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The Big Story: Robbery & Recovery

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ROBBERY & RECOVERY

VICTIMS OF CRIME STRUGGLE WITH AN UNSTEADY PATH TO NORMALCY

— By Eileen McClelland

Despite being
attacked in a store robbery in December 2013 that left her physically bruised, Denise Oros thought she had escaped
emotionally
unscathed …
at least at first.

But in June 2014, while attending jewelry shows in Las Vegas, she learned two of her industry friends had been killed during robberies.

“It was the first time I realized I could have been dead. really dead,” she says. “After that I had a really hard time.”

Oros, owner of Linnea Jewelers in La Grange, IL, suddenly began reliving the nightmare images that were seared deep in her memory.

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“Seeing them hold a gun on my employee — at her head. And feeling the gun at my head. They sprayed us both with mace and kicked us. I had bruises all over my body.”

Oros recalled how one of the robbers had grabbed her by her hair, threw her on the floor and stood on her. “Then he started opening up my cash drawer, yelling ‘Where’s the money? Where’s the money?’”

In June she cut her hair — short.

She learned more than she ever wanted to know about post-traumatic stress.

“These things are very intense in your mind and they come unbidden at the most unusual times. It can be a smell, it can be a news article, it can be someone’s shape, size and build that triggers a PTSD response. And you can’t — for a few minutes — shake it off.”

She didn’t want to leave her house or walk out of her store. She was plagued by nightmares and didn’t sleep well.

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“Because I’m a designer, I see in pictures. The pictures of the violence stained my brain.”
Oros is far from alone. Jewelers Security Alliance conservatively estimates that several thousand people in the jewelry industry are closely touched by serious crime against their businesses in the course of a year. In addition to whatever physical or financial harm they suffer, many of these victims also experience psychological trauma of varying degrees. Even if a victim is not present for a crime, such as a burglary, the victim may no longer feel safe and secure.

The important first step in recovery from acute or persistent trauma is to recognize such psychological injury, says Joseph Utecht, who oversees RELI(E)VE, a new benefit from Jewelers Mutual. Utecht manages crisis response at Ceridian LifeWorks, an employee assistance service provider.

“We’re all familiar with stories of the individual who walks away from an automobile accident saying he is fine, when in reality he has a bad concussion or a broken bone,” Utecht says. “In the immediate aftermath, the shock of the event and rush of adrenaline temporarily mask the injury. Psychological injury can be the same, but sometimes with a longer delay before the individual realizes he is struggling to cope with what happened.”

Janine Gauthier Mullady, a clinical health psychologist with Life Reset Solutions in Chicago, says a delayed reaction is a type of adaptive coping mechanism that puts a trauma in the back of the mind. The type of trauma that triggers that mechanism usually involves an experience in which a life is threatened — yours or someone you love.

“It’s our system’s way of protecting us in the moment, to bury it for a of time,” Mullady says. “The brain puts it off to the side until a time when you’re feeling like, ‘OK, I can handle this now.’ As you get further away from the situation and feel stronger, the brain says, ‘OK, you are strong enough to deal with this,’ and it’s going to start to come up.

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SHATTERED NERVES
ON A SUNNY DAY

It can be a smell, it can be a news article, it can be someone’s shape, size and build that triggers a response.”

DENISE OROS

Dennis Petimezas, owner of Watchmakers Diamonds & Jewelry in Johnstown, PA, left work at an enclosed mall one day in 1981, carrying a briefcase with nothing of much value in it, he recalls, to go visit a friend in the hospital who was having a baby.

After he parked his car and began walking, he turned around and saw a baseball bat coming right at his face.

Petimezas reflexively lurched backward but the bat delivered a glancing blow to his eye. He spun around and fell down, bleeding profusely.

He heard someone yell, “Get the jewelry!”

Seeing someone handling his briefcase, Petimezas pulled out a gun.

“My hand was on the gun, the gun barrel was pressed against his cheek and my finger was on the trigger,” Petimezas says. “I looked at him and saw that he was a kid, about 13 years old, and he started crying. It was very frightening.

