By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 18, 2010; B04
A New York City woman admitted in federal court Friday that she and two men targeted homes of South Asian families in Northern Virginia last year, stealing gold jewelry, coins and religious icons, and she pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges.
Melinda M. Soto, 34, of Queens, who provided details of how the crime ring operated, said that the trio burglarized 37 homes in Fairfax and Loudoun counties and that they stole more than $500,000 worth of gold and other valuables.
Soto also agreed to testify against her husband, Dagoberto Soto Ramirez, 27, who faces trial next month, and their friend Francisco Gray, 39, who was deported to Peru after an initial series of cases against them collapsed in Fairfax and Loudoun courts.
Soto's guilty plea was entered minutes after U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema denied her attorneys' motions to suppress evidence seized in the case. The plea signals a successful outcome for a case that appeared dead after judges in Fairfax and Loudoun threw out charges last winter.
But in May, 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 ask that U.S. prosecutors pick up the case. Federal conspiracy indictments were obtained in July.
Raman Kumar, whose house was burglarized and who attended many of the hearings in Fairfax, watched the pretrial motions and expressed surprise at the plea.
"I was very happy," Kumar said afterward, "knowing that the same trick the defense attorneys used in Fairfax and Loudoun did not work in federal court. . . . It's definitely a win situation for the victim families."
Kumar also said the families had long wondered how the New Yorkers figured out who they are and where they live. Soto provided some answers Friday.
In a statement of facts read in court, Soto said she and her associates knew that some South Asians keep large amounts of gold in their homes. So they scanned the White Pages online for the addresses of people with South Asian-seeming names and then used a Global Positioning System device to find the actual addresses.
The trio also used the Internet to obtain Fairfax and Loudoun police radio frequencies, and they bought a scanner to listen to police radio traffic while they were in the area.
At least six times last year, Soto acknowledged, the group traveled from New York to the Landmark Comfort Inn in the Alexandria area. Then they would drive to the neighborhood of the targeted residences and call the home, the statement of facts says. If no one answered the phone, Soto's husband would knock on the front door, and, if someone answered, he would claim to be responding to a service call, apologize and leave. Some victims reported that a woman made the approach, and others said a man attempted to sell them services.
If no one was home, Soto said, her husband and Gray would break in through the back of the house, then search for gold and other easily transported valuables, such as laptop computers and cameras. Soto claimed that she stayed in the vehicle and monitored the police scanner so she could alert her colleagues if police were on the way.
The victims still hold out hope of recovering some of the stolen items, Kumar said. "Most of the jewelry was heirloom jewelry, which money can't replace," Kumar said. "Is she going to disclose where she sold it, and can it be recovered?"
Soto, as part of her plea agreement, agreed to make full restitution to the victims. A list of losses claimed by the victims totals more than $580,000. Soto also agreed to cooperate with the investigation, and the statement of facts says she and the others took the stolen property to New York, "where they maintained contacts to whom they sold it."
When the Sotos and Gray were arrested in the Clifton area by U.S. deputy marshals last November, they did not have any stolen items with them. They did have a police scanner tuned to Fairfax frequencies. Police eventually located the Comfort Inn where the group had stayed and found a list of addresses linked to the burglaries, and a gold-testing device. Melinda Soto had rented a room at the hotel on at least five occasions coinciding with burglaries, court records show.