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Police reaffirm commitment to protecting La Jolla as South American crime ring stays active in other areas

Residents gather at the La Jolla Recreation Center to hear an update from San Diego police on a string of recent burglaries.
Residents gather at the La Jolla Recreation Center to hear an update from San Diego police officers on a string of recent burglaries.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Though a wave of burglaries has seemingly ebbed in La Jolla’s Muirlands neighborhood, it is still active in other parts of the state. Thus, during a community meeting Feb. 22 at the Recreation Center, the San Diego Police Department reaffirmed its commitment to extra efforts to protect the La Jolla area.

In January, a string of home burglaries in Muirlands was linked to a “sophisticated” South American crime ring. Police Capt. Scott Wahl said during a Jan. 21 community meeting that there had been 56 residential burglaries in La Jolla in the preceding six months, 18 of which were believed connected to the crime ring. As a result, the Police Department’s Northern Division deployed additional resources to the area, including plainclothes officers and a detective on a task force to follow leads.

Since the Jan. 21 meeting, there have been no burglaries in the area, police said.

Similar crimes have been reported elsewhere in San Diego County, including Del Mar, Carmel Valley, Poway, 4S Ranch, Rancho Santa Fe, Torrey Highlands, Del Mar Mesa, Black Mountain Ranch and other areas across the state.

SDPD Lt. Rick Aguilar told the La Jolla Light that the crime ring is still active in areas outside the 92037 ZIP code and that “we wouldn’t be working with our counterparts in the county, other cities and federal agencies if they weren’t active.”

The department’s extra efforts in La Jolla will remain in effect “until further notice or until I’m told to stop,” Aguilar said. “The chief and the captain have both said this is a priority.”

Aguilar added that an undercover officer spotted by area residents was reported to the Police Department. “One of you took a picture … and told our office that he looked suspicious,” Aguilar said. “So now he owes the department pizza.”

At the Feb. 22 meeting, police relayed to residents what they have learned during the investigation.

San Diego police Capt. Scott Wahl (left) and Lt. Rick Aguilar address area residents Feb. 22.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Wahl said the department doesn’t know how many people are involved in the crime ring but has learned that “they come up on a visa program and disseminate across the country. They have been taught certain tactics. They operate in little pods. So when we close one down, another group comes in.”

Northern Division investigations Lt. Ernesto Servin said that “two weeks ago, we arrested some, but another cell came in and they started back up again. Every one has been a little different, but the [method of operating] is the same.”

As previously reported, the thieves case a house to determine when the owner leaves and the home is empty. From there, they often enter through the second floor, either by scaling patio furniture or a wall. They frequently target the master bedroom and bathroom, taking jewelry that is left out on counters and dressers.

The perpetrators dress in high-end clothes and drive high-end cars to “blend in with the neighborhood,” Aguilar said. They often wear cross-body bags.

The burglaries are unique in that almost all take place at night.

The department also learned that some burglars put a tracker on a resident’s car to be certain the owner has left home.

Drivers can suspect their car has had a tracker placed on it “if you get in your car and notice your phone isn’t working for some reason, and then you step away from your car and it’s working again,” Severin said. “In that case, call us right away … do not try to remove it on your own. We want to catch these guys, so let us handle it.” (Some phones will alert the user that an outside device is trying to pair with it.)

“We’re going to continue to maintain our staffing out in the field, adding officers to just La Jolla to work this case,” Wahl said. “But we need you to continue to share information with us. There have been a couple of cases where, without a doubt, members of the community were able to stop a robbery from taking place. We need to keep that ball rolling.” ◆