“I heard another noise and saw an older guy with a set of nunchucks. I pointed the gun at the other guy and he started running and the kid ran off, too. It was a vivid, bright day, and I remember I had bled all over his head, he was crying and he ran off.”

I couldn’t stop thinking they had watched me and followed me.”

DENNIS PETIMEZAS

He walked to the hospital, holding his eye, which required eight stitches.

The physical injury was superficial, but his nerves were shattered.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact they had watched me and followed me,” he says. “And also that it would’ve been so easy for me to have killed this child. I got really paranoid about that happening again. You can’t help but dwell on it and think about it all the time.”
Petimezas found his own solution to circumventing those fears.

“After about a year, I quit carrying a gun. Statistically, if you have a gun and you’re involved in something, you’re going to come out a loser. I quit carrying a weapon and all that anxiety went away. It took about a year, before I was comfortable again and I don’t really think about it any more.”

These days, Petimezas is security conscious, aware, but no longer paranoid, he says.

“If you’re ever in an armed robbery, do everything they tell you, don’t look at them, and let them go,” he says. “I’m fully insured. Almost any peril we encounter is completely covered. Of course, senseless slaughter is something you can never insure against. At home, I would defend my family with a weapon.”

INSOMNIA and denial

SHATTERED NERVES
ON A SUNNY DAY

(We) help people tap their resiliency, give them confidence they have the resources to get through this.”

JOSEPH UTECHT

Utecht says counselors in the RELI(E)VE program encourage people to process what happened in whatever way they can.

“For most people that means talking about it, but not everyone is a big talker,” Utecht says. “For some people it might be just reviewing their own thoughts. It might even be writing down what happened.”

Mullady says that if the traumatic event isn’t dealt with on some level, it can build on itself and spiral out of control, leading to a deeper disorder.

Signs the individual may be having difficulty recovering from psychological trauma, according to Utecht, include insomnia, vivid and frequent flashbacks, a pervasive change in personality or demeanor, dramatic emotional swings, anxiety or paranoia, depression and/or heightened feelings of stress.

It’s better to seek help sooner rather than later, too. Early intervention can prevent lingering problems.

“People use different ways to cope with uncomfortable feelings like guilt, fear, anger or sadness,” Utecht says. “Most of us don’t want to feel those things very often. The classic mechanism is denial. They kind of stuff it and don’t process it. That can be healthy and get them through the initial stages of this. But deep down inside, there’s still the fear, still the anger, still the guilt. Something will trigger the memories and those feelings will come to the surface.”

In the first 30 days after the incident such symptoms are referred to as acute stress disorder; after 30 days the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress syndrome comes into play, Utecht says.
David Blitt, owner of Troy Shoppe Jewelers of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, experienced two robbery attempts within a couple of months, which led to a disorder that he still battles. “I think it’s a big mistake not to talk about it,” he says, “not to talk about your feelings.”

In the first attempt, late in October 2013, which he believes was random, he and his wife were leaving a movie, when three guys tried to jump them and steal their car.
But Blitt refused to comply.

“I got my wife in the car,” Blitt recalls. “I was in a shitty mood so I just started fighting back and didn’t let it happen, and they ran away.”

After that, he started carrying a small club.

The brain puts it off until you’re feeling like, ‘OK, I can handle this.’”

JANINE Gauthier MULLADY

On Dec. 1, 2013, he was working late at the store alone, preparing to go home. “The car was about 5 feet from our door. I came out, and saw somebody across the street coming out of a parking lot, wearing a hoodie. He was walking across the street really quickly. As he started to reach into his pocket and say, ‘This is a holdup,’ I used my club and cracked him across the head four times. I lost the club and I jumped on his back and pushed him out into traffic. Then for some reason, I thought he was hurt and I stopped and he ran away. The police deployed helicopters and dogs but they didn’t get him.”

“Other than being shaken up, I wasn’t hurt in either case.”

But the emotional repercussions took a toll.

