Millions of dollars in stolen jewelry, more than a dozen arrests and investigating detectives say it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The San Diego Police Department is asking for the public’s help in breaking up what investigators are calling an international organized theft ring that has been operating in San Diego since 2020. Police say the ring targets the Asian and elderly communities.
A week before Christmas, NBC 7 reported an attack on a 72-year-old Vietnamese grandmother across the street from her home on Kenova Street in Mira Mesa. Her necklace, which was an important piece of inherited jewelry, was taken by two women.
Fast forward to Wednesday, the grandmother told NBC 7 that she recognized one of the women police are looking for as one of her attackers. The grandmother and her family did not feel comfortable going on camera, but a friend and source of many victims of similar crimes gave them a voice.
“It’s very frustrating and disappointing. Sadly, it’s all of the above. Many of these items are priceless, irreplaceable,” said Pida Kongphouthone, a Lao community organizer.
Kongphouthone has been the shoulder to cry on for the victims of this international criminal organization for the past two years.
“Many of our elders, many of our community members, are afraid to go outside,” Kongphouthone said.
It turns out that detectives from the San Diego Police Department’s Financial Crimes Unit have been working on the Mira Mesa case and many others like it for just as long.
The faces of more than three dozen people who investigators say are connected to a string of burglaries in and around San Diego.
Investigators have released the suspect names and faces of 13 people arrested and charged in connection with this string of crimes, plus images of more than 30 suspects they are trying to capture.
“These are people that we have identified as being in San Diego and involved at some level in these crimes,” said SDPD Financial Crimes Detective Luke Johnson. “They’ll often ask for directions to the nearest church or tell them they’ve been through some trauma in their family to make them feel sorry for them.”
Once the victim’s guard is down, they use their pickpocketing skills to steal everything from jewelry to wallets. If that doesn’t work, they resort to more crude methods, investigators said.
“They buy luxury vehicles. We have suspects who own Lamborghinis, Ferraris and Rolls Royces. They have big mansions in Romania,” Detective Johnson said.
All of the police suspects connected to these crimes come from a small community in Romania, according to Detective Johnson.
Investigators say thieves are targeting Asian neighborhoods, supermarkets and convenience stores.
They observe the Wat Lao Buddharam temple in San Diego, for those coming and going from worship.
“This whole situation has definitely disturbed the peace of mind in our community,” Kongphouthone said.
San Diego police say take a page from your childhood lessons. Do not talk to strangers and do not walk alone. If you have a phone, take a video or picture of someone approaching you and maybe the vehicle they’re driving. Anonymity is their best protection, but exposing them is your best defense.
Police say these thefts are underreported. Victims sometimes feel stupid because things were taken from them by fraud and they don’t file criminal charges.