While the victims were distracted, the accomplices slipped inside and stole their money, authorities said. After the tree trimmers left, the couple realized they'd been robbed and called the police.
About 15 minutes later, an officer stopped four men in a rental car not far from the couple's home. The men--identified as Mitch John, Thomas Boyd, Tom Wood and Don Miller--were arrested and charged with burglary and conspiracy.
At a Sept. 15 court hearing, each pleaded not guilty to the charges. John, 31, of Tualatin, Ore., a suburb of Portland, later changed his plea to guilty. He and the others are free on $100,000 bail.
A preliminary hearing is scheduled this week for the three other men.
From the time of the arrest, officers were suspicious that the suspects had given false names. Vujea ran their fingerprints through an FBI database, and two aliases popped up. Wood was identified as Earl Ely, and Miller as Sonny Miller, she said.
According to police, Wood, or Ely, is wanted in connection with similar crimes in Illinois and Georgia. Records show he and Miller were also arrested four years ago in Whitemarsh, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia, on charges of burglary and conspiracy.
During her investigation, Vujea sent a notice to law enforcement agencies nationwide inquiring about similar crimes, and received two responses--both in Ventura County, and both involving criminals who posed as police officers.
The first occurred Aug. 31 when two people walked into a house in Port Hueneme and one flashed a badge and identified himself as a police officer. The pair forced the family to open a safe and stole $30,000 in cash and jewelry.
About two weeks later, an El Rio bicyclist was robbed by two men who posed as police officers. The men, in a blue Oldsmobile, drove alongside the victim and demanded his wallet, saying they were looking for counterfeit money.
One man flashed a badge and asked the victim where he kept his cash. The victim led the men to his trailer and gave them $600. The thieves took the money and left.
In another case, which occurred the same day as the El Rio theft, two men posing as police officers stole $100 from a 67-year-old man who let them inside his Ventura home.
"People fall for this, that's the problem," said Vujea, adding that in the last few months a wide variety of scams have crossed her desk. In one case, two men offered to patch an elderly woman's driveway for $49. Then they charged her $3,000.
"For whatever reason, she feels she needs to write them a check and 10 minutes later, they're at the bank," Vujea said. "It's really disheartening because [elderly people are] really a vulnerable target group. And I think they really need to be educated."
While stressing that overall crime rates remain low, authorities say residents should be wary of suspicious people peddling home repairs or fortune-telling, or claiming to be undercover police officers.
"The caution is this," said Parks of the Sheriff's Department. "You want people to remain aware. When you are suspicious and something doesn't seem right, that's the best clue. Don't put yourself in a situation where you can become the victim of a crime."
And given the recent string of impostor crimes, Parks advises residents to check with a law enforcement agency or call 911 before opening a door to somebody claiming to be a police officer.
"Legitimate officers won't have a problem with that at all," Parks said. "People just need to use a measure of caution. You can't trust everyone out there."