Rock Burglars net $20 million 9-year spree in northeast Valley
By Emily Bittner The Arizona Republic Dec. 8, 2002
The Valley's most elusive thieves, dubbed the Rock Burglars, are back in high gear, smashing into five homes over the past week and raising their take to about $20 million over the past nine years.
Frustrated police, who say they have no suspects, are no closer to solving the crimes than they were in 1993.
The burglars have broken into at least 255 upscale residences in the northeast Valley, including the homes of Diamondbacks outfielder Steve Finley in September and former Vice President Dan Quayle in 1999.
Install glass-breakage detectors and motion sensors in master bathroom and master bedroom windows.
Turn on alarm systems.
Use a floor safe embedded in concrete rather than a wall safe. Keep irreplaceable jewelry in a safe deposit box.
Stop newspaper and mail delivery while you're away. To donate your vacation newspapers to The Arizona Republic's Newspapers In Education program, call (602) 444-1000.
Have interior and exterior lights on timers, occasionally changing the settings.
Don't stop scheduled property maintenance such as the grass, shrubs and the swimming pool.
Watch for suspicious people and notify police.
If you are burglarized, it could help if you have photographs of valuables and appraisals of them. Finally, be properly insured.
Luxury homes in Paradise Valley, where the average house sells for $800,000, have been the Rock Burglars' favorite prey. More than half of the crimes, 144, have been committed there.
"With that many victims, it's ridiculous for this to happen," said Finley, who lives in Paradise Valley. "And no one's been apprehended. It's ridiculous."
Generally working in teams of at least two people per hit, the burglars have ranged across 800 square miles, netting mostly jewelry, cash and handguns, police said. In two cases, they nabbed valuables worth more than $1 million, said Sgt. Eric Rasmussen, who coordinates the case for the Scottsdale Police Department.
The group's techniques separate them from garden-variety burglars and possible copycats, police said.
"We haven't solved it because they're just good burglars," Rasmussen said. "Yes, it has been very frustrating. For all the burglaries that have happened, there's never been a witness. Anybody, just to say anything, that's never happened."
They target people like Sharyl Bancroft, who left town during the July Fourth weekend this year to visit family and friends. She returned to her north Scottsdale home to find shattered windows above her bathroom's sunken Jacuzzi and a disaster in her bedroom.
"I opened the door to my bedroom, and it looked like a tornado had gone through it," said Bancroft, who lost a handgun and about $10,000 in jewelry. "He took every drawer, cupboard, shelf and just pawed through it. I was in shock."
The thieves rifled through her drawers to find hidden pieces.
"We think we're so safe here in Scottsdale, but we're so careless," said Bancroft, who didn't activate her alarm that weekend.
"It's really creepy. He's touched everything. He's been through all your private stuff."
Police believe the Rock Burglars include as many as six people, who work in binges. Paradise Valley wasn't hit for the first six months of the year and then had 23 break-ins, including four on Thanksgiving weekend, police said.
Thieves keeping busy
The busiest year for the Rock Burglars was 1999, with 45 break-ins. The burglars could surpass that total this year, in which they have committed 44 break-ins.
The burglars' spree began in 1993 in Paradise Valley, home to many of Arizona's richest residents, who tightly guard their privacy. The thieves gradually branched out into the deep pockets of the northeast Valley's other luxury neighborhoods.
Officers have become familiar with the burglars' exacting methods, said Paradise Valley police Sgt. Alan Laitsch, who has been on the case since the beginning.
With a getaway car likely parked nearby, the Rock Burglars approach a house on foot so they won't arouse neighbors' suspicions, he said. They're especially hard to spot because the northeast Valley has few streetlights and houses are far apart.
They toss a large rock or other heavy object from the yard through a master bedroom or bathroom window and climb in through the hole. They loot the master bedroom, bathroom and closets, where most people keep jewelry. In Bancroft's case, they tossed a river rock from her landscaping through 6-foot-high bathroom windows.
Many victims don't set their home alarms. Other systems aren't activated when windows are broken.
Sophisticated Although the Rock Burglars' entry technique might seem artless, once inside a home, the thieves become sophisticated.
Credit cards in wallets remain untouched. So does costume jewelry. But the burglars filch all the real diamonds. Sometimes they pry wall safes from their moorings.
"Typically, if it's not a Rock Burglar here, we're going to get a different mode of operation," Laitsch said.
"If it's a doper burglar and the guy just needs to get his fix every day, he's going to eat stuff out of the refrigerator and take alcohol and the VCR. He's going to trample all over the house."
Family heirlooms taken
Although the thieves ignored Bancroft's rhinestones and Native American jewelry, they took almost all of her expensive pieces, including family heirlooms.
"Those are the things that hurt the worst," she said.
Efforts to stop them have increased in the past year, said Bryan Hill, a Glendale police crime analyst. Although no break-ins have taken place in Glendale, Hill was brought in because of his expertise.
For about three years, he has used a special computer mapping program to determine where the burglars will hit next.
Neighborhoods where Rock Burglars would strike were accurately identified in 14 of 17 predictions, Hill said.
But police from Paradise Valley, Scottsdale and Phoenix, and Maricopa County sheriff's deputies have come up empty. Sometimes they conduct surveillance at the location on Saturday only, but the burglars move on Sunday, Hill said.
"Those (surveillance operations) have been extremely time-consuming for the guys who set them up," said Scottsdale's Rasmussen, who said he worked about 100 hours on an operation earlier this year. "It turned up nothing. Two weeks after we did the surveillance, the neighborhood got hit twice."
In Paradise Valley, police have set up more complicated and elaborate stakeouts. But Laitsch declined to comment about specific tactics.
The group strikes homes that look empty, so residents are advised to stop all deliveries, even for weekend vacations. They should also turn on their alarm systems and have glass-breakage triggers, Paradise Valley Police Chief John Wintersteen said.
Bancroft suggested photographing all valuables. She still hasn't filed a claim with her insurance company because she isn't sure she has a complete list of all her missing jewelry and because the company wants pictures or recent appraisals of every piece.
Police say they are pursuing even the smallest leads but still have no suspects.
To crack burglaries, investigators usually use witness information or sales to pawnshops. But no witnesses have come forward, and no sales to pawnshops have been recorded.
The burglars may be breaking the jewels out of their settings and melting the gold down, selling the loot out of state, Hill said.
They may even be selling the diamonds to Valley jewelers, who are not required to record sales, he said. Only pawnshops face those requirements in Arizona, he said.
Some fingerprints at the scenes and some possible DNA evidence have been recovered, police said.
That information has been run through national databases, but no matches have been made.
Plotting possible Rock Burglar strikes is becoming more problematic, too, Hill said.
"They're not doing what they used to do," Hill said. "The pattern is changing."
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or (602) 444-6846.