Hike in Valley Heists Baffles LAPD

Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton appealed for the public’s help Tuesday as his department grapples with a hike in robberies across the San Fernando Valley that has marred what has otherwise been a fourth straight year of declining crime citywide.

The Valley has recorded more than 1,500 robberies so far this year, a 15% increase over 2005. The affluent West Valley Division saw the number of robberies increase by 46% during this period.

The crimes include purse snatchings, strong-armed robberies of personal electronics such as iPods and a highly publicized string of more than 200 takeover robberies of restaurants and other businesses.


“We’re looking to keep the public’s attention on this issue,” Bratton said at a news conference. “If somebody sees something -- even in the moment -- sees somebody going into one of these restaurants or lounges, putting on the mask or putting on the gloves, or in 100-degree temperature sees somebody walking into a shopping mall with gloves on -- that’s what is known in our business as a clue.”

Officials said they believe many of the robberies were committed by small bands of criminals.

“Oftentimes these mini-crime waves are the work of a small number of perpetrators,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss, who represents parts of Sherman Oaks and Encino.

But police are at a loss to explain why the Valley is at the center of the hike in robberies, especially as both violent and property crimes overall in Los Angeles continue to drop.

In another sign of the problem, officials said robbery arrests in the Valley are up 20% this year.

In the most recent example, Bratton said a routine traffic stop led to the arrests of six people in connection with nearly a dozen purse-snatching incidents targeting primarily elderly victims in the Van Nuys and West Valley areas.

Detectives now are investigating whether the incidents were part of an elaborate identity theft ring that may have victimized as many as 500 people in Los Angeles, Burbank and Glendale.

In a separate case, police announced they had arrested four suspects -- including two juveniles -- in connection with 17 robberies at local electronics stores. The suspects, whose total take from the robberies was reportedly $30,000, stole iPods, cellphones and other expensive electronic gadgets, police said.

At the news conference, police returned to the ongoing takeover robberies by bandits who have hit upward of 200 Valley restaurants over the last two years.

The latest occurred last week when masked gunmen struck the landmark Valley Inn restaurant in Sherman Oaks, taking money from diners and the cash register.

Authorities believe the holdups are the work of several groups of bandits targeting smaller, sit-down eateries, usually around closing time, leading the City Council to seek increased penalties for those who conceal their identity in the commission of a crime.

Among the most prolific robbers are the so-called Ski Masked Bandits who remain at large and allegedly have killed one person and committed about 50 takeover heists in the last year and half, according to LAPD Valley Bureau Deputy Chief Michel R. Moore.

Citing recent arrests of suspects wanted in a series of pizza store robberies, Moore stressed that the Los Angeles Police Department’s success depends on information from the public.

The rise in robberies is occurring in some of the safest parts of Los Angeles. Despite the uptick, the West Valley area still has had only half as many robberies this year as Southwest L.A.

Officials think many of the street robberies and purse snatchings are driven by those who are desperate for cash to feed their drug habits. Methamphetamine addiction is believed to fuel many petty crimes.

Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger said that since taking office, he has pushed an agenda of teaching people how to avoid being victims. In the case of supermarkets, often targeted for liquor thefts, he and others have suggested that stores move such goods to the back of the store.

Since Bratton took office in late 2002, Los Angeles has experienced four straight years of decreasing crime.

Even with the uptick in robberies, violent crime is down about 2% since this time last year and property crime is down about 12%.


Q & A

Question: Why are robberies on the rise in the Valley?

Answer: Officials aren’t sure. Robberies are up 15% so far this year across the Valley, and up nearly 50% in the West Valley. Detectives believe that some of the crimes are the work of small bands of robbers who target restaurants and other businesses.

Q: But isn’t the Valley considered a relatively safe area?

A: Yes. One of the incongruities is that the increase in robberies is occurring in an area that has relatively little crime. Even with the jump in robberies, the West Valley area still has had only half as many robberies this year as Southwest Los Angeles.

Q: What can businesses do?

A: Officials have talked to some retailers about taking steps to keep from becoming victims. Supermarkets are often targeted for liquor thefts, so the LAPD has suggested that stores move such goods to aisles in the back.

Q: What’s Los Angeles’ overall crime picture?

A: Citywide, violent crime is down 2% and property crime is down 12% compared with this time in 2005.

Source: Times reporting