In Modesto, Calif., in the winter of 1995, two brothers -- one just returning from a short hotel stay at the public's expense -- decided to start their own computer business by selling used PC parts over the Internet. To supply their inventory, they burglarized local businesses with top-of-the-line computers. Their spree lasted only a few months but left dozens of businesses reeling from the losses.
Detective Steven Carter, with the Modesto Police Dept.'s Investigative Services Division said, "We became aware of this B&E [breaking and entering] team when there were several business burglaries where the method of entry was similar, and the stuff they took was exactly the same. Over a fairly short period -- about four months -- there were 32 different break-ins where the perps did exactly the same thing: They would just cut through all the telephone trunk lines to disable any alarms, then do a door or a window smash, and then go into the building and take only computers.
"And these guys were cocky," Carter added. "They would spend two to three hours in the business, picking and choosing the equipment they wanted and, in a couple of cases, even left messages scrawled across the walls, like 'Cops Suck! or 'Thanks for the computers!'"
The losses were emotionally and financially devastating to many in Modesto's business community. Insurance companies, when hit with repeated claims from the same business, began to wonder if they were becoming a victim of fraud, and some of the actual victims were driven to the brink of bankruptcy by the thefts.
"This investigation was high-profile from early on; everyone wanted it solved and fast. Businesses were being crushed by the repeated break-ins, and the businesses represented real people that were left hurting in the burglars' wake," said Carter. "I knew that eventually we'd like to get some of this stuff back to the people who lost it, but first we had to find a way to catch the bad guys."
The burglars had an uncanny run of good luck by never encountering an alarm system they couldn't disarm or a late-working employee to catch them in the act. Once on the case, the Modesto Police Dept. found their own modern-day solution to snag the bad guys. They set up a fax network with all the businesses that had been hit and a group of similar businesses. The system dialed each business in succession, from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., and hung up when it got through. If the phone lines were down, the fax would not connect, and every time there was any trouble connecting, a unit was sent to check it out. The burglars' good fortune continued, however, and the one night the system went down -- due to an operator's error -- the burglars hit again.
Fortunately, the brothers' luck ran out early one morning four days later. They used walkie-talkies to communicate, and on a clear spring night while they were cleaning out a company in local business park, local security guards picked up a curious exchange on their own hand-held radios.
"Basically, one of the guys had gotten jumpy and was telling his brother, 'I think I hear a cop coming. We might have been made.' Obviously, this would come across as suspicious, so security drove around the park to find the signal's source, listening all the time. When they drove up an overpass, they spotted [one of the brothers] below them jabbering away on the walkie-talkie and followed him as he drove off. The two guards detained him when he stopped at a Denny's restaurant and called us to the scene," said Carter.
In the guy's car, Carter found blue plastic bags like those left at the previous crime scenes and a copy of