Derek Freestone was sitting in the passenger seat of his friend’s Mercedes, parked in the picturesque fishing village of Emsworth in Hampshire, when two women knocked on the window and asked him to sign a petition for a deaf school.
No sooner had he done so than one of them lunged, throwing her arms around the 77-year-old as she tried to kiss him.
Shocked, he barely gave a thought to the second lady, who had been shaking his left hand.
Only after he’d pushed the first woman away and shut the car door did he realise his gold Rolex — bought 20 years ago for £4,500 but now worth £12,500 — was gone.
‘I jumped out and shot round the car but there was no sign of them. It happened so quickly,’ says Derek, still reeling from the robbery three months later.
‘It really hit me in the pit of my stomach. What the hell have we done to our country that this can happen in broad daylight?’
Derek Freestone, 77, of Birchington, Kent, was a victim of the Rolex Rippers having had his watch stolen from his wrist as the two female robbers distracted him with a kiss
Yet happening it is, with terrifying regularity.
The young women were not opportunists but mercenary criminals believed to have carried out a spate of similar attacks across the south of England in the past five months.
Known as the ‘Rolex Rippers’, they target wealthy villages and golf clubs, searching for elderly victims.
They often pretend to be deaf, carry a blue clipboard and claim to be petitioning for the hard of hearing.
After they have their victim’s attention, the demure demeanours drop.
One often screams or makes unwelcome sexual advances as a distraction, sometimes aided by a second, who steals the watch.
This month alone, there were two attacks — this time in Dorset — taking the tally to 23.
Yet despite the striking similarities between the robberies, and the fact some have been caught on CCTV, the women have so far evaded capture.
Many victims are now as angry with the police response as they are with the thieves.
Richard Gray, 79, whose Rolex was ripped from his hand on Saturday,
October 16 as he stood outside his home in Poole, was told it would take more than a week for an officer to take his statement.
Mr Gray, who wears a pacemaker for heart complications and who was also distracted as one of the two women tried to kiss him, wrote his own statement — seen by the Daily Mail — instead, but ‘couldn’t even get inside’ Poole police station to deliver it.
‘I had to use a phone and they told me nobody was there who could see me and that they were understaffed.
'Is this supposed to be policing?’
So who are the Rolex Rippers? And how on earth are they getting away with it?
Although at least three similar attacks were reported last year, it was this May that their crime spree — so far encompassing Dorset, Hampshire, Gloucestershire and Surrey — started in earnest.
While the pattern of each crime has parallels with others and most victims describe the women as dark-haired, Eastern European and aged somewhere between their late 20s and 40s, it is likely more than two women are involved.
Just how efficient they are can be revealed by charting four attacks that happened in the space of just eight days this summer.
Derek, a retired wine merchant from Birchington, Kent, was en route to the Goodwood Festival of Speed motor racing event with a friend when they stopped in Emsworth at 3.15pm on July 7 to pick up medication from a pharmacy in the town.
Derek’s friend was on the phone in the driver’s seat, trying to finalise a prescription, when there was a knock on the passenger door.
Outside were two dark-haired women, one in her late 20s, one late 30s, whom Derek estimates to be 5ft 5in and 5ft 7in tall.
As the women wore white tops with blue piping and dark trousers, Derek assumed they worked in the pharmacy.
‘So I opened the car door,’ he recalls. ‘They said, “We’re from Albania.” They stuck a board in front of me and said would I sign it — they were getting signatures for a deaf school.’
The second after he did, one of the women threw her arms around him, while the other grabbed his wrist. Derek was wearing a long-sleeved top and doesn’t know if his watch would have been visible.
‘I was strapped in the car, pinned back,’ says Derek. ‘They wanted to kiss me, put their arms around me.’
With hindsight, he realises what the second woman was doing. ‘She had one hand in my hand, the other round my wrist.
'She unclipped my watch and threaded it down my hand and up her wrist in a matter of two to three seconds. I didn’t feel it go,’ he says.
