N.Va. gold burglar sentenced to 3 years

Vindhya Kommineni of Fair Oaks lost her most expensive wedding saris, her wedding rings and a sterling dinner set with gold inlays. "They must be carrying something with them that tests for gold," she said of the thieves.
Vindhya Kommineni of Fair Oaks lost her most expensive wedding saris, her wedding rings and a sterling dinner set with gold inlays. "They must be carrying something with them that tests for gold," she said of the thieves. (Courtesy Of Vindhya Kommineni)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2010; 7:18 PM

A New York City woman who admitted being part of a ring that burglarized dozens of homes in Northern Virginia, specifically seeking gold and ignoring other valuables, was sentenced Friday to three years in federal prison.

Melinda M. Soto, 34, and her husband, Dagoberto Soto Ramirez, 28, pleaded guilty in federal court in Alexandria to regularly traveling from New York to Fairfax and Loudoun counties, targeting homeowners with South Asian-sounding names.

They admitted to burglarizing 37 homes and stealing nearly $600,000 worth of gold heirlooms between January and November of last year, when they were arrested along with a third alleged co-conspirator, Francisco Gray.

The cases against all three were thrown out by judges in Fairfax and Loudoun for lack of evidence, and Gray, 40, was deported to Peru. Federal authorities stepped in and indicted the three in July.

The Sotos pleaded guilty in September to transporting stolen property across state lines. Gray has not been located. He still faces charges.

Four of the victims spoke during the sentencing hearing before U.S. District Court Judge Leonie M. Brinkema. Raman Kumar told the judge that "our community still lives in fear" and that "the South Asian community is a victim of an economically motivated hate crime."

Soto then spoke publicly for the first time. "I'd like to say I'm sorry to all the victims and all the people that I hurt," she said, still wearing the purple streaks in her hair that captured the attention of some of the neighbors who saw her. Soto admitted that she would knock on doors and make a phony sales pitch if someone was home. If no one answered, she would go back to her car and call the home to confirm no one was there.

Authorities said her husband and Gray then would break in and seek the gold items that had been handed down through generations of families - and that federal authorities Friday told the victims had been promptly melted down and sold.

The Sotos told authorities that they knew that South Asians kept gold in their houses, court records show. So they scanned the White Pages online for Indian or South Asian-sounding names, made lists of addresses, and then used GPS devices to find the houses in Northern Virginia.

The crew also bought police scanners, and Melinda Soto admitted she would listen to them while her cohorts were inside houses. The three typically stayed at a Comfort Inn in the Landmark area of Fairfax County, which was where Fairfax police found a batch of evidence after their arrest.

"I linked myself to someone who was ruining my life and other people's lives," Soto said, referring to her husband, whose sentencing is set for next month.

"Ms. Soto, you're not a kid," Brinkema told her. "You traveled down to Virginia to do these crimes. There was an incredible amount of sophisticated planning, targeting an ethnic community, casing these houses. And even after you were arrested, there's evidence you tried to get an associate to manufacture an alibi."

Soto faced a recommended sentencing range of 33 to 41 months. She has been in federal custody for five months, and Brinkema gave her 36 months on top of that. The judge also ordered Soto to make restitution of $590,860.

U.S. Attorney Neil H. MacBride said in a statement after the sentencing: "The defendants didn't just steal gold and gems; they stole irreplaceable heirlooms. No sentence can replace those valuables, but the outstanding work of law enforcement officers has brought some justice to the victims in this case."

Victims were not happy with the sentence.

"Thirty-six months is nothing," said Jaya Sapre of Herndon, who said more than $25,000 worth of property and a laptop containing all the photos of their children were taken. "A hard-core criminal knows now, 'I can do something like this.' Thirty-six months is nothing for them."

Roda Abdulahi, of the Fair Oaks area, said she always kept gold both as a way of diversifying her assets and maintaining a family history. "Not only did we lose gold, but a large part of our heritage."

Dinesh Sapre, Jaya Sapre's husband, said he went to rent a safe deposit box for the first time after his house was burglarized. But he said there was a rush on the boxes by the South Asian community, and the bank told him there was a one-year waiting list.

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