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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Gypsies: the Usual Suspects

The detectives weren't studying run-of-the-mill scam artists. Their target was the Rom, tagged with a reputation as criminals, fairly or not.

January 30, 2006|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

VALLEY FORGE, Pa. — Fortified by muffins and coffee, the detectives gathered under the chandeliers in the hotel's Grand Ballroom.

San Francisco Police Inspector Greg Ovanessian prepared to start his presentation. "Before I begin," he said. "Not all Gypsies or Rom are criminals."

"Bull...!" yelled someone in the back. After the laughs died down, Ovanessian, a bespectacled, soft-spoken investigator, continued.

"When speaking about crimes committed by the Gypsy or the Rom, of course I'm only referring to the criminal element within that community."


Under drizzly skies just across from Valley Forge National Historical Park outside of Philadelphia, the Gypsy crime detectives were in full war-room mode.

They had gathered at the Valley Forge Radisson for the 21st annual conference of the National Assn. of Bunco Investigators. While bunco generically means theft by confidence games, no one here was kidding themselves that they were on a generic mission. Their main target was the thefts, swindles and frauds perpetrated by Gypsies, also known as Rom or Roma.

From places such as Wichita, Kan.; Skokie, Ill.; San Francisco; Abbington Township, Pa.; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and New York City, the detectives took in topics such as "Introduction to Rom Investigations," "European Burglary Suspects" and "Home Repair and Impostor Burglary Suspects."

In his presentation, Det. Gary Nolte of Skokie showed a painting of wagons passing through a bucolic countryside. "Most of America thinks this is what a Gypsy is, I kid you not," Nolte said. Americans "think it's fun. They think it's a joke. Tambourine-thumping, banjo-playing buffoons.

"That's what [Gypsies] want us to think. But they're not."

How many crimes are involved? It's impossible to say, according to investigators. Most of the crimes are not reported, and the number of Gypsies in the U.S. is unknown.

Fairly or unfairly dogged by a reputation for theft, Gypsies have long attracted the interest of a specialized gumshoe.

These detectives study suspects' clans and often put together family trees. They contact community patriarchs, known as rombaros -- "big men" -- who sometimes turn suspects in, then bail them out. Some detectives go to Gypsy weddings and funerals to shoot photos, take down license plates and hunt for suspects.

"My philosophy is be there or be square," added retired New York Police Det. Edward Berrigan, 67, thin, sharply dressed and with a classic New York accent. "There's a lot of intelligence to be had."

Of course, as an investigative niche, the targeting of Gypsy crimes isn't politically correct. By definition, Gypsy crime detectives engage in profiling. What else, the detectives ask, are they supposed to do?

The Gypsies, Nolte said, "have a common goal, and that's to get over on us. They're going to steal from the gaje [the non-Gypsy] ... every day of their life."

Critics say these investigators engage in tactics that should have been cast aside decades ago.

"If it were Mexican Americans, African Americans, Jewish Americans, Chinese Americans, there would be immediate backlash at all levels," said Ian Hancock, a University of Texas linguistics professor and ethnic Roma. "There's nothing about crimes committed by Romani Americans that make them different from crimes committed by anybody else."

Hancock and others said the officers' attitudes are especially egregious because of the long history of persecution of Gypsies, a highly insular people who migrated from India and eventually became the largest minority in Europe. An estimated half-million of them were killed during the Holocaust.

The people known as Gypsies have preserved traditions that emphasize separation from mainstream societies, which they consider to be corrupting. Many do not send their children to school or work alongside non-Gypsies.

"Who else can police kick that don't kick back?" asked Jimmy Marks, the son of a prominent Spokane, Wash., rombaro whose property was raided by police in 1986. Eleven years later, the city paid more than $1 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the family. "They get to know our names, our Social Security numbers, our birthdays, and who belongs to who.

"These detectives, these so-called Gypsy experts, they poison the minds of all the little cops, the young ones."


Detectives at the bunco conference deny that they are out to get all Gypsies -- just those committing crimes among members of a highly secretive society that might otherwise be overlooked.

Quite simply, they say, some crimes are disproportionally committed by members of certain groups. In the case of Gypsies, they say, that means fortune-telling scams, fake home repairs, store diversion burglaries, "sweetheart swindles" -- which involve scamming lonely, lovelorn senior citizens -- and burglarizing the homes of the elderly by first distracting them.

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