Gypsies: the Usual Suspects

Times Staff Writer

Fortified by muffins and coffee, the detectives gathered under the chandeliers in the hotel's Grand Ballroom.

San Francisco Police Inspector Greg Ovanessian prepared to start his presentation. "Before I begin," he said. "Not all Gypsies or Rom are criminals."

"Bull...!" yelled someone in the back. After the laughs died down, Ovanessian, a bespectacled, soft-spoken investigator, continued.

"When speaking about crimes committed by the Gypsy or the Rom, of course I'm only referring to the criminal element within that community."

"Bull...!"

Under drizzly skies just across from Valley Forge National Historical Park outside of Philadelphia, the Gypsy crime detectives were in full war-room mode.

They had gathered at the Valley Forge Radisson for the 21st annual conference of the National Assn. of Bunco Investigators. While bunco generically means theft by confidence games, no one here was kidding themselves that they were on a generic mission. Their main target was the thefts, swindles and frauds perpetrated by Gypsies, also known as Rom or Roma.

From places such as Wichita, Kan.; Skokie, Ill.; San Francisco; Abbington Township, Pa.; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and New York City, the detectives took in topics such as "Introduction to Rom Investigations," "European Burglary Suspects" and "Home Repair and Impostor Burglary Suspects."

In his presentation, Det. Gary Nolte of Skokie showed a painting of wagons passing through a bucolic countryside. "Most of America thinks this is what a Gypsy is, I kid you not," Nolte said. Americans "think it's fun. They think it's a joke. Tambourine-thumping, banjo-playing buffoons.

"That's what [Gypsies] want us to think. But they're not."

How many crimes are involved? It's impossible to say, according to investigators. Most of the crimes are not reported, and the number of Gypsies in the U.S. is unknown.

Fairly or unfairly dogged by a reputation for theft, Gypsies have long attracted the interest of a specialized gumshoe.

These detectives study suspects' clans and often put together family trees. They contact community patriarchs, known as rombaros -- "big men" -- who sometimes turn suspects in, then bail them out. Some detectives go to Gypsy weddings and funerals to shoot photos, take down license plates and hunt for suspects.

"My philosophy is be there or be square," added retired New York Police Det. Edward Berrigan, 67, thin, sharply dressed and with a classic New York accent. "There's a lot of intelligence to be had."

Of course, as an investigative niche, the targeting of Gypsy crimes isn't politically correct. By definition, Gypsy crime detectives engage in profiling. What else, the detectives ask, are they supposed to do?

The Gypsies, Nolte said, "have a common goal, and that's to get over on us. They're going to steal from the gaje [the non-Gypsy] ... every day of their life."

Critics say these investigators engage in tactics that should have been cast aside decades ago.

"If it were Mexican Americans, African Americans, Jewish Americans, Chinese Americans, there would be immediate backlash at all levels," said Ian Hancock, a University of Texas linguistics professor and ethnic Roma. "There's nothing about crimes committed by Romani Americans that make them different from crimes committed by anybody else."

Hancock and others said the officers' attitudes are especially egregious because of the long history of persecution of Gypsies, a highly insular people who migrated from India and eventually became the largest minority in Europe. An estimated half-million of them were killed during the Holocaust.

The people known as Gypsies have preserved traditions that emphasize separation from mainstream societies, which they consider to be corrupting. Many do not send their children to school or work alongside non-Gypsies.

"Who else can police kick that don't kick back?" asked Jimmy Marks, the son of a prominent Spokane, Wash., rombaro whose property was raided by police in 1986. Eleven years later, the city paid more than $1 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the family. "They get to know our names, our Social Security numbers, our birthdays, and who belongs to who.

"These detectives, these so-called Gypsy experts, they poison the minds of all the little cops, the young ones."

*

Detectives at the bunco conference deny that they are out to get all Gypsies -- just those committing crimes among members of a highly secretive society that might otherwise be overlooked.

Quite simply, they say, some crimes are disproportionally committed by members of certain groups. In the case of Gypsies, they say, that means fortune-telling scams, fake home repairs, store diversion burglaries, "sweetheart swindles" -- which involve scamming lonely, lovelorn senior citizens -- and burglarizing the homes of the elderly by first distracting them.

From these investigators' perspective, the Gypsies' unique culture has given rise to unique criminals, which necessitates detectives with unique insight into the Gypsy culture.

In Los Angeles, for example, scams against the elderly are a noticeable problem. Det. Gil Escontrias, who for two years was the LAPD's Gypsy crime investigator, read up on the culture and touched base with detectives from around the country. He became an expert on how con artists used psychic tricks and other deceptions to lure victims into their schemes.

In many ways, not much has changed in the world of the Gypsy crime detective since 1955, when Joseph Mitchell wrote in the New Yorker about New York's Pickpocket and Confidence Squad and Gypsy crime expert Capt. Daniel J. Campion.

Mitchell accompanied Campion as he taught two young detectives about the city's Gypsies and their boojo -- or swindles.

Back then, cops were unrestrained about making broad-brush statements about an ethnic group.

In his day, Campion spoke of "big-car Gypsies" who "drive Cadillacs and Packards and Lincolns."

Fifty years later?

"Gypsies like high-end luxury cars, mostly Beemers [BMWs], Mercedes and Caddies these days," Berrigan told the conference attendees. "These people drive the best cars, no question about it."

Many years ago, Berrigan said, detectives in New York could walk into fortune-telling parlors and ask for the names, dates of birth and other information of everyone in the parlor.

Now, investigators say, the Gypsy crime detective has to tread carefully. Law enforcement frequently uses sterile, catch-all terms such as "professional transient burglar" and "transient offenders," at least publicly.

