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7 Men Arrested in Home Invasions

March 14, 2003|Richard Winton and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

Seven men who posed as police investigating Al Qaeda terrorists were arrested in a string of violent home invasions that targeted Armenian Americans in the San Fernando Valley, authorities said Thursday.

The capture of the men, all undocumented immigrants from El Salvador and Guatemala, was announced by Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton.

Detectives believe the men are responsible for at least three home-invasion robberies in the Van Nuys and North Hollywood areas since Jan. 2.

The men were allegedly en route to another robbery Monday when officers with the Special Investigation Section, which had them under surveillance, rammed their sport utility vehicle and arrested them, said Capt. James Tatreau, head of the Robbery-Homicide Division.

The men, dressed as plainclothes detectives in coats and ties, were equipped with handcuffs, hand-held radios, fake police badges and loaded handguns, police said.

Authorities said they would enter the homes between 8 and 9 p.m. under the pretense of serving a search warrant. "They tell the victims they'd linked them to the terrorist group Al Qaeda," Lt. Jim Grayson said.

The men then handcuffed residents, ransacked rooms and stole cash and jewelry, Grayson said. In two cases, he said, victims were savagely beaten.

"They pistol-whipped a couple of the people," Grayson said. "They were brutal."

Investigators said in each case, the robbers would spend about an hour in the homes.

"They appeared to target well-to-do residents in the Van Nuys area," Grayson said.

According to police, the men took $302,000 in cash and jewels. Nothing has been recovered.

Detectives traced one suspect from the license plate of a vehicle used in one of the robberies.

With knowledge of the man's identity, detectives on March 6 called in the Special Investigation Section, an elite and sometimes controversial surveillance unit, to track him. The man, Grayson said, soon led officers to the others.

On March 7, police said, investigators learned the suspects were planning another home invasion. Officers saw the men apparently in the process of casing another home, and detectives then decided to arrest them, Tatreau said.

The alleged leader is Narciso Mejia Orellano, 30. Others arrested are Manuel Ruiz, 45; Raul Hernandez, 30; Alberto Gutierrez, 32; Pablo Abarca, 26; Anibal Palacios, 45; and Santiago Hernandez, 30.

All are charged with robbery, conspiracy, attempted robbery and assault with a deadly weapon. They are being held on bail ranging from $260,000 to $440,000.

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