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Woman Sought in String of Losses to Pickpocket

Police say busy markets, department stores and shopping centers are her hunting grounds.

August 19, 2003|Mai Tran | Times Staff Writer

She's considered a classic, a throwback to a time when pickpockets were a common crime menace.

"She's good," said Westminster Police Lt. Bill Lewis. "Wherever she learned her trade, she learned it well."

The pickpocket, captured on surveillance video and arrested at least twice, is blamed for dozens of thefts, bumping into female shoppers at such places as the shopping malls in Little Saigon, deftly lifting wallets from open purses.

The woman, police said, has helped hike the statistics for a crime that attracts attention only around the shopping days after Thanksgiving or before Christmas.

Identified by police as Xuan Thi Tran, 50, she is suspected of preying on women at busy markets, department stores and shopping centers in Costa Mesa, Fountain Valley and Westminster.

Police said the string of thefts is unusual because professional pickpockets are rare in Orange County, long ago overtaken in crime statistics by burglars and robbers.

The Los Angeles Police Department's pickpocket unit, formed three years ago, was disbanded in April.

"It's not as troubling in the West Coast. It's more of an East Coast thing," Lewis said. "We don't have the pedestrian society out here like New York or Chicago."

Local victims have been targeted at Target and WalMart, and, more recently, at ABC and Vinh Phat, Vietnamese supermarkets in Westminster.

She strikes at no particular time and has victimized shoppers on all days of the week.

Police said victims often don't know their wallets have been taken until they step to the cash register. She has taken more than $10,000 from dozens of women's wallets, police said.

"She's targeting females so that personal space isn't an issue when she bumps into them," Lewis said. "It's not as uncomfortable as if it was a man bumping into a woman."

Tran has been caught on tape, bumping into women, politely saying "Excuse me" and then casually leaving the store.

Police theorize that some victims never report the crime, assuming they've simply misplaced their wallet.

Tran has lived in Orange County, but has changed addresses often. Police said they've been searching for her for four months.

Tran was booked by Costa Mesa police in November when they said she tried to cash a check stolen from a wallet at South Coast Plaza.

She also is being investigated by Fountain Valley police on suspicion of writing a bad check in July. She has two $50,000 arrest warrants from Westminster and Costa Mesa after she failed to appear in court on theft charges.

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