*

At the bunco conference, Philadelphia Police Investigator Lou Sgro was clearly a star of the show.

"He's the most successful investigator this type of crime has ever seen," said Jon Grow, a retired Baltimore detective and executive director of the association. "He's the best. If there were 15 Lou Sgros in this country, we wouldn't have this problem."

"Lou, he's a legend," said NYPD Special Frauds Squad Det. Michael McFadden, who at 38 is relatively young for a Gypsy crime detective. "Philly doesn't play games with the Gypsies."

Sgro, 61, is short and wide-hipped, with wire-rimmed glasses and a receding hairline. He uses the city's fortune-telling parlors to chat up and gather information on who comes into the area. Legally, he can shut all of the city's lucrative parlors down. But Sgro said he would lose a source of intelligence, as well as leverage.

"It's a hammer over their heads," Sgro said. "If they don't turn someone in, I tell them I'm going to close down every parlor in town."

"I get a lot of anonymous calls. 'There's a new truck in the area.' They don't want other people in town," Sgro said. "They think if someone comes in and makes a big score,' they're going to be blamed.' "

Sgro is a believer in doing surveillance at Gypsy weddings and funerals, because he said suspects with warrants from around the country show up to pay their respects. Once, his van was spotted at a wedding and Sgro said Internal Affairs got a complaint that he was demanding $100 a picture to leave.

"I thought, 'If that's true, I'm going to be a millionaire,' " Sgro cracked. "I had 10 rolls of 36 pictures, I think."

A main source of information for Sgro is Jimmy "Cutty" George, top rombaro of Philadelphia. They have a relationship that is both familiar and cagey.

"If you want to call me a snitch, that's up to you," said George in a telephone interview. "I'm his eyes. When he needs somebody, then I look for them.... He's a gentleman. He does his job. He's a very good detective, and I help him a lot with the Gypsy crimes. I do what I have to do."

When a group of self-described Gypsies allegedly used false identities to steal 113 vehicles recently from the Bay Area, George traveled to California and met with detectives, including San Francisco's Ovanessian. He turned in his nephew and several other people suspected of illegally purchasing cars. Then he negotiated a deal to pay restitution.

George said he told the people he turned in: "Instead of running, I can make it a lot easier and take you in, and take you to the court system and then I'll bail you out."

He sees himself as a kind of politician, and talks proudly about how he is following in the tradition of his grandfather. He touts his role in finding places for other Gypsy families to live or set up businesses.

"My grandfather, Eli George, was dealing with the police officers in the 1930s," he said. "The Gypsies in the surrounding area and all over the world know I have good friendship with him. It's a professional friendship."

The use of informants within the Gypsy community is reviled by critics, such as Jimmy Marks in Spokane, who says many of the informants aren't any better than the alleged crooks and that they use their contacts with police to intimidate and gain power. There have also been cases in which detectives got too close to the Gypsy community and ended up skimming ill-gotten money or taking money in exchange for information about ongoing cases. (Nolte said one of his close friends was arrested on such a charge a few years ago.)

Sgro agrees it's a murky area and says detectives have to be careful.

Sgro said he often is asked by Gypsies to be the godfather to children or is invited to weddings, funerals and other social events -- but not out of great affection. It's part of the quest for status and leverage, he said.

It's the reason that as much as he values George as a contact, he would never hand him his business card.

"Never, ever give them a business card," Sgro said. "They'll use it to say, 'This is my guy.' Never leave a message on a cellphone, because they'll say, 'This is my detective.' Same thing with answering machines."

Sgro said the flip side of the godfather requests and wedding invitations is the retaliatory accusations and the nicknames, uttered in an Indo-European tongue.

"They call me oBeng: the devil," Sgro said. "They call me that to my face. 'You're the devil.' They don't like being hammered."

Sgro has become a legend in part because he has turned relatively small investigations into big-time busts.

A few years ago, he arrested four suspects leaving a ransacked house. He linked them to burglaries of senior citizens in New Jersey and Philadelphia. That led to searches of homes and safe-deposit boxes in five states and the recovery of $1.8 million in cash and $1 million in jewelry.

Other Gypsies thought the ringleader was "just some dinky little guy," Grow said. "Well, $1.8 million, that's not dinky."

But Sgro also runs into dead ends.

One case that still haunts him involves 84-year-old Helena Ward, who was approached in her Philadelphia home by two men pretending to be roof repairmen. One got on the roof, presumably to begin the work. Soon both entered the home and demanded $3,000 from Ward, 10 times what they had originally quoted.

When she ordered them to leave, they crowded her and angrily told her they were going to drive her to her bank and that she was going to take out the money.

Ward complied, going to the bank and quietly bringing the money to the thieves. The men agreed to drive her back home, but Sgro said they dropped her off far away and she had to walk back.

One of the men returned a few days later, banging on and kicking her door. A month after that, two other men parked in Ward's driveway and told her they were going to pave her sidewalk, police said. By then she was wearing a whistle around her neck, and the men fled, said her neighbor, former Philadelphia Police Officer Matthew McDonald.

Ward's health deteriorated and nine months later, McDonald said he found her unconscious in her sleeping clothes sitting in an armchair in the living room. She died several days later, he said.

"She was probably afraid to sleep upstairs," McDonald said.

Sgro investigated the case, but it was one he could never solve. One of the suspects left a fingerprint on a glass, he said. Sgro believes that after the initial theft the woman was put on some list as an easy target.

Still, how does Sgro know that these suspects are Gypsies? After all, victims often describe thieves as looking Hispanic, Middle Eastern or Armenian.

"Let me put it this way: I see a fancy egg on the front lawn. I'm not going to discount the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus," Sgro said. "But chances are, it's the Easter Bunny."

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