By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 22, 2010; B01
An investigation into dozens of gold burglaries in Northern Virginia last year, which collapsed after all but three charges were thrown out of court, has been revived by federal prosecutors in Alexandria, who have obtained an indictment against three New Yorkers who were first arrested in Fairfax County in the fall.
Burglars targeted Indian and South Asian families who kept gold and other valuables in their houses. Court records say that 37 homes were hit in Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties over 10 months last year, with losses of more than half a million dollars. But when a task force investigating the cases arrested two men and a woman in the Clifton area in November, they had a police scanner and burglary tools but no stolen property and nothing to link them to any specific break-ins.
After preliminary hearings in Fairfax and Loudoun district courts, 55 of the 58 charges against the three suspects and four other alleged co-conspirators in New York were dismissed. But the task force went back to work, and local prosecutors and Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II lobbied U.S. Attorney Neil H. MacBride to take up the case.
The one-count indictment, for conspiracy to transport stolen goods across state lines, was handed up July 5 and unsealed this week after one of the defendants, Melinda M. Soto, 34, of Queens, N.Y., was arrested there Monday. Soto's estranged husband, Dagoberto Soto Ramirez, 27, is in the Fairfax jail and is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday on charges of burglary and possession of burglary tools, for which a jury recommended a year's imprisonment. He has been in custody for more than eight months.
Court records in New York reveal that the third defendant, Francisco Gray, 39, was deported, and sources familiar with the case said he was sent to Peru. It's not clear how or when he might be returned to Northern Virginia.
The victims in the case said they were thrilled to learn that the case had been revived, although there was no indication that any of their stolen property had been found.
"That's wonderful news," said Raman Kumar, whose house was burglarized and who attended many of the hearings in Fairfax. "We were a little bit worried they were all going to go free. This is really, really big news."
The conspiracy indictment provides new details about the burglaries but does not indicate that alleged co-conspirators have cooperated or that any physical evidence has been found.
The indictment says that Gray, the Sotos and their co-conspirators stayed at the Comfort Inn Landmark on Duke Street in Alexandria at least six times, and that is where Fairfax detectives found lists of addresses, a gold-testing kit and a list of Fairfax police radio frequencies.
The indictment alleges that Gray and the Sotos targeted "residences occupied by persons with Asian or South Asian-appearing or sounding last names," that they knocked on doors to determine whether anyone was home and that they then called the homes using prepaid cellphones. Records show the defendants called 13 burglarized residences in Fairfax and Loudoun, the indictment says, apparently to double-check that no one was home.
New details include that Soto Ramirez allegedly bought a Global Positioning System unit in Baltimore that contained "Recent Locations" entries from the same streets and areas as some of the burglaries. The indictment also alleges that a screwdriver found at the Comfort Inn was used to burglarize four homes in Fairfax, although it is not clear how that link was made.
Lawyer Harold N. Ward Jr., who represented Gray, said he did not know that Gray had been deported. Bobby B. Stafford, who represented Soto Ramirez, declined to comment. Jad N. Sarsour, who represented Melinda Soto, said it might be hard to prove a conspiracy when a husband and wife are two of the alleged participants and probably wouldn't testify against each other.
Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh, who had asked federal prosecutors to take the case, said the U.S. attorney's office in Alexandria "has a long and distinguished history of helping local law enforcement in cases which have multistate implications, and the public is well served by it. To paraphrase an old saying, 'We may not be there yet, but we're closer than we were yesterday.' "