Los Angeles police followed the alleged mastermind of a burglary ring responsible for taking more than $10 million in cash and property from the homes of executives and celebrities for more than a month before his arrest last weekend based largely on DNA evidence.
Troy Corsby Thomas was followed by the LAPD's Special Investigation Section for days after he became the focus of an inquiry into more than 150 break-ins over the last three years that targeted some of Los Angeles' wealthiest neighborhoods, police said. The undercover unit assisted a special burglary task force formed to capture the "Hillside Burglars."
Members of that task force knew the suspected ringleader had made mistakes along the way, leaving DNA evidence at some crime scenes. Without Thomas' knowledge, investigators were able to obtain his DNA from an undisclosed item and matched it with crime scene evidence, sources said. "You can just imagine that for more than a few years this guy must have been pretty smug," Councilman Jack Weiss said. "But he didn't realize he touched something and left behind his DNA."
Such investigative tactics have been used before. In at least one LAPD murder case, detectives got a suspect's DNA from a cup at a San Pedro coffee shop.
Thomas, 45, who is believed to be one of two leaders of the burglary crew, was taken into custody Saturday at an airport rental car location, culminating a three-year investigation, police said. The auto broker, who lives in a $1-million West Hills home, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to two charges of residential burglary in January 2006 and March 2008.
Both incidents occurred in Beverly Hills. If convicted, it would be Thomas' third-strike offense, authorities said. He faces 25 years to life in prison.
The burglary crew usually wore black clothes, ski masks and gloves when breaking into homes in Bel-Air, Beverly Hills and Holmby Hills and the hills above Encino and Sherman Oaks. They usually struck at night and on weekends while homeowners were out of town, police said.
"They were sophisticated. They were professional. No one could stop them," said Harvey I. Saferstein of the Bel-Air homeowners association.
Law enforcement sources said police got a break in the case when they found some stolen safes that had been dumped in Box Canyon.
The burglars evaded security systems and cameras in all but one break-in. "They are very sophisticated by the standards of residential burglary. They were much more skilled," Deputy Chief Charlie Beck said.
Investigators are searching for at least one other leader of the burglary ring as well as several others who they believe assisted in various break-ins.
Police did not release the names of the burglary victims. But two sources with knowledge of the investigation said the burglars hit the home of former Paramount Pictures chief Sherry Lansing and her director husband, William Friedkin. They also stole $500,000 from the Bel-Air mansion of Clippers star Cuttino Mobley.