Authorities try to salvage case in Northern Virginia gold thefts

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 21, 2010; A01

The string of nearly 30 gold burglaries in Northern Virginia stopped cold after seven New Yorkers were arrested on suspicion of taking part in what police called a well-organized crime ring.

The ring had zeroed in on gold that had been handed down through generations of families, and the victims were hopeful that some of the more than $1 million in valuables might be recovered after last year's arrests.

But when the cases went to court, they died.

Of the seven people arrested, six have been released and a seventh will be freed soon. Of the 58 felony charges filed, 55 were dismissed and one was reduced to a misdemeanor. One man was convicted in one burglary -- a case in which nothing was taken -- and one misdemeanor plea was obtained from another suspect, for a penalty of $72 in court costs.

Everyone else walked away.

The victimized residents watched in stunned disbelief. They have not recovered a single piece of stolen property.

"We're very upset at the whole situation," said Ashok Narayan of the Fair Oaks area, who estimated his loss to be $120,000 in gold and jewels. "It's a devastating part of the whole experience."

The case imploded through a combination of bad luck, smart criminals and savvy defense lawyers.

When the three main defendants were arrested, they had no stolen property with them. When police searched the motel where they had stayed in Alexandria, they didn't find stolen loot or other evidence linking the ring to the 29 burglaries. There was little physical evidence from the crime scenes, and no defendants were talking.

But authorities aren't giving up. Fairfax County police have resumed their investigation.

A federal angle

Last month, a group led by Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh, Loudoun Commonwealth's Attorney James E. Plowman and Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II met with U.S. Attorney Neil H. MacBride to see whether his office would take up the case. Federal prosecutors can use grand juries as an investigative tool, subpoenaing witnesses and documents, in a way state prosecutors cannot.

"They were extremely willing to help," Morrogh said of the federal prosecutors, although he said they did not commit to taking on the investigation.

Raman Kumar, a burglary victim who attended many hearings and coordinated information with other victims, said he was glad to hear that the cases are not dead. But he and others are still stinging from the double whammy of being burglarized and then seeing the suspects go free.

"This is absolutely a joke," said Jaya Sapre, a Fairfax woman whose family lost more than $20,000 in gold and high-end jewelry. "It's really frustrating how everyone handled the case. They should step in our shoes and see how it feels."

Fairfax police declined to comment, saying the investigation was continuing.

The burglaries began early last year, and the bandits seemed to have a key bit of cultural knowledge: Indian and South Asian families give their children gold as gifts or heirlooms, sometimes woven into saris or other clothing. The gold is kept in homes rather than banks.

By last fall, Fairfax and Loudoun police had joined the U.S. Marshals Service in a task force to stop the burglary skein. They set up surveillance in neighborhoods they thought might be targeted and roamed Northern Virginia watching for suspects.

Investigators thought a team of men and women was at work. Witnesses reported that a Hispanic man or woman in a worker's coveralls would knock on a front door and, if someone answered, offer contracting services. The services would be refused, and the phony contractor would walk away.

But if no one was home, the contractor would return to a vehicle, which some witnesses said was a blue Ford sport-utility vehicle. In many cases, investigators later learned, a phone call was made to the home to make sure no one was there. Then, the phone lines were sometimes cut.

Next, the burglars broke in through a rear window or door, followed by careful thievery with no fingerprints or trace evidence left behind.

"They had a good long time in my house," said Roda Abdulahi of the Fair Oaks area, who estimated she lost more than $8,000 worth of gold and jewelry. "They had good taste. I really was sad for a long time."

Suddenly, a break: On Nov. 10, Deputy U.S. Marshal Edgar Cline was cruising in the Clifton area, as part of the task force, when he spotted a blue Ford Escape. Cline watched the SUV make several U-turns and figured he'd been spotted, according to court documents.

In a perfect world, Cline and other officers could have followed the Escape to a planned burglary or back to the thieves' hideout or hotel. But the Escape seemed to be trying to lose him. So he pulled the Escape over and arrested the driver and two passengers.

Inside was a police scanner tuned to Fairfax police dispatchers, a laptop, a clipboard with blank invoices, binoculars and a GPS unit. A backpack in the Ford had a crowbar and two long screwdrivers in it.

But no stolen gold.

Following the cellphone

Arrested were Francisco Gray, 39, Dagoberto Soto Ramirez, 27, and his wife, Melinda Soto, 33, all from New York. Each was charged with five counts of burglary, five counts of grand larceny and one count each of conspiracy to commit burglary and possession of burglary tools. They were held without bond in the Fairfax jail. Using a cellphone found in the rented Escape, detectives confirmed that the trio had stayed at a Comfort Inn in Alexandria.

At the motel, police found a handwritten list of addresses in Fairfax with phone numbers and the word "Indio" -- Spanish for "Indian" -- next to some of them. Police also found a gold testing kit, some wire cutters and a list of Fairfax police radio frequencies.

The circumstantial evidence looked promising. Loudoun prosecutors added six charges each to Gray and the Sotos.

Fairfax police got warrants for four people in New York. Each of them was charged with conspiracy to commit grand larceny. Authorities hoped that at least one of the seven people would cooperate. They learned that Melinda Soto was on federal probation for trying to smuggle cash into the United States from Canada on a bus, possibly after pawning stolen items north of the border.

But no defendants were talking.

A gap in the evidence

Fairfax prosecutors laid out some of their case at a four-hour preliminary hearing in February, with hopes that at least a conspiracy charge would stick. The standard of proof is merely that a judge find probable cause that the defendants were involved. Four victims testified. Two detectives testified. Fairfax General District Court Judge Ian O'Flaherty allowed all of the items from the SUV and the hotel into evidence, over the objections of the defense lawyers.

Then, defense lawyer Bobby Stafford asked Fairfax burglary Detective Tim Cook when he had found the items in the motel. Cook hesitated. "A week, a week and a half" after the first arrests, Cook said, by which time the evidence had been moved from the abandoned motel room to a storage room there.

When O'Flaherty learned that the evidence hadn't been found in Gray and the Sotos' room, he declared that the chain of custody had been broken. He reversed his earlier ruling and threw out the evidence. Then, without even a motion from the defense lawyers, he threw out all of the charges.

Three weeks later, a similar hearing for Gray in Loudoun had the same result: All charges were dismissed. Prosecutors then dropped the same charges against the Sotos.

Two charges remained against Soto Ramirez, identified by a Fair Oaks resident who was home when he walked in. A jury convicted him in April and recommended that he be sentenced to 12 months in jail. His sentencing is set for next month, by which time he will have served eight months.

"I really don't think there was any failure on the part of the police," said Morrogh, the Fairfax commonwealth's attorney. "Through no fault of their own, there wasn't enough evidence in the car to get the case to trial. We really are working on it, and it's my hope those who committed these crimes are brought to justice."

Morrogh said he felt bad for the families. "I understand their homes were violated."

Abdulahi said she was an immigrant, and the suspects were immigrants, "and here you are robbing me? And we have to protect your rights? What's wrong with this picture?"

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