June 21, 2024
The burglars allegedly monitor movements of residents before deciding when to break in. Several puzzled residents have discovered the devices.

A Temecula electrician was left scratching his head this month when he discovered two devices, including a camera with a lens poking through a leaf taped to it, hidden in the planter in his front yard. The camera was pointed toward a neighbor’s home.

“Why is this here?” said the man, who declined to provide more information about himself out of fear for his safety. “What is the purpose? Is this here for a kidnapping? Is this here for a home invasion?”

The spot where a camera was embedded and then dug up after it was discovered can be seen where the dirt was removed at the base of a tree on a Chino Hills street in May 2024. The camera was pointed at a home across the street. Would-be burglars could have been responsible for placing the camera there, law enforcement officials said. (Brian Rokos, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG) 

In the next county, in Chino Hills, a systems analyst for a Pomona hospital, was puzzled after learning that his home was in the line of sight of a camera buried at the base of a tree across the street and directed toward his neighbor’s home.

“It’s kind of strange,” allowed Steve Hippler, 69, who has lived in his Glen Ridge Drive home for 38 years. “I don’t get the purpose.”

But Glendale police do.

Detectives there believe that so-called burglary tourists from South America have been sneaking the recording devices into the flora outside homes throughout Southern California to track the movements of the residents at specific homes to determine the best time to break in.

It’s unclear how many cameras have been planted as reports of discoveries to law enforcement have been few, although an Orange County sheriff’s official said several cases are being prosecuted there.

Glendale detectives began hearing about the tactic starting in December, said Sgt. Vahe Abramyan, a Police Department spokesman.

“They’re using these sophisticated devices to gain access into homes,” Abramyan said. “The whole point of the cameras is to put them in bushes and trees just outside the property they are interested in and they will use the footage to see the behaviors of the house — who lives there, who goes in and out, what happens during the day. That way they can focus their attention on the timespan when no one is home.”

Glendale police believe they solved the mystery when on May 20 a sergeant on patrol as part of a burglary task force created in 2023 amid a rise in break-ins pulled over a car whose headlights were out as it left a dead-end street around 10:30 p.m. Officers detained four Colombian men and found a visual recording device and a battery pack charging system camouflaged with leaves, a police news release said.

Glendale police say they found a camera with leaves taped to it in the car driven by four burglary suspects from Colombia in May. So-called burglary tourists from South America have been planting hidden electronic surveillance to monitor residents’ movements in Southern California, police said. (Courtesy photo) 

One of the men had been arrested on April 30 at the end of a pursuit during which the suspects threw a Wi-Fi signal jammer used to disable home security systems, out the car’s window, the release said.

Abramyan said these gangs enter the United States on tourist visas.

“They’re obviously not coming here to be tourists. They’re coming here to burglarize homes,” Abramyan said.

He said the thieves typically case homes in more affluent neighborhoods.

Hippler’s Chino Hills neighborhood has older, solidly middle-class homes, which left him wondering why his was apparently targeted.

“There are dozens of homes a block away that are more affluent,” Hippler said, pointing up the hill. “Anything up that street is like a freaking mansion compared to this place.”

The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, which is investigating that case, has discussed the crimes with Glendale police to learn if they are related, spokeswoman Gloria Huerta said.

“We have not identified a person nor a motive,” said Huerta, who added that her department has not received additional reports of similar circumstances.

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The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department confirmed investigating the Temecula resident’s discovery of the camera, which drew the bomb squad because the other device was wrapped in black tape and had wires sticking out of it. Investigators determined that it was not dangerous.

Sgt. Deirdre Vickers, a sheriff’s spokeswoman, declined to say whether her department was comparing notes with other agencies.

“Unfortunately, releasing any information could jeopardize this investigation,” Vickers said.

Police in the cities of San Bernardino and Riverside and several OC cities said they have not received reports of hidden cameras.

In Santa Ana, someone who had been following a business owner set up a camera in a tree near his home. Burglars went directly to the victim’s bedroom, where they stole an estimated $300,000 worth of jewelry and other valuables, said Officer Natalie Garcia, a Police Department spokeswoman.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department had cases involving suspects setting up cameras or being caught with cameras either before or after committing a residential burglary, but declined to provide further information, including the number of cases, or what cities were affected, because the cases were still pending in court, said Sgt. Matt Parrish, a department spokesman.

In March, Irvine police arrested three men from Chile who police suspected were casing homes. It wasn’t known if cameras were involved.

Abramyan, the Glendale sergeant, urged residents to be extra vigilant about their surroundings.

“If you have yards, look through them to make sure nothing is hidden,” he said.

The people in the Temecula resident’s neighborhood have already taken those words to heart.

“Everybody I talked to said, ‘I read it on Facebook and ran out to my garden,’ ” he said. “There’s a new type of threat out there that we didn’t know existed.”

Staff Writer Nathaniel Percy contributed to this report.

 

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