The crime took no more than 15 seconds, leaving him reeling as he called the police.
As officers from Hampshire police arrived, an elderly man who had witnessed what happened said his Rolex had been stolen in a similar way last year. Derek believes shame has stopped other victims coming forward.
Alan Bruce, 63, from Ferndown, Dorset, was approached in his Audi TT seven miles away in Wimborne, Dorset, when he was robbed at about 11am on July 15
‘There are an awful lot more who are too embarrassed to admit they were made a fool of.’
A keen diver, Derek bought his Oyster Perpetual because it is waterproof down to 300 metres.
He says his wife Valerie, 79, was more shocked than he was. ‘I was just bloody annoyed.
'I’d dived with sharks in that watch. It had a sentimental value.’
Derek has had no further contact with police since that day. ‘Nothing is happening and I’m getting more and more irritable,’ he says.
Rolexes are problematic stolen goods, as each one has a unique serial number and every watch reported missing is put on the company’s lost and stolen register.
Stolen Rolexes can change hands several times between criminals over a period of years, as the truth about their original ownership becomes obscured, while their value depreciates.
‘If it goes to be repaired or serviced, they check the number — and if it has been reported stolen they won’t give it back to the customer,’ says Michael Parry, whose Rolex was stolen less than 24 hours after Derek’s, 110 miles away in the Cotswolds village of Bourton-on-the-Water.
Like Derek, he is still shocked that such a crime could take place in the village, which is known for its honeyed stone cottages: ‘You don’t expect someone to mug you at 11am in Bourton supermarket.’
Michael, 84, a retired British Airways pilot, had just emerged from the Co-op and was putting his shopping on the passenger seat of his electric Mini in the car park when a woman approached him.
Her partner in crime, he later discovered via CCTV footage, was waiting with a car nearby.
‘They were wearing baseball caps and surgical masks and you couldn’t see a lot of their faces,’ he says.
The woman who approached him — 5ft 5in, mousey hair tied back — insinuated that she couldn’t speak by putting her finger across her mouth.
Wearing trousers and trainers, she presented him with a blue clipboard with a petition to support ‘dumb’ people.
CCTV footage shows two women, the prime suspects, dubbed the 'Rolex Rippers'. They are believed to have struck 23 times in southern England, especially in Dorset and Hampshire
Thinking there was ‘nothing wrong’ with the premise, he signed it, after which the woman launched herself at him ferociously.
‘She was gripping me so close — it was so out of the blue, I didn’t know what the hell . . .’ he falters, ‘and then she started to scream.
'She screamed one word over and over again. SEX! SEX! SEX! SEX! If you had walked past, you would have thought I was attacking her.
‘I’ve been in an awful lot of situations in my life but I’ve not come across anything like this.’
Michael, who was wearing a polo shirt that left his watch ‘quite visible’ and suffered a scratched arm, says: ‘She suddenly ran away, jumped into a car and off it went.’
It took over a minute for Michael to realise his GMT-Master Rolex, bought five years ago for £6,500 and now worth over £15,000, was missing.
He says: ‘It was a carefully planned operation.’
After calling police, the supermarket manager discovered CCTV footage of the attack.
It showed a silver Citroen C4 just yards away, next to which was a second criminal, whom Gloucestershire police say was male.
‘We think the companion was holding something in his hand. It could have been a knife back to front, with the blade up the sleeve,’ he says. ‘At the time I wasn’t frightened. I’m apprehensive now.’
The car’s number plates turned out to be fake and the investigation appeared to dwindle.
'The police don’t seem to be showing much interest,’ says Michael.
Three days after he was robbed, a friend sent him a cutting from the Daily Mail revealing a spate of similar crimes.
At least three attacks have been at golf clubs — meccas for wealthy retired men.
One happened 112 miles away from Bourton at Ferndown Golf Club on July 14, eight days after Michael was robbed.
The victim, who prefers not to be named, is in his 70s and works in the property industry.
