IMPERIAL COUNTY — A burglary and theft ring allegedly involving 15 Imperial County residents has been broken up by local law enforcement after a traffic stop in March and has led to busts from County Sheriff’s cases spanning the last two years.
The thefts occurred throughout Imperial County, with the alleged burglars hitting mostly agricultural businesses and more rural residences, though some were in local cities, Imperial County Sheriff’s Office (ICSO) investigators said at a press conference Thursday, July 15, in El Centro.
The criminal organization involved 15 Imperial County residents — 14 males and one female — who allegedly “participated in multiple commercial burglaries, stolen vehicles, child pornography, narcotics, firearms, mail thefts, and check fraud, to name a few,” said County Sheriff Raymond Loera.
The beginning of the end for the crime ring came in early March 2021 when investigators “conducted a traffic stop on an individual driving an off-highway vehicle (OHV), and that OHV was later identified as a stolen vehicle,” Loera said.
The individual provided information to ICSO patrol deputies, which enabled ICSO to contact “several other individuals” who also provided valuable information to the Sheriff’s Investigation Division, Loera said.
“Investigators were able to identify several stash houses through the County which were utilized to hide stolen property, vehicles, and tools,” Loera said. “Investigators were able to identify methods used by this criminal organization to transport themselves in an effort to deceive law enforcement.”
In addition to the ICSO investigations team and patrol, eight law enforcement agencies aided in the busts, confiscations, stash house shutdowns, and the returning of some of the stolen vehicles and equipment. The ICSO’s allied agencies were the police departments of Brawley, Calipatria, El Centro, and Imperial, as well as Imperial County Probation Department, Border Crime Suppression Team, Homeland Security Investigations, Narcotics Task Force, and the US Postal Inspector.
Though authorities would not divulge the identities of the suspects in the crime ring, Loera said members of the local 15 coordinated with suspects in Mexicali “who would trade or sell these stolen goods for narcotics and money.”
Investigators said the thefts ranged throughout the County and were not concentrated in any one specific area, yet half of the eight known burglarized agricultural businesses are located in the north end of the County.
The burglarized businesses were Dahm Enterprise of Brawley, Heritage Farms and Ben Abatti Farms, both of El Centro, Crown Equipment of Calexico, Church Brothers Farms of Holtville, First Solar, Materra Farming, and Bloom to Box, all three of Calipatria, according to the sheriff’s statement.
Vehicles were also stolen from some residences, investigators said.
During the press conference, ICSO Investigator Manuel Cacatian showed various photos of the types of vehicles stolen, including various OHVs, a tractor, hauling truck, passenger bus, pickup truck, a flat-bed utility trailer, and various forms of contraband such as narcotics, firearms, and drug use paraphernalia.
Cacatian said most of those OHVs shown in the photo presentation were returned to their rightful owners.
ICSO Investigator Geraldo Acuña also stated the burglars specifically targeted residential mailboxes looking for checks which they would have “cleaned” and “cleared” to “put the names on them of whoever they wanted.”
“We did come across a few residential victims but for the most part it was rural … out of the city limits,” Cacatian said.
The estimated value of items is approximately $200,000, Loera said, ranging from $300 to $60,000.
Loera said ICSO investigators have submitted the individual cases to the Imperial County District Attorney’s Office “for review and prosecution.”
Investigators said not all 15 of the suspected individuals have been arrested for the alleged crimes and they did not divulge specific information as to how many of the suspects were arrested at the time of the press conference, but Acuña said some of the individuals “have a criminal history related to similar crimes, from petty theft to burglaries.”
“As you remember, because of COVID, California opted to not lock any criminals up with non-violent crimes, and these are considered as non-violent crimes, so we were not able to book people,” Acuña said in an interview. “Some were arrested, others were interviewed, and the cases were filed (with the DA).”
One of the 15 individuals was arrested for allegedly viewing child pornography on his electronic device, Acuña said. He said reviewing the man’s electronics led to finding the material and allegedly showed that he forwarded it to two other individuals, who are “persons of interest” but have not been booked as the ICSO is still collecting evidence.
He said there is no specific number for the “persons of interest,” as the ongoing investigation may continue to uncover new information and more suspects.
Investigators said residents who do not already have one, should consider installing a security system to keep their homes, businesses, and belongings safe.
They said lockable mailboxes are also recommended, especially “if you live in the County.”
“If there is a way that you can put on a lock and secure it, that would help,” Acuña said.
"In crime, it doesn't stop," Acuña said, "it just snowballs and keeps going. They know we're looking into them and that's what matters.”