As Stoler peered helpfully at the label, a man who had been standing nearby reached into her purse. Within hours, the pair, called the “Salt and Pepper Crew” by police, were buying thousands of dollars in gift cards with Stoler’s credit cards.
Police said the crew worked a long-running theft scheme that targeted area seniors with the aid of psychological tricks, disguises and a mechanical license plate cover worthy of James Bond. Investigators ultimately tracked the pair down, the search taking more than a year and a half and requiring a combination of patience, old-fashioned detective work and good fortune.
Stoler, now 98, chided herself in an interview. “I feel so stupid,” she said. “I kept thinking about it, dreaming about it. In my whole life, nothing like that ever happened.” But Salt and Pepper had done it dozens of times.
‘They are out every day’
Police call pickpockets an all-season problem. They jostle elevator riders or pretend to drop contact lenses to distract victims. They scan food courts for purses hanging from hooks or chairs. Traveling crews commute from out of town in search of easy pickings.
“They are out every day, every weekend, major events — you name it. Credit cards are there. Cash is there. They are always doing this,” said Montgomery County Detective David Hill, who spent a decade tracking retail crime.
With so many thefts committed by often-crafty offenders, police departments struggle to combat them. The Salt and Pepper Crew, police said, made the mistake of standing out.
Part of their downfall, said Montgomery Detective Stephen Cohen, was their script. “ ‘I forgot my glasses.’ That line was very unique,” Cohen said.
Cohen collected example after example of the “glasses” trick and then examined surveillance video from the stores where the credit cards were stolen and those where the thieves purchased gift cards. Next, he subpoenaed spending records from stores where the gift cards were used, including Target and Best Buy.
Most of the purchases proved untraceable — the duo would often resell the gift cards or use them to buy small-ticket items that did not require shipping, depriving police of an address they could check out. Investigators grew frustrated.
“We felt so helpless we couldn’t protect these people,” said Steve Chaikin, a Montgomery assistant state’s attorney. “My grandmother is 92 years old.”
But then, Cohen said, police got a break: a big buy. A gift card purchased with a credit card stolen from a Potomac woman in her 70s, Patricia O’Brien, was used to pay for a dishwasher at Home Depot. The store had a delivery address.
Cohen went to the house. A woman answered the door and told him that the dishwasher had been a Christmas gift from her daughter. Cohen showed the woman a surveillance photo of his female suspect. Yes, it was her daughter. Finally, Cohen knew the name of half of Salt and Pepper: Tamara Hope Frazier.