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Problems Plummet After 4 Arrests

The `serial offenders' are believed responsible for more than 500 crimes, including car thefts and burglaries, in LAPD's Northeast Division.

July 11, 2006|Richard Winton | Times Staff Writer

As they reviewed annual crime statistics at the end of 2005, top officials at the Los Angeles Police Department's Northeast Division were puzzled.

Though total crime in the division -- which runs from Los Feliz and Silver Lake through Eagle Rock -- dropped 4%, they were not celebrating because it was the smallest decline of any section of Los Angeles.

And it was well below the 10% citywide reduction called for by Chief William J. Bratton and delivered by most other divisions.

Capt. Morris T. Smith, who runs the Northeast Division, decided to figure out what went wrong and quickly noticed that car thefts were up.

"It just killed us," he said.

As the officials sifted through the crime reports, they realized that a remarkable amount of the property crime in their division was occurring at the hands of a small number of people.

In June, police arrested four men they say were responsible for more than 500 crimes, including car theft, identity theft and burglary.

With the men now in custody, Bratton said the area has experienced a remarkable turnaround.

"Since the arrests, we have seen a decrease in residential burglaries of approximately 33%," Bratton said. "One of the suspects admitted to committing more than 200 burglaries from motor vehicles alone. Another suspect was found with 200 pieces of mail, and $150,000 in property was recovered."

Three of the men pleaded not guilty and the fourth admitted his crimes and was sentenced to state prison. While a court of law will determine whether the men are guilty, Bratton and LAPD officials are already using the case to make a point about crime.

"A few criminals can do so much damage to a community, particularly when it comes to property crimes. They rob and steal from hundreds of victims," Smith said. "So we set out to find those criminals."

Bratton is a proponent of the law enforcement theory known as the "10% solution," meaning that 10% of offenders commit 50% of all crimes.

And he cites the Northeast Division as evidence of this.

*

As Smith and his detectives began to analyze the crime data in January, they quickly came to believe that some of their problem had to do with so-called serial offenders.

They didn't have specific suspects, but many of the crimes appeared to have a similar pattern to them, occurring over and over in similar locations.

They began to focus on portions of Eagle Rock and Highland Park, which had experienced a string of stolen vehicles.

"We knew we had someone in our community using what they call shaved keys to steal primarily Toyotas and Hondas, and we were trying to find them," Smith said.

That led to the arrests of Antwaine Semidey, 27, and Salvador Alvarado, 30, who police believe stole 150 cars between them.

In the area where Alvarado lived, nearly 100 vehicles were stolen in the two months before he was arrested in early June. He has since pleaded guilty. In the month since then, only 22 cars have been stolen, Smith said.

"We can already see there is correlation between that arrest and the number of stolen cars in the area dropping dramatically," Smith said.

Police say Semidey was caught in the act of stealing a car. But when they tried to pull him over, he allegedly led them on a high-speed chase on the wrong side of the freeway, eventually evading capture. But the officers caught up to him a few days later, on June 17.

Police arrested Rocco Narcho, 20, on June 5 near a burglary scene in the Pico-Union district. Detectives found two guns in his backpack that had been stolen from a home in Silver Lake.

Smith said detectives confronted Narcho, who allegedly admitted to more than 200 car thefts and several more home burglaries across Highland Park.

"He told detectives he did daytime burglaries and went through open doors and windows, taking small items, cash, jewelry, laptops. We estimate he stole $27,000 of items," Smith said. "The suspect would trade all his ill-gotten property to local narcotics dealers for methamphetamines."

Prosecutors have charged him with 10 counts of burglary, two counts of grand theft and a count of narcotics possession.

Since his arrest, burglaries in the Highland Park area have dropped by a third, police said.

Luis Martinez first came to the attention of detectives as the victim of a home-invasion robbery. But the suspects in that case told police that Martinez was an identity thief.

Detectives decided to wait outside his home. Martinez allegedly arrived in a stolen car. On June 30, police searched his home and found property from burglaries as well as dozens of counterfeit checks and stolen mail from more than 200 victims, primarily in Pasadena and northeast Los Angeles.

Martinez was arrested on charges of burglary, grand theft auto and receiving stolen goods. He is now under investigation by detectives who believe he might be part of a larger regionwide identity-theft ring.

*

Smith said he is proud of his officers' work. Indeed, in the first six months of this year, serious crimes were down 16% in the Northeast Division, 5 percentage points better than the department average and twice this year's LAPD goal of 8%. But just as his division is getting a handle on burglaries, another crime problem is flaring up: Robberies in Northeast are up 6%.

But the detectives, suspecting a similar pattern, are focusing their efforts on finding serial robbers.

"A lot of our robberies are street robberies," Smith said, adding that residents need to be alert. "Be aware who is around you and whether it is a safe environment."

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