They ripped off Esther Stoler much as they did the others: As the 96-year-old hunched over in the White Oak Giant to find a half-carton of eggs, a woman thrust a package in her face.
“My eyes are so bad,” she said. “I can’t read these ingredients. Can you read it for me?”
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.
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.
But Frazier’s mother said she didn’t think that she could be of much help; despite the gift, they had been estranged for years after a difficult childhood in which Tamara sometimes intervened when her stepfather beat her mother.
She also had no idea whom her daughter’s partner was; he turned out to be a Hyattsville man named John Sylvester Washington. Police had Frazier’s name, but it wasn’t enough to catch her.
The trail went cold again, and the Salt and Pepper Crew returned to work not knowing how close police had just come.
They counted on kindness. One woman offered to go to her car and get Frazier her extra glasses. A retired secretary from a hearing aid company dutifully read the back of a box of Stove Top stuffing as she was robbed.
Sheila Burke was in the frozen food aisle when Frazier approached.
“She was getting her husband lunch. He was allergic to something,” recalled Burke, who declined to give her age. “I probably opened up my purse to take my glasses out.”
She never saw Washington.
There were close calls. The allergy line also worked on Ardelle Nicholson, 80, who said she had last had something stolen 50 years ago when someone grabbed pillows from her clothesline in Minnesota. This time, in a Germantown supermarket, her MasterCard was lifted and used to charge $4,500 at Best Buy.
A few months later, by chance, Frazier came up behind Nicholson again.
“Excuse me, could you read the label here?” she said.
“I just grabbed hold of my purse, and I said to her, ‘I can’t see it either’ and left,” Nicholson said. Then, she said, Frazier eyed another potential victim before abruptly leaving — spooked, apparently, by Nicholson’s gaze.
“She saw me watching her,” Nicholson said. As Frazier left the store, she said she would have to remember her glasses next time, Nicholson recalled. In a moment, she was gone, leaving Nicholson wishing that she had acted more quickly.
As the couple preyed on unsuspecting elderly shoppers, Frazier, 41, wore gray wigs and sometimes carried a retro handbag. Washington, 52, would snap photos of her in costume, and they would affix the images to the victims’ stolen ID cards.
Frazier was the one who used the stolen credit cards to buy the gift cards, mostly for large amounts, which police say are easily unloaded at a discount to bargain hunters. Frazier and Washington also used the gift cards to buy staples and diversions: juice, Special K, Beyonce CDs and a DVD of the 2010 movie “The A-Team.”
“They used those gift cards to live their life,” Cohen said.
But the law was closing in.
Cohen partnered with Fairfax County Detective Robert LeBlanc, whose turf was the crew’s other primary target. They spoke with agencies across the region, learning that the pair had apparently been at work in the District and in Prince George’s, Howard, Anne Arundel and Charles counties. Police estimate that Washington and Frazier were responsible for perhaps 50 cases regionwide totaling more than $100,000, their haul also including cash and other items.
Investigators repeatedly saw Washington’s black minivan in store parking lots on surveillance footage, but a mechanical scrolling cover that resembled miniature blinds would obscure the Chevrolet’s tag number.
Finally, alert loss-prevention officers at a Montgomery County Target, who were working with police, recognized the van in the parking lot and crept up to scribble down its license plate number. But police still lacked direct evidence tying the pair to the thefts.
Then, about four months later, District police spotted the van in a Northeast neighborhood, pulled it over and alerted Cohen, the Montgomery detective.
He rushed to the scene and immediately recognized the man he had seen so often on store surveillance videos.
“This is him!” he thought.
Washington, who had a decades-long criminal record, wouldn’t talk, and police had to let him go. But they obtained a search warrant for his van, and it yielded a treasure-trove of evidence. Inside were hats Frazier and Washington were seen wearing in surveillance images; LeBlanc took them to a Virginia DNA lab, which matched some of them to Frazier through a previous arrest. Still, they had never caught the two in the act.
In early 2011, police started watching Washington’s Hyattsville apartment. One day Montgomery officers followed the pair as they drove to Virginia. Together with officers from Arlington and Fairfax counties, they tracked the duo to a Harris Teeter grocery store.
There, Washington and Frazier lifted a wallet from another unsuspecting victim. After they used one of the stolen cards at a Target in Falls Church, police rushed in, having finally pieced together evidence that directly linked them to one of the crimes.
In a Montgomery County court in February, Washington pleaded guilty to a felony theft scheme totaling between $10,000 and $100,000, as well as to identity theft. He apologized and sought to spread the blame before his sentencing.
“I was never the one that picked the victims,” he said before being sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The full nature of Frazier and Washington’s relationship — including how they met — remains unclear. Interviewed by police after her arrest, Frazier claimed that she only went along with the scheme because she had been threatened by Washington.
In a letter Frazier wrote from a Virginia jail to her victims, she apologized and described a drug addiction.
“By far I am not saying it was O.K. what I have done to you. Because it was not at all,” she wrote. But “if I was not under the influence I would have never committed this crimes against you. And I took your trust from you. And I am truly sorry.”
Her mother noted Frazier’s past in a letter to a Virginia judge, telling the court that her daughter was abused as a girl and had lost a teenage child to a car accident.
Stoler, the 96-year-old victimized as she shopped for eggs at the White Oak Giant, was unmoved. “She had tragedies. She should have thought how it would affect an old woman like me. . . . I have no sympathy.”
In November, Frazier also pleaded guilty to the felony theft scheme. She is scheduled to be sentenced this month. Montgomery State’s Attorney John McCarthy is pushing for another 10-year sentence.
“You can’t separate one of these people from the other,” McCarthy said.