck, a keepsake from a recent trip to China, had probably saved his life. "He says, 'You were really lucky,'" Herrera quoted the doctor as saying. "'If you didn't have that pendant, the bullet goes straight to your heart.'"

Herrera plans to re-open his store in the same location in Alamo on January 4. Herrera will testify at Bennett's trial, but has also hired San Francisco personal injury attorney Sanford Cipinko to represent him in a possible civil suit against Bennett.

Earlier this month, Thomas Bennett was transferred from John Muir to the Contra Costa County Jail in Martinez, where he is being held on $2.6 million bail. Investigators say Bennett's motive was financial and that he had received a foreclosure notice on his expensive home just days before the robbery attempt at the Alamo Jewelry Mart. He is charged with attempted murder and burglary, with a special enhancement for using a gun with a silencer.

Contacted by ABC7, Bennett's family refused to comment for this story.

Fund for Oscar Herrera
c/o Alamo Chamber of Commerce
3000F Danville Blvd. #329
Alamo, CA 94507


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