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Tracking the brazen Dallas thief who was never caught - despite stealing $6 million in jewels

Darkened room with hand holding flashlight, other hand holding jewerly box with ring - in front of an opened safe
New Africa
The book, "The King of Diamonds," argues that the burglar who robbed scores of Highland Park homes through the '60s could be the most successful jewel thief, ever, in America.

In 1970, Rena Pederson drove straight from grad school to Dallas to work the lowly night shift for the United Press International news service. This was long before she became an editor for The Dallas Morning News.

One night in that unglamorous UPI office, Pederson picked up a dispatch from a teletype machine. The teletypes chugged out reports 24/7, and this one concerned a break-in. A jewel thief had robbed a house in Highland Park. What caught Peterson's attention was that the police believed it was the same person they'd been chasing for years. And had never caught.

Reading that left Pederson with a lingering question. She didn't know it then, but 1970 was "the last year that the King of Diamonds operated," she said. "I arrived just as people began speculating what happened to him, where did he go? And I thought, what did they mean? Where did who go?"

The story stuck with her even into retirement — precisely because it lacked an ending. The result is her new true-crime book, "The King of Diamonds.'

Older woman, smiling, leaning against a door frame, arms crossed
Rena Pederson, author of The King of Diamonds, is a former Dallas Morning News reporter and editor.

The Dallas police attribute 40 break-ins to the thief from the mid-'50s to 1970. Pederson said she believes the number is more than double that because some people didn't report the thefts. The Highland Park police didn't report some as well, she said.

The burglar was particular in what he stole, but he got away with pearls, rings, necklaces, diamond earrings, pendants. He even robbed some houses twice. Trying to determine the value of his total haul — across the decades — involved complicated figuring and even guesswork: "I had to get estimates from what newspaper accounts I could find."

Pederson put the value of all the stolen merch at more than $6 million.

"My best guess is that there were over 100 burglaries," she said. "And I think I could make a really good case that he was one of the best jewel thieves in the country — because of the duration of the thefts and the monetary value. . . . And because of the fact that it was a very small area. Highland Park is only 2.24 square miles."

So the King of Diamonds was a remarkable thief — but not so much for his total haul. There have been art heists that grabbed more. Neither was he a technical genius. He wasn't cracking safes or defeating electronic security systems.

But Pederson's numbers mean the King was successfully breaking into homes, on average, about every two months — for 15 years. And despite news coverage, despite police traps and surveillance, he did all that in an area about the size of the Los Angeles International Airport.

Hard to catch, hard to research

The thief's physical abilities and sheer daring are notable. He repeatedly eluded dogs. He sometimes waited until people returned from social evenings (that way, they were more likely to leave their jewels out). He left no fingerprints, only a couple shoeprints outdoors. And he often climbed through second-story windows — even while his targets were asleep.

"He sometimes hid in your closet," Pederson said. "And he could have heard the people breathing. That psychologically just creeped people out, understandably so. He was just a very different, Houdini-like burglar. I don't think there's ever been anyone quite like him."

However elusive the King was for the police, he was perhaps even harder to pin down for Pederson. There simply weren't many records left. Dallas has a history of destroying its history, and she spent six years doggedly picking out the King's trail.

"The problem," she said, "was that all the Dallas police records disappeared over time. And all the FBI records were destroyed within 2 or 3 years. And unfortunately, the Dallas Times-Herald had gone out of business by then."

Picking up pieces, putting together a portrait

"So I pieced together what I could" — leading Pederson to interview retired police officers, track down surviving relatives and visit Top o' Hill Terracein Arlington, which was once an infamous underground gambling joint.

Naturally, much of the attention given The King of Diamonds is about the identity of the thief. A key piece of evidence: The thief knew a lot about Highland Park, its layout, its social calendar, even particular jewels people owned. Pederson's book proceeds by considering different suspects — eliminating them one by one, like a game of Clue.

But what has mostly been overlooked in coverage of The King of Diamonds is that, along the way, Pederson also presents an eye-opening cross-section of Dallas in the ‘60s.

Book cover with dapper jewel thief without a face. He's smoking a cigarette and has a diamond necklace tucked into his tuxedo pocket
Simon & Schuster
Rena Pederson's true crime book, The King of Diamonds,

Some of this material is familiar from Bryan Burroughs' The Big Rich and some from the biography of the gambler and mobster Benny Binion, who ran Dallas' numbers racket for years.

But when put together with Pederson's research, what results is an interconnected view of Dallas society in the '60s — from splashy galas in Highland Park to strip joints and pawn shops. Essentially, some of the richest oil money in the world, some of the most famous and influential families in Dallas history were comfortable associating with violent criminals.

Benny Binion, for example, would organize dice or poker games for them. But he personally shot at least two people dead. Both times he was declared not guilty by reason of self defense. His motto? "Do your enemies before they do you." His biographer, Doug Swanson, wrote that Binion went from being "a murderous street thug" to "a domineering crime boss" to "a civic treasure" — after he moved to Las Vegas and opened his casino.

Bright lights, big bookmakers

In The King of Diamonds, Pederson reports there were gambling connections even in the city police department. The FBI tapped one bookie's business, a downtown gas station, and recorded more than a dozen Dallas police officers regularly placing bets.

Before the '50s, Pederson said, there was downtown Dallas "with the flying red horse on top of the Magnolia Building — and then out to the horizon, it was just bare. By the end of the '50s, there were bright lights and big buildings."

Dallas became a city of new money, oil money.

"It was a city full of Gatsbys," Pederson said. They'd never had money before, so "they wanted to be somebody, they were what I would call 'strivers.' And I don't mean that as a negative word. That's the great American story, right? Everybody wants to strike it rich."

But "a lot of people came into money with big oil. And oil people were gamblers at heart. You know, they risked their money, they lost it, they got it back. So it was just part of the thrill, part of the adrenaline rush."

As a reporter, Pederson said, she'd always been told "organized crime never had a foothold in Dallas. But it did. It came in through gambling. And hand in hand with the gambling went drugs and prostitution and other vices – with a wink from the city fathers because they gambled, too," she said.

"Everybody gambled."

All of this is one reason the thief thrived in Dallas: easy pickings.

But because he was getting away with so much and so often, Pederson said, suspicion and gossip took over. Perhaps, people speculated, there were other reasons for his success. He had to be someone from Highland Park society to know so much about people's homes and safes and schedules. And perhaps he was so well-connected, the police were covering for him.

More than 50 years after the burglar's heyday, when Pederson called some Dallasites to talk, they hung up on her.

"High society is like a city within a city," she said. "And you wouldn’t want to have someone in your family involved in something unseemly."

Of course — this far away in time — Pederson's The King of Diamonds doesn't offer any air-tight convictions. But, as she said, "the police thought — and I finally determined they were probably right — that it was someone from a prominent family."

Got a tip? Email Jerome Weeks You can follow him on X (Twitter) @dazeandweex.

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Jerome Weeks is the Art&Seek producer-reporter for KERA. A professional critic for more than two decades, he was the book columnist for The Dallas Morning News for ten years and the paper’s theater critic for ten years before that. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, American Theatre and Men’s Vogue magazines.