A California-based theft ring may have expanded its operation to the Salt Lake area.

The men who robbed three Fred Meyer employees of $1 million in jewels outside the Cottonwood Mall Saturday are possibly connected to a Los Angeles group that rips off millions in jewelry every year, Salt Lake County detectives fear.The ring pulled off about 80 jewelry heists along the West Coast in 1997, police say. The group, whose members number about 100, got away with more than $30 million in jewels last year, said Los Angeles Police Detective Bill Speer.

The ring has hit jewelry retailers in mostly West Coast cities in the past, but deputies fear that the group is striking other cities, said Salt Lake County Sheriff's Detective Brent Adamson.

"There's always the possibility that they were just passing through (Salt Lake) and decided to make a hit," Adamson said. "My belief is that (the crime ring) is expanding to other areas or that pressure from law enforcement is pushing them to other areas."

Three unarmed Fred Meyer employees were delivering $1 million in stones to a jewelry show at the mall Saturday about 8:30 a.m. Four men pulled up behind the employees' van and jumped out of a red Honda Accord. Two of the men held the employees at gunpoint while the others stole diamonds, emeralds and other precious stones.

The men slashed the tires on the van, jumped back into the car and sped away, Adamson said. The robbery went smoothly, taking about 30 seconds. The employees were unarmed and didn't have any security escorts.

The men were in their early 20s and looked Hispanic, witnesses told deputies. They were wearing black knit ski hats pulled down over their faces. The men were driving a late `80s or early `90s red Honda Accord.

"I've been in robbery for two years and it's by far the biggest thing I've worked with," Adamson said. I think it's the biggest robbery in recent memory as far as the amount of the loss."

Deputies had no leads and no suspects by Tuesday, Adamson said. The car's license plate was covered, so investigators aren't sure where the car is from.

The way in which the men executed the robbery is similar to the way the heists have been pulled off in Los Angeles by the theft ring, said LAPD's Speer, who specializes in jewelry robberies.

The ring's members strike when the jewels are being transported. After the goods are stolen, the assailants slash the tires or cut the radiator hose of the victim's vehicle, Speer said.

The crime ring has been operating for "years and years," Speer said. The ring is suspected in eight heists since Jan. 1.

The jewelry is usually sold on the black market after the thieves get it. Stolen gems are worth much less than retail, about 15 cents on the dollar, Speer said. The Cottonwood Mall thieves should get about $150,000 for their Saturday take.

The fact that the Fred Meyer employees were unarmed is nothing unusual. Most jewelry wholesalers don't hire armed escorts. "It drives up costs too much," Speer said. "It's expensive to hire a licensed guard."

Detectives won't know if the men are connected to the theft ring for sure until at least one of the assailants is arrested and questioned, Adamson said.