A heist of $4 to 5 million in jewelry from Lenox Jewelers was executed during a bizarre hostage-taking and kidnapping drama that began unfolding Thursday night in Meriden and ended as the bandits fled the Black Rock Turnpike store with the entire contents of the safe.

No one was harmed during the hours-long incident, which police Friday described as "one of the largest dollar-value crimes" ever to take place in Fairfield.

The four armed suspects remained on the lam Saturday, but police at midday Friday recovered the silver BMW, stolen from one of the hostage victims, that two of the robbers used to flee the scene of the Fairfield heist. Acting on a tip, police found the car here on Mill Plain Road. The car -- with Massachusetts license plates 96NV02 -- was checked for evidence in the investigation by Fairfield police, assisted by the State Police Major Crime Squad.

But the whereabouts of the men who carried out the third robbery at Lenox Jewelers in the last few years remained a mystery.

Preliminary investigation of the crime has not even ruled out the possibility it was an inside job, police indicated.

Sequence of `bizarre' events

The robbers gained access to the jewelry store at 2379 Black Rock Turnpike after taking hostage two managers of the business who lived in a corporate-leased apartment in Meriden, police said. The employees were bound and blindfolded by the masked suspects, as were two other visitors to the apartment.

Deputy Police Chief Christoper Lyddy said that investigators are not sure whether the robbers followed the managers home after they had closed the store sortly after 8 p.m. Thursday, or were lying in wait to ambush them at their Meriden apartment. "The men were held inside the apartment bound and gagged for a period of time and then two friends arrived and they were also bound and gagged,'' he said.

The managers were then brought back to the store in Fairfield by two of the four suspects, where they were forced to use an access code to open the store and then use another code to open the safe. Two other suspects in the scheme remained behind in Meriden with the captive visitors, police said.

Once the robbers gained entry to the safe, they "took everything inside," Lt. James Perez said Friday, a preliminary loss estimated at between $4 and $5 million.

"I would venture to guess it's one of the largest dollar-value crimes that has ever occurred in Fairfield," said Lyddy.

Lyddy said that police are using store security video of the robbery in their investigation.

"We were hostages," Antoine Abedui, manager of Lenox Jewelers and one of those kidnapped, told television station WTNH. "You don't know what could go wrong, and you're just praying for this to just end."

Abedui said the people who took him and the others hostage are professionals. "Been through robberies before because of the nature of my work," he said. "Usually it's 30 seconds to a minute robbery. This was a two-hour robbery."

One of the managers was able to free himself about 10:50 p.m. Thursday and called Fairfield police. Only a minute later, one of the hostages left behind in Meriden also freed himself and called police in that city, according to the report.

That aspect of the crime, in particular, was called "bizarre" by Perez, and has raised questions that has prompted police to consider whether the heist was orchestrated by insiders.

Nonetheless, Perez said, "The incident was extremely dangerous and potentially deadly, and we remember the Donnelly murders."

In 2005, Tim and Kim Donnelly were fatally shot during a robbery at their jewelry store on the Post Road downtown. Christopher DiMeo was later convicted of the crime and is serving a life term in prison.

Aftermath

On Friday afternoon, about a dozen people were taking inventory inside Lenox Jewelers, going from counter to counter and marking off the remaining merchandise on clipboards and iPads.

Mary Gancarz, the regional manager for the store's parent company, Hannoush Jewelers, had no comment, but said the business may make a statement later. Hannoush Jewelers is a family-owned chain of more than 40 stores from Maine to Ohio. The headquarters is in Springfield, Mass.

Lenox Jewelers sells Rolex and other expensive European-made watches, as well as a range of diamond and gemstone jewelry. To gain entry, visitors have to be buzzed in and the premises appear to be equipped with a modern security system with alarm buttons and video surveillance cameras.

Earlier target for robbers

Lenox Jewelers has been robbed at least two other times in the last four years.

On Jan. 13, 2010, four men, dressed entirely in black, burst into the store carrying ball-peen hammers.

As the men came through the front door with their heads down, one yelled, "Don't move or I'll kill you!" and then kept shouting, "Don't move!"

They wielded the hammers to smash jewelry cases and take several thousand dollars worth of valuables.

The robbers fled the store, running down a rear staircase at the shopping center, jumped into a gray sedan and drove off via Brookside Drive toward Pansy Road.

In February 2009, four masked men used small sledgehammers to smash display cases at the store and fled with an undetermined amount of watches and jewelry. Two of the hammers were later found on the side of Pansy Road, and one was found in the store.

Anyone with information about the robbery is asked to contact Fairfield police at 203-254-4800.