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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

The use of informants within the Gypsy community is reviled by critics, such as Jimmy Marks in Spokane, who says many of the informants aren't any better than the alleged crooks and that they use their contacts with police to intimidate and gain power. There have also been cases in which detectives got too close to the Gypsy community and ended up skimming ill-gotten money or taking money in exchange for information about ongoing cases. (Nolte said one of his close friends was arrested on such a charge a few years ago.)

Sgro agrees it's a murky area and says detectives have to be careful.

Sgro said he often is asked by Gypsies to be the godfather to children or is invited to weddings, funerals and other social events -- but not out of great affection. It's part of the quest for status and leverage, he said.

It's the reason that as much as he values George as a contact, he would never hand him his business card.

"Never, ever give them a business card," Sgro said. "They'll use it to say, 'This is my guy.' Never leave a message on a cellphone, because they'll say, 'This is my detective.' Same thing with answering machines."

Sgro said the flip side of the godfather requests and wedding invitations is the retaliatory accusations and the nicknames, uttered in an Indo-European tongue.

"They call me oBeng: the devil," Sgro said. "They call me that to my face. 'You're the devil.' They don't like being hammered."

Sgro has become a legend in part because he has turned relatively small investigations into big-time busts.

A few years ago, he arrested four suspects leaving a ransacked house. He linked them to burglaries of senior citizens in New Jersey and Philadelphia. That led to searches of homes and safe-deposit boxes in five states and the recovery of $1.8 million in cash and $1 million in jewelry.

Other Gypsies thought the ringleader was "just some dinky little guy," Grow said. "Well, $1.8 million, that's not dinky."

But Sgro also runs into dead ends.

One case that still haunts him involves 84-year-old Helena Ward, who was approached in her Philadelphia home by two men pretending to be roof repairmen. One got on the roof, presumably to begin the work. Soon both entered the home and demanded $3,000 from Ward, 10 times what they had originally quoted.

When she ordered them to leave, they crowded her and angrily told her they were going to drive her to her bank and that she was going to take out the money.

Ward complied, going to the bank and quietly bringing the money to the thieves. The men agreed to drive her back home, but Sgro said they dropped her off far away and she had to walk back.

One of the men returned a few days later, banging on and kicking her door. A month after that, two other men parked in Ward's driveway and told her they were going to pave her sidewalk, police said. By then she was wearing a whistle around her neck, and the men fled, said her neighbor, former Philadelphia Police Officer Matthew McDonald.

Ward's health deteriorated and nine months later, McDonald said he found her unconscious in her sleeping clothes sitting in an armchair in the living room. She died several days later, he said.

"She was probably afraid to sleep upstairs," McDonald said.

Sgro investigated the case, but it was one he could never solve. One of the suspects left a fingerprint on a glass, he said. Sgro believes that after the initial theft the woman was put on some list as an easy target.

Still, how does Sgro know that these suspects are Gypsies? After all, victims often describe thieves as looking Hispanic, Middle Eastern or Armenian.

"Let me put it this way: I see a fancy egg on the front lawn. I'm not going to discount the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus," Sgro said. "But chances are, it's the Easter Bunny."

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