The operations of the silver gang, the discriminating thieves who have stolen extensive silver items from more than 100 Washington-area homes in the last two years, have become so profitable that police say ordinary neigborhood thieves are now trying to emulate the gang.
But police say the nighborhood thieves are not as astute in finding only silver items and valunable jewelry to steal, somethig the silver gang members almost always did. As a results, the later-day silver thieves also have been stealing silverplate items and fake jewels, police say.
Moreover, police say, the ordinary thieves also occasionally nilfer a radio or an appliance, somethig silver gang members apparently felt was beneath them.
The flurry of silver burglaries, no matter who has committed them, has, for the most part, stymied Washington-area polive. Five suspects have been arrested in connecion with a relative handfull of the thefts, police say. But about 200 silver burglaries have been committed and more than $1 million worth of goods stolen.
"It's sort of confusing at this point," said Lt. Larry Brohard of the Alexandria Police Department. "I don't think (the gang) is responsible for all the burglaries. I think a lot of our local thieves are getting in on the act."
"With all the publicity," said Fairfax Police Capt. Ronald Watts, "Who's to say the local burglars haven't jumped on the bandwagon?"
"I think a lot of people are imitating them," said Montgomery County Sgt. Craig Branthover."Hell, the silver burglars have been getting away with it for so long, it must be a good deal."
The original silver burglars were believed by police to work out of Philadelphia and strike affluent homes in the Washington area, Richmond, the Tidewater area, Atlanta, cities in Florida and othe places along the East Coast. They usually have broken into homes when no one is there, sifted through silver-looking items and then taken only sterling silver. Police have said the burglars can distinguish between authentic gems and costume jewelry. They usually leave behind stereos, televisions an appliances and place their loot in pillowcases from beds in the homes they burglarize, police said.
At first police thought there were fewerthan a dozen silver burglars. "We now belive there are quite a number involves, about 23 or 30," Watts said.
Police speculate that the burglars work in small groups of twos or threes, although all two dozen or so of the professional silver burglars probably know each other, Branthover aid.
The burglars often use two or three cars, stakeout homes, plan escape routes, talk on citizen band radios, monitor police scanners and wear disguises, according to Montgomery County police officer Bud Nowland.
"Those people wouldn't touch a house unless they could get more than a $5,000 or $6,000 profit," Nowland said.
A juvenile was convicted in Alexandria in connection with a burglary of about $5,000 worth a silver a jewelry and another silver case involving local suspects is pending, Brochard said.
Three men were arrested last July in Montgomery County in connection with a silver and their case also is pending, Branthover said. There have been fewer silver burglaries in Montgomery lately, although police in other jurisdictions said they have noticed no decrease in the silver thefts.
Watts said there were 53 silver burglaries in McLean last year, but this year "it's hard to say how many of them have been committed solely for the silver." He estimated there have been more than 20 such crimes this year.
Brochard said there have been about 15 or 50 silver burglaries in Alexandria in the last two years.
Montgomery County has had about 100 silver burglaries from January 1976 to last June, Nowland said. During that time, he said, about $750,000 worth of items were stolen.
Police said they are not sure what the thieves do with the silver once its stolen. Branthover said they may send the silver goblets, flatwear, bowls and heirlooms to legitimate silver dealers all over the country who would have no way of knowing that the silver is stolen. He said the silver loses 80 per cent of its value when it is melted.
The price of silver has risen dramatically in the last few years. It rose from a recent low of $3.80 an ounce in January 1976, to $4.78 an ounce this month, according to spokesman for Deak and Co., a precious metal dealer in Washington.
"The future for silver is very goos," the Deak spokesman said. The value of "silver will increase twice as much in the next five years," he said.
The supply of silver, usually imported from India, Mexico and Peru, is either being depleted or has had export restrictions imposed on it, making its value rise, the spokesman said.
"That's why so many people are buying up so many silver coins," the spokesman said.
Police said they have tried staking out neighborhoods and other methods to track the burglars.
"They may go a month without hitting anything," Watts said. "They may leave McLean. They skip around jurisdictions. We can't have a police officer standing on every corner."
Watts said that the biggest help in preventing the burglaries is for neihgbors to immediately report any suspicious activity at nearby homes. Often, police said, a neighbor may mention that a strange person entered a homoe two weeks after the crime occurred.