Bangle bracelets

Is an international criminal operation targeting the Bay Area’s wealthiest towns with ‘burglary tourism’?

Max Schenk was playing video games in the den above his parents’ garage in Hillsborough when he heard an iron gate clinking outside, followed by a frantic rustling of bushes. Someone had broken into the house.

It was a chilly Saturday evening in late October and Schenk was unaware of the wave of burglaries in the wealthy peninsula towns that were flourishing at the time. Nor had the 22-year-old student heard the elaborate and controversial theory the police would circulate to explain this trend: that an international criminal operation rooted in South America had infiltrated Tony’s Bay neighborhoods. Area.

The thieves left a trail of clues that night, after smashing a window in Schenk’s bedroom, creeping down the hallway and snatching a safe from the master bedroom, opening it and stealing it around $300,000 worth of jewelry—diamond earrings, a wedding band, a limited-edition Franck Muller watch, and a diamond and enamel necklace—scattering her mother’s less expensive costume jewelry on the floor.

As Schenk walked down the stairs and into the kitchen, dialing 911 and grabbing the largest knife he could find, he heard two men speaking Spanish, he said in an interview with The Chronicle. He ran to a neighbor, clutching the knife, his sneakers and his phone.

“When the police arrived, they literally saw one of the burglars in my mother’s room,” Schenk said, recalling how the man ran out of the house and crossed a creek that borders the property of the house. family, avoiding officers, who did not make an arrest in connection with the case.

Police would later describe the characteristics of this heist as typical of a pattern, one where “tourists” enter the United States through a visa waiver program, stake out homes in affluent communities, break into a window to get in and flee with a safe, designer handbags, or high-end jewelry, ignoring electronics and other more easily traced items. Given the skill and agility required to get away with these crimes, police believe the perpetrators may have extensive training.

“The way they do it is a textbook – the same every time,” said the Atherton Police Commander. Dan Larsen spoke of the burglary spree in his neighboring town, the Bay Area’s most expensive, known for its sprawling mansions with long driveways and tall gates, some even guarded by private security guards. Residents reported a string of eight burglaries in January, and police attributed six to thieves they believe arrived from Chile.

“People are definitely nervous,” Atherton Mayor Rick DeGolia said, noting that a city public safety meeting in February drew more than 100 attendees on Zoom. In the nearby town of Hillsborough, burglaries rose from 27 reported in 2018 to 36 last year, according to police records.

In Atherton, rising burglaries are “the city’s biggest problem,” DeGolia said. “The police are very focused on this.”

So far, however, San Mateo County law enforcement has not made any arrests, and San Mateo County District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe’s office is not pursuing any burglary cases with facts. like those described by the police. Law enforcement officials say they have evidence to support their hypothesis. But in the absence of arrests or prosecutions, publicly available information about the thieves remains scarce.

Hillsborough Police Captain Nelson Corteway cited an incident in May 2019. An SUV captured in surveillance video in Hillsburough was later filmed in Los Angeles, where a person in the vehicle threw a safe . Investigators found that the person who rented the vehicle was believed to have been in the United States on a Chilean tourist visa waiver and used a stolen credit card for the transaction, Corteway said. The suspect was never caught.

Across the country, police and federal authorities are investigating burglaries that resemble those in the Bay Area. Detectives from Fairfax County, Va., discovered a cell linked to South America and linked it to hundreds of burglaries in 2020, while MPs in the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office in Southern California apprehended several burglars who they said were associated with “South American robbery gangs.”

Jaime Alliende, consul general at the Chilean consulate in San Francisco, said Chilean and US officials were “actively and continuously collaborating in sharing information to resolve the issue.”

But some locals and experts are skeptical, pointing to gaps in the evidence and raising concerns about the rush to blame South Americans.

There is no real public safety rationale for identifying a group of perpetrators by their immigration status, said Santa Clara University law professor Pratheepan Gulasekaram, “unless your goal is to reduce immigration to the United States or, for some reason, you are interested in stoking xenophobia”. or anti-foreign bias.

Historically, police have often relied on guesswork to fill an information void, said UC Berkeley law professor Jonathan Simon. Accounts like that of the South American robbery gangs are “like catnip” for law enforcement, Simon said, often popping up when a set of facts aligns with long-held beliefs. on immigrants in an environment where police services easily exchange information on social media.

When local police discuss Peninsula burglaries, they frequently cite a visa waiver program in Chile that Atherton Police Chief Steven McCulley believes thieves are exploiting, in order to target upscale communities in the USA. He calls the perpetrators “Chilean gangs” but strenuously denies that officers are picking suspects based on their ethnicity or immigration status.

Corteway, the Hillsborough captain, said his department is sensitive to being seen as anti-immigrant and has softened its language over time, replacing terms such as “Chilean burglary squads” with “criminal tourism “more general.

“For us, it’s not about immigration and where people are coming from, it’s about having people protect and harden their homes and look out for suspicious behavior,” Corteway said.

Meanwhile, burglary victims are growing increasingly frustrated. Among them is Hillsborough resident Kellie Meyers, who said thieves broke through the double-glazed glass of her master bathroom last month while she was on vacation.

Meyers has a high-tech alarm system to ring her home, as well as motion detectors in the stairway, hallways and living room, plus a housekeeper who brought in the mail every other day and parked his SUV in the parking strip to make the house look busy.

The burglars came anyway, bypassing the alarm, which would have been visible in the master bedroom closet, Meyers said, flashing a red light and the word “armed” on the digital display of his keypad.

After smashing “every infinitesimal piece of glass” in the bathroom window, they ripped out a safe that was bolted into the wall with a stud, Meyers said, stealing four Rolex watches, earrings with diamond studs, cannabis, a platinum bangle bracelet with diamonds, the key to Meyers’ gun safe and several designer handbags – loot worth at least $375,000 .

Meyers arrived home on February 19 to find her bedroom door inexplicably locked. She called the police, who arrived with guns drawn and broke down the bedroom door but found no one. The scene inside the bedroom was “chaotic”, Meyers said, with the open floor, damaged drywall, shards of glass and wood and the “ripped” closet.

“I was traumatized,” Meyers said. For the next three days, she placed a piece of plywood above her bedroom window, fearing the thieves would return. She kept a loaded gun beside her and avoided showering, terrified of being ambushed.

“It was the most horrible time,” she said. “I have never been so deliriously exhausted and traumatized. It wasn’t the jewelry, it was the thought that might have happened when I was home.

Last week, Meyers sent a distraught letter to the mayor and city council of Hillsborough, speculating that criminal tourists are sharing information about “vulnerable and lucrative towns, and Hillsborough, Calif., is currently at the top of the list.”

Although burglaries have decreased in Atherton, police have further stepped up patrols in marked and unmarked cars, McCulley said, fearing the town is a target.

“These are affluent neighborhoods,” he told The Chronicle. Thieves “run the odds and know there’s a bigger cake,” he said.

Rachel Swan is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @rachelswan