Law enforcement officials looking into a recent spate of so-called "gypsy crimes" in Ventura County are investigating the possibility that at least some are linked to a low-level organized crime ring operating nationwide.
Police who arrested four men for allegedly stealing $3,000 from an elderly couple in Ventura last month say they have so far connected at least one of them to similar crimes as far away as Georgia and Illinois.
"They really do go from town to town and they prey on the elderly," said Terri Vujea, a detective with the Ventura Police Department who has tracked half a dozen cases since late August.
"They do it as a livelihood," Vujea said. "Sometimes they pose as real estate people. Home repair is a big one. Some of these guys were actually following Meals on Wheels to see where people live."
Meanwhile, detectives are looking for two other suspects who posed as police officers to steal thousands of dollars from families in El Rio, Port Hueneme and Ventura. In one case, the victims were held captive as the thieves made off with $30,000 in cash and jewelry.
Police are particularly concerned about those crimes because they involved a pattern of violence not usually seen in such cases.
"It's the same crime--theft through trickery," said Capt. Keith Parks of the Ventura County Sheriff's Department. "These situations are a little bit different. The victims in Hueneme were held against their will."
Authorities are unsure whether the three police impersonation cases are connected with the Ventura burglary or another case in Santa Paula involving a phony earthquake inspector. Residents of a mobile-home park reported that a man representing himself as a federal inspector told them they needed additional bracing on their mobile homes as a result of the 1994 Northridge earthquake, and quoted a fee to do the work. No one took the bait, but sheriff's officials issued a warning Aug. 21 advising residents countywide to watch out for anyone posing as a Federal Emergency Management Agency official.
Law enforcement officials say such crimes are textbook examples of the deceptive ploys used by organized-crime families.
"We look at it as a continuing offense. This is what they do as a living," said Jon Grow, director of the National Assn. of Bunco Investigators, which tracks such crimes and provides investigative tips for law enforcement agencies nationwide.
The organization, based in Baltimore, has developed a database of such crimes and criminals that Grow shares with other law enforcement agencies. That database led police to link one suspect arrested in the Ventura case to crimes elsewhere in the country.
The term "gypsy crime" does not refer to Eastern European Gypsies, but has come to be used by law enforcement to describe nomadic criminals who engage in impostor burglaries, home repair and fortune-telling scams, Grow said.
"You can look at it from the method of operation," Grow said. "The victims that come to our attention are almost always elderly people."
Grow is a retired Baltimore detective who founded the organization 15 years ago "out of pure frustration" at watching criminals slip through the fingers of law enforcement and commit crimes someplace else.
"We saw the trauma that these victims go through," he said. "It has a devastating effect."
According to Grow, solving such crimes can be difficult. The perpetrators are typically mobile, moving in and out of a community so fast they are rarely caught. They know how to manipulate the justice system, and often avoid punishment by offering to pay restitution to the victims in exchange for a reduced sentence.
"That is one of the biggest things allowing them to keep running," Grow said. "You have got to put yourself in their mind-set. Breaking our laws is nothing. They have their own societal laws."
Many of the crime rings are family-based and intergenerational. Young children learn the art of the con from their parents and grandparents, all of whom may rove together over several states. Grow said they travel seasonally, hitting the warmer states such as Arizona and California in the fall and winter, and the northern regions in the spring and summer.
Ventura police turned to Grow when they began investigating a Sept. 11 impostor burglary on Madera Avenue in east Ventura.
"This case was kind of classic," Vujea said.
Two men in blue uniforms approached Willard Merle, 85, and his wife, Helen, 87. Posing as city public works employees, they offered to pay the couple $50 to use their electric outlets for a tree-trimming project on a nearby property.
According to police, the men said a new city policy reimbursed homeowners for the use of their utilities. The men gave the couple a $100 bill and asked for change. During the transaction, the men used a two-way radio to tell accomplices where the couple kept their cash.
While the victims were distracted, the accomplices slipped inside and stole their money, authorities said. After the tree trimmers left, the couple realized they'd been robbed and called the police.
About 15 minutes later, an officer stopped four men in a rental car not far from the couple's home. The men--identified as Mitch John, Thomas Boyd, Tom Wood and Don Miller--were arrested and charged with burglary and conspiracy.
At a Sept. 15 court hearing, each pleaded not guilty to the charges. John, 31, of Tualatin, Ore., a suburb of Portland, later changed his plea to guilty. He and the others are free on $100,000 bail.
A preliminary hearing is scheduled this week for the three other men.
From the time of the arrest, officers were suspicious that the suspects had given false names. Vujea ran their fingerprints through an FBI database, and two aliases popped up. Wood was identified as Earl Ely, and Miller as Sonny Miller, she said.
According to police, Wood, or Ely, is wanted in connection with similar crimes in Illinois and Georgia. Records show he and Miller were also arrested four years ago in Whitemarsh, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia, on charges of burglary and conspiracy.
During her investigation, Vujea sent a notice to law enforcement agencies nationwide inquiring about similar crimes, and received two responses--both in Ventura County, and both involving criminals who posed as police officers.
The first occurred Aug. 31 when two people walked into a house in Port Hueneme and one flashed a badge and identified himself as a police officer. The pair forced the family to open a safe and stole $30,000 in cash and jewelry.
About two weeks later, an El Rio bicyclist was robbed by two men who posed as police officers. The men, in a blue Oldsmobile, drove alongside the victim and demanded his wallet, saying they were looking for counterfeit money.
One man flashed a badge and asked the victim where he kept his cash. The victim led the men to his trailer and gave them $600. The thieves took the money and left.
In another case, which occurred the same day as the El Rio theft, two men posing as police officers stole $100 from a 67-year-old man who let them inside his Ventura home.
"People fall for this, that's the problem," said Vujea, adding that in the last few months a wide variety of scams have crossed her desk. In one case, two men offered to patch an elderly woman's driveway for $49. Then they charged her $3,000.
"For whatever reason, she feels she needs to write them a check and 10 minutes later, they're at the bank," Vujea said. "It's really disheartening because [elderly people are] really a vulnerable target group. And I think they really need to be educated."
While stressing that overall crime rates remain low, authorities say residents should be wary of suspicious people peddling home repairs or fortune-telling, or claiming to be undercover police officers.
"The caution is this," said Parks of the Sheriff's Department. "You want people to remain aware. When you are suspicious and something doesn't seem right, that's the best clue. Don't put yourself in a situation where you can become the victim of a crime."
And given the recent string of impostor crimes, Parks advises residents to check with a law enforcement agency or call 911 before opening a door to somebody claiming to be a police officer.
"Legitimate officers won't have a problem with that at all," Parks said. "People just need to use a measure of caution. You can't trust everyone out there."