By Ed Bania
During the tourist season - from December through April - two burglary rings called Gypsies and Travelers invade Florida, stealing cash, merchandise and other valuables from local homes and stores.
Most members of the Gypsy group, whose heritage goes back to Europe, are based in Chicago. Most of the Travelers come down from North Carolina.
In the winter, the groups make an East Coast circuit and usually come into Collier County and Marco Island between February and April. However, this year is different.
"Apparently this year, we've seen a group in Lee County that is starting to come down already," said Paul Keys, information technology and crime prevention officer with the Marco Island Police Department.
The Collier County Sheriff's Office reported a home burglary on Nov. 23 on Sunset Street. The owners reported that their residence had been burglarized after a witness saw unknown people in their home. About $1,500 in cash was stolen.
More than $20,000 in jewelry was reported stolen from a nightstand in a home located on Tiger Lily Drive in the Lely Resort area during the daylight hours of Nov. 25. The owner of the house confronted an unknown woman in a hallway, but the burglar escaped to a waiting vehicle.
Having Gypsies and Travelers in the county so soon after Thanksgiving is unusual, according to Keys, because law enforcement "can almost time their arrival looking at past trends."
Both groups are highly organized, operate in a similar fashion, rehearse their techniques and blend in.
"They've got it down to a science," Keys noted. "Whatever society says is the norm, they know how to blend in."
Gypsies and Travelers burglarize most homes during the day. Lt. Jon Maines of the Naples Police Department said that's because it isn't unusual to see people walking up and down residential streets during daylight hours.
"When people are home during the day, they have more of a tendency to not lock their doors," he noted.
Most of the Gypsies and Travelers who do the stealing are women that sometimes use children as accomplices, according to MIPD Det. Linda Guerrero.
"The residents don't really suspect them because usually it's women in their mid 40's," she said. "It could be their own children, or it could be someone else's child that they are using."
The groups target upscale and gated communities. Maines said his agency usually gets burglary reports of two elderly women of Eastern European descent being seen outside or in a home.
"A man usually drops them off on a residential street," Maines added.
A woman and child will approach a house, tell the homeowner that their dog or cat is missing, and ask to look in the owner's yard. While the child distracts the homeowner by pretending to look for the animal, a second adult sneaks into the home to look for wallets or purses with cash and small, valuable jewelry in the master bedroom.
"It only takes a few seconds," Keys said. "They know exactly what to look for. I've seen them discriminate from real jewelry and costume jewelry."
Sometimes, female Gypsies or Travelers will approach a homeowner and ask to use a phone because their car broke down and they don't have a cell phone. When the owner goes to get a phone book, one of the females sneaks into the bedroom.
"If you don't see their car in front of your house, it's probably not there," Keys said. "Usually, they will park their car a block or two away."
"If the homeowner isn't home, they will go door to door pulling on doors until they find one left open and they go into the house," Maines said.
The women usually enter through a rear slider or glass door near a master bedroom.
If a homeowner confronts a Gypsy or Traveler in their home, the thief will say that they are looking for their dog that ran into the house.
"After the women leave, they give a signal to a male driver down the street who picks them up," Maines said.
Other times, the burglars pose as potential home buyers to gain access. Many pose as utility or pest control employees with a phony company logo painted on their vehicles.
Guerrero and Maines said homeowners should meet their neighbors, know when they will be away from home and know who to expect to see working on the home while the neighbors are gone.
Gypsies and Travelers will also pull into a homeowner's driveway in a large vehicle or truck and knock on the door. When the owner answers, one of the group will say that they have leftover materials from re-sealing someone else's driveway and ask if they can re-seal the homeowner's driveway for a nominal fee. When the homeowner goes out to the driveway to discuss a price, another member - waiting in the back yard - sneaks into the home and burglarizes it.
"Call 9-1-1 if it's not legitimate," Maines said.
Usually, the homeowner ponders the incident for several minutes before the police are called.
Gypsies and Travelers have recently added a new wrinkle to their techniques. Before they leave Chicago or North Carolina, they pay for a post office mail box and address labels for envelopes and small boxes. As soon as they steal valuables, they put them in the envelope or box, attach the label and drop the package into a mail box. If they are arrested, the stolen property is already in the U.S. Postal Service system.
Maines said many Gypsies and Travelers have multiple aliases and stolen or forged identifications.
"Our problem is, when we arrest someone, they give us a name of Jane Smith," Maines said. "When they bond out, they leave.
Bond for the burglars can be as low as $1,000. Members of the group will chip in and post the cash bond.
Keys, Guerrero and Maines all said that homeowners should keep their garage and house doors closed at all times and their vehicles locked to prevent burglaries.
"It's amazing how few people do that because they feel relatively safe," Keys said. "Marco Island is, comparatively speaking, relatively safe."
MIPD officers see many garage doors open and front doors unlocked while residents are either inside their homes or working in their back yards. Keys recalled a case he worked years ago on South Barfield Drive. The homeowner was working on his sprinkler system while his wife was in the home. The front door was unlocked and the Gypsies walked in.
Homeowners should think before they reach for a weapon and confront a burglar inside their home, according to Maines.
"You'll have to explain that you felt in fear of your life or the life of another before you can use deadly force," he said. "If you shoot these people, you're going to have to ask yourself why you shot them."
He added that a homeowner could restrain a Gypsy or Traveler that entered their home, but he doesn't recommend it.
"If you're not a police officer, we don't recommend that you hold them because they may have a pistol or knife," Maines said. "See if you can identify them or an escape vehicle and call 9-1-1 instead."
Gypsies also burglarize convenience stores by using a small group of adults and young teens or children. While the adults distract a store employee by starting a conversation or knocking over a display, the kids do the stealing.
While Keys was an investigator in another city, he was inside a store at the same time members of a Gypsy group were. While some of the Gypsies kept the store employees distracted, others walked into a store's safe, stole cash and gave the rehearsed signal to leave.
"Before the attendants even knew what happened, it was over and done with," Keys said.
Most law enforcement agencies offer crime prevention classes to store employees. They are warned not to leave cash registers and the store's office unattended when they see a group of people enter.
Oh well, here we go again. Yet another one of those articles. Obviously, there are good and bad in every group of people but I wonder whether, even in the USA, they would get away with saying, "Jewish burglars return for season" or "Black burglars return for season" or whatever other ethnic group. The truth is that neither the media nor the police would get away with that let alone dare to do it. But, as Gypsies do not have a great lobby and are, generally, disliked by the general public our People are fair game, it seems. Maybe a nice boycott of the paper and some nice emails to them and letters, if anyone can find the address, and also to the various police departments and especially also the relevant town and county, as well as state, politicians, might be a good idea.