Fairfax, Va., police charge 3 in thefts of gold jewelry, saris

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 13, 2009

Fairfax County police said Thursday that they have cracked a ring of burglars who were stealing only gold from South Asian homeowners, after they arrested two men and a woman from the New York City area in Centreville.

Police suspect the burglars hit 26 homes in Fairfax and three more in Loudoun County since January. Each time, the invaders disdained silver, gems and electronics, taking only gold jewelry, saris with gold threads and gold statues.

The victims were almost all South Asian and have said that their families traditionally pass 22-karat gold from generation to generation. Police said they believe gold was being stolen because it is selling at more than $1,000 an ounce. But they don't know how or why certain houses, mostly in the Fair Oaks, Reston and Centreville areas of western Fairfax, were targeted.

Despite the arrests, police did not recover any stolen property or personal documents, such as passports and green cards, that also were taken. They said the investigation has a long way to go.

"We don't know how extensive this may be or if we're looking for anybody else," Fairfax police spokeswoman Mary Ann Jennings said. "We're looking into whether more people were involved, why they came down here [from New York]. We've got a lot of investigating to do."

After their arrests Tuesday, the three suspects were charged with burglarizing four homes in the Fair Oaks area: on Highland Oaks Drive, Timber Oak Trail, Poplar Valley Court and Lady Somerset Lane. The defendants -- Francisco Gray, 39, of Nassau County and Dagoberto Soto-Ramirez, 27, and his wife, Melinda Soto, 33, both of Queens -- were charged with four counts of burglary, four counts of grand larceny and one count of conspiracy to commit burglary. They were being held Thursday without bond in the Fairfax jail.

The burglaries generated intense concern in the South Asian community, and three town hall-style meetings were held, first with elected officials and then, last month, with Fairfax Police Chief David M. Rohrer. Residents were pleased by the arrests.

"The community is excited," said Raman Kumar, whose home in Centreville was burglarized. "They are also thankful for the awareness the media put on this," because neighbors who learned of the burglaries might have provided information that led to the arrests.

A search warrant filed Thursday in Fairfax Circuit Court revealed that witnesses helped police identify two possible suspects: a Hispanic man in a blue jumpsuit or work uniform, appearing to be a maintenance or repair worker, and a Hispanic woman with pink- or red-tinted hair who knocked on doors soliciting plumbing work.

Some witnesses also told police that they had seen a small, blue sport-utility vehicle, possibly a Ford, parked in the neighborhoods where some of the break-ins occurred. The thefts often occurred during the day.

Police assembled a task force that included burglary detectives, bike patrol officers, intelligence officers and federal marshals, and the group's urgency intensified after a streak of six break-ins in two days last month. About 30 task force members were on surveillance Tuesday when the break came, Jennings said.

According to an affidavit filed by Fairfax police Detective T.J. Harrington, Deputy U.S. Marshal Edgar Cline was working on the investigation and spotted a blue Ford Escape about 1:30 p.m. Tuesday on Cavalier Woods Lane, just south of Lee Highway. The SUV was being driven by a Hispanic male, and a Hispanic female was in the passenger seat, Harrington wrote. Cline began pursuing it.

The Escape made several U-turns, apparently trying to evade Cline, according to Harrington, but the marshal pulled the Escape over on Moore Road near Clifton Road. The woman in the front seat had red coloring in her hair, and the driver was wearing a dark blue work uniform, Harrington wrote. Another man was in the back.

According to the affidavit, police also found a laptop computer in the woman's lap; a portable Global Positioning System device between the SUV's front seats; a black plastic clipboard with a contractors' invoice on it; and a portable police scanner, tuned to Fairfax police frequencies, in the back seat. The Escape was rented in New York but had Virginia tags, Jennings said.

Jennings declined to say how investigators linked the suspects to the four Fair Oaks burglaries. She said police hoped the search of seized items such as the laptop computer would lead them to more property or more suspects.

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