They drove the streets of Southern California in a black Hyundai compact, dressed in green Sheriff's Department-style clothing and flashing "deputy" badges that looked as if they came from an amusement park. Authorities believe that Steve Leo and Sabrina John stopped dozens of illegal immigrants walking home from work over the last six months, patted them down and stole money and valuables.
Detectives arrested the couple in connection with 21 such robberies that stretched from the San Fernando Valley to Orange County. But authorities believe they are responsible for many more.
Officials say the couple primarily targeted immigrants, including day laborers, toward the end of the day -- when they had just been paid. In one case, they are accused of taking $1,900 from a man walking down a street in Silver Lake.
The suspects carried a replica handgun and a scanner and even used a laptop in the Hyundai to simulate background checks on people they had stopped, authorities said.
While the setup looked suspicious to many witnesses, officials said victims have been afraid to step forward for fear they could be deported.
"They wore green uniforms like the one I am wearing and ordered victims to submit themselves to a pat-down search. The suspects removed the victims' wallet and/or cash and instructed the victims to continue walking," Sheriff Lee Baca said. "There are other victims out there."
Leo, 34, and John, 32, who live in the San Fernando Valley, were captured only when Los Angeles Police Department vice detectives saw the pair harassing a teenager Oct. 24 on Glendale Boulevard, authorities said. The officers noticed that Leo was patting down the teenager while John sat in the car eating. Detectives say officers are usually both out of the vehicle whenever a suspect is searched.
This is just the latest allegation of criminals preying on illegal immigrants. Earlier this year, police arrested several private security guards on suspicion of shaking down street vendors in South L.A. Gangs have also extorted vendors and merchants in the heavily immigrant areas near MacArthur Park.
But this case, officials said, is particularly egregious. "They did it to undocumented people because they felt it was easy," said LAPD Lt. Jimmy Grayson. "They weren't only doing it to undocumented people; they were doing it to minors."
The alleged shakedowns have occurred since June across the region, including in Artesia, Norwalk, Garden Grove, Whittier, Burbank, Glendale, East L.A. and various parts of Los Angeles.
Sheriff's Deputy Marcelo Quintero said most of the victims told investigators that "they knew something was fishy with the black Hyundai and the garb, but they didn't want to cause any confrontation or cause a problem."
Besides victims who have come forward, authorities have received calls from witnesses saying they noticed a couple in a Hyundai stopping people. "People would be driving by and feel it wasn't 100% right," Quintero said, adding that detectives are still looking into those cases.
Leo and John used uniforms and equipment available at local swap meets, said Sheriff's Capt. Steve Johnson. Two badges retrieved, according to investigators, looked as if they could have been purchased at a theme park and bore Leo's first name, saying "Sheriff Steve."
Local police have long struggled with how to gain the cooperation of illegal immigrants victimized by crimes. Because of their status, some fear that authorities will turn them over to immigration officials and that they will be deported.
For more than two decades, the LAPD has tried to maintain an arms-length relationship with immigration officials, hoping to spur more cooperation in immigrant communities. But some critics believe local police need to work more closely with the federal government to crack down on illegal immigration. One conservative group has sued the LAPD, saying the department should fully cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement on immigration matters.
On the streets, Latinos said they were not surprised by the alleged shakedown operation, but their reactions to it were mixed.
"I think this is part of the life of being an immigrant," said Arnulfo Godoy Chamale, who was waiting for work outside a Home Depot store off Studebaker Road in Norwalk. "We don't have any protection."
A few weeks ago, Chamale said, he finished working a two-month job building a house and was promised an average of about $100 a day for the work. His boss never paid him, instead telling him he could not be paid because he was an immigrant. Now, Chamale says he takes only jobs in which the money is paid after each day's work.
In Pico Rivera, 38-year-old Manuel Comacho was pushing his 3-year-old daughter on the swings. The city of Los Angeles employee said he thinks illegal immigrants need to educate and empower themselves so they are not taken advantage of.
"Who is the easiest to target?" said 37-year-old Eric Malegar, who was standing Wednesday afternoon on Fletcher Drive in Atwater Village. "It's illegals."
Times staff writer Anna Gorman contributed to this report.