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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

From these investigators' perspective, the Gypsies' unique culture has given rise to unique criminals, which necessitates detectives with unique insight into the Gypsy culture.

In Los Angeles, for example, scams against the elderly are a noticeable problem. Det. Gil Escontrias, who for two years was the LAPD's Gypsy crime investigator, read up on the culture and touched base with detectives from around the country. He became an expert on how con artists used psychic tricks and other deceptions to lure victims into their schemes.

In many ways, not much has changed in the world of the Gypsy crime detective since 1955, when Joseph Mitchell wrote in the New Yorker about New York's Pickpocket and Confidence Squad and Gypsy crime expert Capt. Daniel J. Campion.

Mitchell accompanied Campion as he taught two young detectives about the city's Gypsies and their boojo -- or swindles.

Back then, cops were unrestrained about making broad-brush statements about an ethnic group.

In his day, Campion spoke of "big-car Gypsies" who "drive Cadillacs and Packards and Lincolns."

Fifty years later?

"Gypsies like high-end luxury cars, mostly Beemers [BMWs], Mercedes and Caddies these days," Berrigan told the conference attendees. "These people drive the best cars, no question about it."

Many years ago, Berrigan said, detectives in New York could walk into fortune-telling parlors and ask for the names, dates of birth and other information of everyone in the parlor.

Now, investigators say, the Gypsy crime detective has to tread carefully. Law enforcement frequently uses sterile, catch-all terms such as "professional transient burglar" and "transient offenders," at least publicly.

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At the bunco conference, Philadelphia Police Investigator Lou Sgro was clearly a star of the show.

"He's the most successful investigator this type of crime has ever seen," said Jon Grow, a retired Baltimore detective and executive director of the association. "He's the best. If there were 15 Lou Sgros in this country, we wouldn't have this problem."

"Lou, he's a legend," said NYPD Special Frauds Squad Det. Michael McFadden, who at 38 is relatively young for a Gypsy crime detective. "Philly doesn't play games with the Gypsies."

Sgro, 61, is short and wide-hipped, with wire-rimmed glasses and a receding hairline. He uses the city's fortune-telling parlors to chat up and gather information on who comes into the area. Legally, he can shut all of the city's lucrative parlors down. But Sgro said he would lose a source of intelligence, as well as leverage.

"It's a hammer over their heads," Sgro said. "If they don't turn someone in, I tell them I'm going to close down every parlor in town."

"I get a lot of anonymous calls. 'There's a new truck in the area.' They don't want other people in town," Sgro said. "They think if someone comes in and makes a big score,' they're going to be blamed.' "

Sgro is a believer in doing surveillance at Gypsy weddings and funerals, because he said suspects with warrants from around the country show up to pay their respects. Once, his van was spotted at a wedding and Sgro said Internal Affairs got a complaint that he was demanding $100 a picture to leave.

"I thought, 'If that's true, I'm going to be a millionaire,' " Sgro cracked. "I had 10 rolls of 36 pictures, I think."

A main source of information for Sgro is Jimmy "Cutty" George, top rombaro of Philadelphia. They have a relationship that is both familiar and cagey.

"If you want to call me a snitch, that's up to you," said George in a telephone interview. "I'm his eyes. When he needs somebody, then I look for them.... He's a gentleman. He does his job. He's a very good detective, and I help him a lot with the Gypsy crimes. I do what I have to do."

When a group of self-described Gypsies allegedly used false identities to steal 113 vehicles recently from the Bay Area, George traveled to California and met with detectives, including San Francisco's Ovanessian. He turned in his nephew and several other people suspected of illegally purchasing cars. Then he negotiated a deal to pay restitution.

George said he told the people he turned in: "Instead of running, I can make it a lot easier and take you in, and take you to the court system and then I'll bail you out."

He sees himself as a kind of politician, and talks proudly about how he is following in the tradition of his grandfather. He touts his role in finding places for other Gypsy families to live or set up businesses.

"My grandfather, Eli George, was dealing with the police officers in the 1930s," he said. "The Gypsies in the surrounding area and all over the world know I have good friendship with him. It's a professional friendship."

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