“I seemed to handle it fairly well, but I lost some sleep,” Blitt says. “There was no doubt it was traumatic, and there was no joy in beating that guy up.”

The aftermath of both incidents began to drive a wedge between Blitt and his wife.
“After the second one, I asked her if she wanted to go and see a therapist,” Blitt says, but she declined. “We started becoming more distant with each other.”

The attempted robberies, he believes, and the fact the after-effects were largely ignored, contributed to his separation from his wife.

“I did not get counseling because I thought I was OK,” he says. “I was wrong. I should have, because it haunts me even now. A year later I did get some professional help.”

But even now Blitt often feels “antsy,” never stays late at work and always leaves as part of a group. His security cameras have been improved, making it easier to see what’s going on outside, but he’s still hyper-vigilant. At the mall where he was attacked, for example, he feels compelled to look behind every column in the parking lot.

“My spidey-sense is tingling all the time,” is how he describes it.

“As much as I would like to say I feel over it, I know it’s still there. For a while, I would wake up in the middle of the night almost nightly thinking about it. I would recommend that regardless of how strong a person thinks they are emotionally, they should get some help. The average person is not equipped to deal with this kind of trauma.”

One of the things he thinks about is what he’d do if it happened again.

“Either I’d be stabbed or shot, or I would kill the other person,” he says. “I would not stop. That is one of the biggest reasons I lose sleep, asking myself, ‘Why did I stop? If it happened again, I know I wouldn’t stop. That’s the one thing I’m certain of. If he presents a gun or knife, there’s nothing I can do. But if he came at me with nothing shown, I would revert to defending myself. I have a hard time with the morality of people who would steal like that. That to me is enough of a reason to defend yourself. I found out when it comes to personal protection of my family or my property, I am capable of actually killing a person.”

RECOVERY IS AN INDIVIDUAL PROCESS

Utecht says that it’s important to remember that while recovering from trauma is not an exact science, there are guidelines that can help.

“In general, we’ve found that the sooner people get back to work and push through that resistance, the better the likelihood they will get through it quicker. It’s not bad if someone takes a couple of days off, but the quicker you can ease them back into it, the better.”

Utecht advises store owners to encourage affected employees to come to the store for a meeting or light duty away from the sales floor as they adjust to their return, rather than retreating to their homes for an extended period.

Also, while it’s OK to find comfort in healthy activities, finding comfort in drugs, alcohol or food will only exacerbate the situation. “We encourage you, right after the event, to take a hot bath, go for a walk, spend time with your family, go get a massage — but when it comes to things you’re using to cover things up, it can turn into an addiction,” he warns.

The Jewelers Mutual benefit includes counseling options for a jewelry business’s employees and family members impacted by a traumatic event resulting in a Jewelers Mutual insurance claim, such as a robbery or natural disaster. Clients are invited to call to talk to a counselor 24/7. One-on-one and group counseling is also available.

I found out that when it comes to personal protection of my family
or my property, I am capable of actually killing a person.”

DAVID BLITT

Sometimes, just one conversation with a counselor can make a big difference. Jewelers Mutual client Edmond Bakos of Mona Clara Jewellers in North York, Ontario, Canada, had been robbed at gunpoint in his store. Initially, he thought he was fine. But as he worked with police on the investigation, reliving those events took a toll and led to insomnia. The breakthrough came when he learned about RELI(E)VE from his claims adjuster. Bakos was able to arrange a 45-minute phone appointment with a counselor. After that, he was amazed to begin sleeping through the night again.

“The goal is to help people tap into their resiliency, give them the confidence they have the resources to get through this,” Utecht says.

Oros’ attack took place before Jewelers Mutual launched its own crisis program, but she sought out therapy on her own. It took a solid three months of therapy, she says, to begin to cope with those terrifying images and flashbacks. The main strategies she employed were substituting other images for the frightening ones, and learning therapeutic breathing techniques.

“Now, I can remember that I am in the here and now,” Oros says. “That it’s over and I am still here. I survived. I’m extremely lucky.”

