Group pickpocketing cellphones from crowds at concerts, festivals sporting events

In-case-of-emergency numbers help deputies find owners

By Erik Sandoval - Reporter

OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. - When a buzzing heavy box recently arrived at a UPS store in Kissimmee an alert worker red-flagged it and called Osceola County sheriff's deputies.

Sgt. Grattan Heyward went to the UPS store and opened the box to find a loot of stolen cellphones. In addition, the box was addressed to a P.O. box that someone opened using a fraudulent passport.

"So then we really knew we were on to something," Heyward said.

Heyward contacted the FBI and set up a surveillance detail at the UPS store, waiting for the box recipient to claim the shipment.

Shortly after, Heyward said he noticed a suspicious car circling the parking lot. The suspects were surveilling the business, he said.

Eventually, one of the men in the car went inside the Kissimmee store. Heyward and FBI agents followed.

"He just dropped his eyes and realized it was up," Heyward said.

Detectives said they arrested Wilmer Arias-Arias, Edward Garcia-Castano and Estivenson Blanco Rubiano, all Colombians living in the U.S. without proper documentation.

Heyward said the men admitted to traveling the country for the past 12 months and targeting people in large crowds at music festivals, sporting events, shows, and concerts for their smartphones.

"What they do is interact in the crowd where everyone is very close and they steal phones out of pockets and purses," Heyward said. "This individual [Blanco-Rubiano] we arrested was just arrested in Okeechobee for doing the same thing."

Heyward said the suspects and other organized thieves routinely target large events in Central Florida.

"They generally get 30-40 phones per evening, is what they told us," Heyward said.

Heyward said the suspects targeted people carrying cellphones in their back pockets.

More than 100 phones were in the box. Heyward and his detectives spent weeks trying to identify the owners.

"We sat and plugged in and charged a lot of phones over many days to identify these individuals and made hundreds of phone calls," Heyward said.

Most of the phones were locked. Many had no distinguishing features. But some had in-case-of-emergency numbers programed into the home screen, which was key to helping identifying the owner, Heyward said.

Heyward was able to call those numbers without unlocking the phone.

"I was able to go into the ICE number and contact family members, tell them who I was, and say 'Have them contact me because I have their phones,'" Heyward said.

Detectives quickly realized all of the phone owners were from the Austin, Texas, area and had attended a recent music festival there.

Heyward packaged up all of the phones and sent them to the Austin Police Department where police will notify all who attended the festival to come and identify their phones.

Heyward said all three suspects were deported back to Colombia.

Usually, lost or stolen phones are rarely recovered. Heyward said, and if they are they are usually impossible to identify the owner.

Heyward recommends keeping your phone in your front pocket. If you keep it in your purse, Heyward suggests using a safety pin or clip to lock the zipper so thieves cannot easily unzip it, especially at events with large crowds.

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