It’s not exactly Fort Knox — not even close.
But an acre-sized white building in an Opa-locka industrial district boasts of being among the largest precious-metal refineries in the world.
And now, Republic Metals Corp. finds itself the victim of a gold-bar heist pulled off on a North Carolina highway that the FBI confirmed has a “South Florida nexus.”
One of the stolen bars — weighing 26 pounds and valued at about a half-million dollars — was recovered in South Florida last month, said the FBI, without elaborating.
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How it ended up in the Miami area, one of the hubs for the nation’s gold trade, is a mystery.
“We believe that additional gold bars from the robbery may still be in South Florida,” FBI Supervisory Special Agent Justin Fleck said, seeking the public’s assistance as the agency offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and charges.
This is how the robbery unfolded:
On a Sunday morning in early March, a Miami-based armored truck courier picked up a total of 275 pounds of gold worth about $5 million, and headed north on Interstate 95 to a shipping destination in Boston, according to the FBI and North Carolina investigators. But that evening, as the TransValue couriers stopped along a dark stretch of the highway, three armed robbers pulled up in a white minivan and confronted them at gunpoint, yelling “Policía!”
The two courier guards exited the tractor-trailer without their guns. The robbers gave instructions in Spanish, tied the guards’ hands behind their backs and led them into nearby woods. The thieves cut the padlock on the truck’s trailer and offloaded five-gallon buckets that contained 10 gold bars. They put them in their van and fled.
The guards were left stranded along I-95 in a rural area about 50 miles east of Raleigh, N.C. The uniformed men attracted the attention of motorists who reported seeing them run into the highway as they motioned for help with their hands bound.
Investigators with the Wilson County Sheriff's Office said the March 1 heist “could be an inside job.”
“The fact that the truck was robbed immediately upon it pulling over at an unannounced stop is suspicious in and of itself,” a sheriff’s detective wrote in search warrants for the truck and the drivers’ cellphones. “It is also suspicious because there [were] no markings on the side of the truck that would indicate the type of cargo contained [inside].
“The suspects went directly to the trailer and found the gold, which was in unmarked five-gallon buckets,” the warrants said. “It is not believed that this is a random act due to the nature and facts of this robbery.”
Detectives noted that the robbers even put out orange cones near the truck as they unloaded the gold bars into their van.
At a press conference after the heist, Wilson County Sheriff Calvin Woodard would not commit to the theory that it was an inside job and said the guards were considered victims, not suspects.
Woodard disclosed that the two guards had stopped for gas in Dillon, South Carolina, near the North Carolina line, around dusk that Sunday. The sheriff said one of them started to feel sick from gas fumes. They pulled over so the guard could vomit.
That was when the robbers drove up in the minivan and confronted them. The guards exited their tractor-trailer without their guns. Woodard noted that it was a violation of their company’s security rules to leave the truck without their weapons.
The suspects tried to steal the truck but did not know how to operate it, according to sheriff’s warrants. They tied up the guards before hauling away the gold bars.
After sheriff’s deputies arrived at the scene of the heist, a mechanic found no problem with the truck, including a possible gas leak.
“The cause for the stop is still under investigation,” according to an FBI press release.
One curious aspect of the gold-bar heist: The robbers left behind $5 million worth of silver on the tractor-trailer, according to the sheriff’s office warrants. The silver shipment, which weighed about 75 times more than the gold haul, was probably too heavy to steal. The silver load also belonged to Republic Metals, the warrants said.
Neither guard was injured in the robbery. TransValue, which specializes in transporting cash, precious metals, gems and jewelry and carries shipment insurance up to $100 million, offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.
An executive for the company, Jesus Rodriguez Jr., did not return a call or email for comment on Friday.
Republic Metals, founded by Richard Rubin in 1980, declined to comment, referring calls to its attorney, Alan Silverstein, who did not respond to a Miami Herald interview request on Friday.
The North Carolina gold heist is only the latest in which Republic Metals was a victim.
Last year, federal authorities arrested a man in Belize who was accused of stealing $2.8 million worth of gold in Coral Gables.
Raonel Valdez Valhuerdis, 35, was accused of directing the stick-up of a courier for a Bolivia-based export company, Quri Wasi, which buys gold from small businesses in La Paz, then melts it down and sells it to South Florida refineries.
Investigators said that in October 2012, Valdez Valhuerdis and two other men accosted the courier in an elevator of a Coral Gables apartment building and stole two rolling suitcases filled with 110 pounds of gold flakes bound for Republic Metals.
The gold was to be melted down, then resold for jewelry or electronic parts.
Anyone who has information on the North Carolina gold-bar heist or identity of the robbers is urged to call the FBI at 754-703-2000 or Miami-Dade Crime Stoppers at 305-471-8477.
The Associated Press contributed information to this story.