Mullady says that one breathing technique, known as Sudarshan kriya yoga, or SKY breathing, helps to turn off the nervous system that creates hyper arousal and the feeling of constant vigilance. “You can do that anywhere, so if you’re at work in the store and start to feel hyper-aroused — someone walks into the store who has a similarity to the person who robbed you — you can practice the breathing,” Mullady says. “No one has to know. But it can stop the flood of chemicals, cortisol and adrenalin and slow the heart rate.”

Other techniques include cognitive behavioral therapy, which can challenge distorted perceptions of what’s going on around you; exposure therapy, which allows virtual exposure to a traumatic event in a controlled environment; and eye movement desensitization, which helps people process disturbing images in different ways. “It’s an attempt to get the two sides of the brain to talk, and not let the experience get stuck in one part of the brain,” Mullady says.

In addition to therapy, support from Oros’ community helped her heal. Customers brought her cookies, conveyed their sympathy, and made it a point to patronize her business, leading to a 20 percent overall increase in revenue in 2014 over 2013. “To have your community rally around you is so reaffirming,” she says. “We share all the intimate celebrations of people’s lives — the surprises, the babies, the graduations — we get the red carpet premiere seats to all of that. Those moments give you the strength to handle life’s dastardly bullshit of the consequences of a robbery.”

WHAT TO DO DURING AND AFTER A ROBBERY

From Jewelers Security Alliance and Jewelers Mutual Insurance Co.
Stay calm and comply quickly with demands in order to get the robbers out the door.
Do not attempt to disarm the robber or reach for a concealed weapon. Assume the robber will shoot without hesitation.
If you are out of the robbers’ sight, in a back room or elsewhere, stay where you are. – Do not intrude on the crime scene.
Don’t activate a panic button until robbers have left the store to avoid a hostage situation.
Lock the doors immediately after the robbers leave. Do not chase the robbers or follow them out of the store.
Call 911 and tend to anyone who may be injured.
Try to keep all witnesses at the scene and collect contact information.
Ask your staff and witnesses to make notes about the robber and the incident.
Share details with the police and allow them to conduct a full investigation.
Contact your insurance company to report the loss.

Recommendations for Employers from Jewelers Security Alliance:
Following a crime at your store, have a staff meeting to calm people down, reassure them, allow them to grieve if necessary, and tell them that management understands that they are upset.
For a severe incident, have a psychologist, social worker or other psychological professional, with experience in trauma counseling, conduct a group session for the staff.
Give upset personnel a few days off, or some appropriate time, in order to recover.
Consider closing the store for the rest of the day following a dramatic crime and allowing employees to go home.
Talk to your employees individually to find out if they need help.
Be visible and available to listen to and talk with employees who experienced or witnessed the crime and violence.
Provide information on local crime victims support groups and trauma or crisis support groups in the community.
Provide information to traumatized employees regarding professional psychological resources.
Look into worker’s compensation or other issues resulting from psychological trauma.
Regular staff meetings should prepare staff for the day a crime occurs. Stress that if staff remains calm, and do not resist, the chance of inquiry is low.
After a time, management should again schedule staff meetings on security.
Recommendations for Employers from Jewelers Security Alliance:
Following a crime at your store, have a staff meeting to calm people down, reassure them, allow them to grieve if necessary, and tell them that management understands that they are upset.
For a severe incident, have a psychologist, social worker or other psychological professional, with experience in trauma counseling, conduct a group session for the staff.
Give upset personnel a few days off, or some appropriate time, in order to recover.
Consider closing the store for the rest of the day following a dramatic crime and allowing employees to go home.
Talk to your employees individually to find out if they need help.
Be visible and available to listen to and talk with employees who experienced or witnessed the crime and violence.
Provide information on local crime victims support groups and trauma or crisis support groups in the community.
Provide information to traumatized employees regarding professional psychological resources.
Look into worker’s compensation or other issues resulting from psychological trauma.
Regular staff meetings should prepare staff for the day a crime occurs. Stress that if staff remains calm, and do not resist, the chance of inquiry is low.
After a time, management should again schedule staff meetings on security.

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