Montgomery Officer Finds the Unusual in the Routine to Break Home Invasion Cases

By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 10, 2009

The case before Detective Brian Stafford held all the trappings of run-of-the-mill police work. An investigation into a rash of car break-ins in Montgomery County had led police to a basement apartment in Hyattsville, where they hoped to find stolen iPods and other electronic devices.

But something seemed off from the start during the October search, Stafford said in court recently. For one thing, there were ornately carved candlesticks and vases in the 33-year-old suspect's apartment. "They appeared to be from a much older generation," said Stafford, who holds a PhD in anthropology. "I looked at them as being either Victorian or Edwardian in period."

Stafford soon found inexpensive "costume jewelry. He recognized it as the same kind that had been taken in a series of home invasions in wealthy areas from Chevy Chase to Potomac, cases he had been investigating until a recent transfer. The victims were mostly elderly women. All had been tied up, and one had been killed.

In the apartment, detectives found black shoes with big buckles that made Stafford think of one victim's description of her assailant's "pilgrim shoes." A medallion etched with the likenesses of the seven original Mercury astronauts erased any doubts.

"My heart stopped," Stafford testified last week, describing the moment he realized that a routine search had yielded a major break in a case that had frustrated detectives for more than a year.

The man whose apartment was being searched, Jose Garcia-Perlera, is set to stand trial this week on murder and other charges. Four attacks will be the subject of a single trial. Garcia-Perlera, an illegal immigrant who worked as an electrician, was charged but not indicted in a fifth attack, and he is a suspect in a sixth.

The increasingly violent episodes, starting in September 2007, terrified residents. Hundreds of people appeared for community meetings the police department held to discuss the attacks.

At the court hearing last week, a judge denied defense efforts to throw out evidence seized from the apartment, including the items Stafford linked to the home invasions.

"If you don't have Brian Stafford in that apartment, this case could easily still be open," said State's Attorney John McCarthy.

In the first incident, a man broke through a basement window along Maryknoll Avenue in Bethesda, made his way to the circuit breaker box and cut off the lights in the home. When the 92-year-old homeowner walked down to her basement to check, the intruder bound her feet and hands. He left with jewelry and a laptop.

Two months later, someone removed bars from a basement window on Montgomery Street in Chevy Chase and turned off the lights at the circuit breaker box, luring the 77-year-old victim to her basement. The attacker struck the woman, tied her up and ransacked her home.

In January of last year, an 84-year-old man and an 85-year-old woman were bound in their home in the Foxhall area in the District. Police have said they think the attack is linked to the incidents in Montgomery.

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