He was with a friend on a footpath near the car park, close to the Dorset club’s offices, at 11.15am, when a young, dark-haired woman in a black dress and black face mask grabbed his arm and took the Rolex Daytona from his wrist.
‘My immediate reaction was that she knew me — and the next thing her face was in my face and her two arms were around my left arm and my watch was gone,’ he says.
As his friend ran after her, she jumped into the back of a Ford Focus which sped off, leaving him with an injured finger.
The victim, told by police that thieves had been in the area ‘for a couple of days, looking for targets’ and contacted this month for a DNA sample as part of the investigation (it has yet to be taken)was left recoiling in ‘total disbelief’ that he was at risk.
As he puts it, ‘I often remove my Rolex if I’m going into London. But at the golf club?’
Within a day, the gang had moved on to their next target — Alan Bruce, 63, who lives at the edge of Ferndown Golf Club and was seven miles away in Wimborne, Dorset, when he was robbed at about 11am on July 15.
Having parked his Audi TT Sport, he was approached by two women carrying a clipboard in the town centre.
He estimates both were in their late 20s or early 30s.
‘The taller one was in jeans and a dark top, the shorter one in a long, brightly coloured dress,’ says Alan, a divorced father of two who frequently travels for his job as a marine engineer.
‘I pick up accents and I would say they were either Albanian or Bulgarian.
‘They said: “We’re doing a petition for a deaf centre” and would I sign a document? I said no problem.’
Left-handed and wearing his £14,000 gold Yacht-Master Rolex on the same hand, he signed the petition.
Then the younger woman said she loved his aftershave and asked where it was from.
To his astonishment, she then asked him for a cuddle. ‘I said no.’ She tried to hug him regardless, as, he recalls, ‘her friend came up behind her and said, “I want sex with you”.’
Alarmed, he instinctively put his right hand on his back pocket to protect his wallet and pushed the women with his left hand before walking away.
It was only as he did so that he realised his Rolex was missing, its double clasp having been prised off without him feeling a thing.
Pictured: Rolex Submariner watch. The timepieces are being robbed in broad daylight by the 'Rolex Rippers' using techniques that distract the victims
‘They’re quite difficult to get off,’ he says incredulously. ‘You lift one end, then the other and the whole thing comes off together. They’re really good at what they do.’
In the split second he’d turned his back, they had gone. ‘I felt stupid,’ he says. Alan called the police as soon as he got home. ‘They said there had been other incidents.’
A forensics team took a DNA swab from his wrist and carried away his clothes in sealed bags. Still, the thieves remain at large.
The irony that Alan has worked in perilous countries, yet was robbed in his own affluent neighbourhood, has not escaped him.‘I’ve been in dangerous situations. I’m always watching my wallet and never wear a watch — but back home I tend to relax,’ he says.
Not only would an equivalent watch now cost him £20,000, he says, but ‘you can’t get one for two years. They’re limited edition and Rolex can’t keep up with demand.’
When asked about police response to the theft of Richard Gray’s Rolex, Local Policing Area Commander Chief Superintendent Mark Callaghan said: ‘We can confirm that since receiving the report on the afternoon of Saturday, October 16, 2021, our officers and staff have been investigating the matter and are following various lines of inquiry, including extensive CCTV inquiries.
‘We are working with other police forces to identify, locate and arrest those responsible.’
Gloucestershire police said of the theft of Michael Parry’s Rolex: ‘Following the report, police attended, searched the area and conducted house-to-house inquiries as well as CCTV inquiries.
'If you have any information regarding the incident, please contact Gloucestershire constabulary quoting incident 187 of July 8: gloucestershire.police.uk.’
A spokesman for Hampshire police said: ‘We received reports that at 3.15pm on July 7, 2021, a man had a Rolex watch stolen in High Street, Emsworth.
'Officers spoke to the victim and explained that due to no viable lines of inquiry, the incident would be filed, pending further information coming to light.
'Anyone with information about this incident can call us on 101 or report online, quoting reference number 44210267769.’
Additional reporting by Stephanie Condron.