Law enforcement officials looking into a recent spate of so-called "gypsy crimes" in Ventura County are investigating the possibility that at least some are linked to a low-level organized crime ring operating nationwide.
Police who arrested four men for allegedly stealing $3,000 from an elderly couple in Ventura last month say they have so far connected at least one of them to similar crimes as far away as Georgia and Illinois.
"They really do go from town to town and they prey on the elderly," said Terri Vujea, a detective with the Ventura Police Department who has tracked half a dozen cases since late August.
"They do it as a livelihood," Vujea said. "Sometimes they pose as real estate people. Home repair is a big one. Some of these guys were actually following Meals on Wheels to see where people live."
Meanwhile, detectives are looking for two other suspects who posed as police officers to steal thousands of dollars from families in El Rio, Port Hueneme and Ventura. In one case, the victims were held captive as the thieves made off with $30,000 in cash and jewelry.
Police are particularly concerned about those crimes because they involved a pattern of violence not usually seen in such cases.
"It's the same crime--theft through trickery," said Capt. Keith Parks of the Ventura County Sheriff's Department. "These situations are a little bit different. The victims in Hueneme were held against their will."
Authorities are unsure whether the three police impersonation cases are connected with the Ventura burglary or another case in Santa Paula involving a phony earthquake inspector. Residents of a mobile-home park reported that a man representing himself as a federal inspector told them they needed additional bracing on their mobile homes as a result of the 1994 Northridge earthquake, and quoted a fee to do the work. No one took the bait, but sheriff's officials issued a warning Aug. 21 advising residents countywide to watch out for anyone posing as a Federal Emergency Management Agency official.
Law enforcement officials say such crimes are textbook examples of the deceptive ploys used by organized-crime families.
"We look at it as a continuing offense. This is what they do as a living," said Jon Grow, director of the National Assn. of Bunco Investigators, which tracks such crimes and provides investigative tips for law enforcement agencies nationwide.
The organization, based in Baltimore, has developed a database of such crimes and criminals that Grow shares with other law enforcement agencies. That database led police to link one suspect arrested in the Ventura case to crimes elsewhere in the country.
The term "gypsy crime" does not refer to Eastern European Gypsies, but has come to be used by law enforcement to describe nomadic criminals who engage in impostor burglaries, home repair and fortune-telling scams, Grow said.
"You can look at it from the method of operation," Grow said. "The victims that come to our attention are almost always elderly people."
Grow is a retired Baltimore detective who founded the organization 15 years ago "out of pure frustration" at watching criminals slip through the fingers of law enforcement and commit crimes someplace else.
"We saw the trauma that these victims go through," he said. "It has a devastating effect."
According to Grow, solving such crimes can be difficult. The perpetrators are typically mobile, moving in and out of a community so fast they are rarely caught. They know how to manipulate the justice system, and often avoid punishment by offering to pay restitution to the victims in exchange for a reduced sentence.
"That is one of the biggest things allowing them to keep running," Grow said. "You have got to put yourself in their mind-set. Breaking our laws is nothing. They have their own societal laws."
Many of the crime rings are family-based and intergenerational. Young children learn the art of the con from their parents and grandparents, all of whom may rove together over several states. Grow said they travel seasonally, hitting the warmer states such as Arizona and California in the fall and winter, and the northern regions in the spring and summer.
Ventura police turned to Grow when they began investigating a Sept. 11 impostor burglary on Madera Avenue in east Ventura.
"This case was kind of classic," Vujea said.
Two men in blue uniforms approached Willard Merle, 85, and his wife, Helen, 87. Posing as city public works employees, they offered to pay the couple $50 to use their electric outlets for a tree-trimming project on a nearby property.
According to police, the men said a new city policy reimbursed homeowners for the use of their utilities. The men gave the couple a $100 bill and asked for change. During the transaction, the men used a two-way radio to tell accomplices where the couple kept their cash.