Organized Theft Strikes Southern California Construction Sites

GLENDALE, Calif. -- Southern California's home-building boom has spawned a new type of criminal: well-organized theft rings that target small construction sites and make off with everything, including kitchen sinks.

Glendale police announced Wednesday that they had arrested three young men who they believe are part of a larger, sophisticated ring blamed for a spree of thefts over the past four months.

Police say they have hit homes under construction or renovation in Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego, stealing everything from French doors and Jacuzzis to oak cabinetry and windows and selling the items on the black market.

"It's a crime of opportunity where the criminals have seen there is a real market -- they can steal brand-new products and sell them to other people remodeling their homes," Glendale police Chief Randy Adams said. "It's kind of like a black market."

Ararat Zargaryan, 23, Oganes Arakelyan, 18, and Vahe Arakelyan, 23, were arrested Oct. 31 as they attempted to flee from a residential burglary, police said. They have been charged with burglary and grand theft.

Police recovered stolen items valued at more than $200,000 from the homes of the three men.

The items were put on display Wednesday and included 10 Jacuzzi tubs, 10 fireplaces, brand new oak cabinetry, 17 oak doors, chandeliers, Persian rugs, Milgard windows and doors, maple wood flooring and oak molding.

Police suspect that the ring members carefully planned burglaries, identifying possible target homes and staking them out before they would strike.

The thefts would normally take place at night, and the men are believed to have spent hours at the locations carrying out high-end items to a truck, using equipment like dollies for the heavier items.

So far, Glendale police have identified seven targeted sites, but they believe the ring is responsible for dozens of similar thefts in Beverly Hills, La Caada Flintridge, Burbank, the San Fernando Valley and San Diego.

"This particular group has realized that there are many locations with projects under construction and that it would be lucrative to steal from these sites and sell the products," said Glendale Sgt. Ernie Garcia.

One victim, Mark Vargo of Glendale, said he was a few days shy of getting city approvals to move into his new home when thieves hit Oct. 16.

They stole about $50,000 worth of items, including all his kitchen appliances and his barbecue -- items police have not recovered. Vargo was able only to claim his chandelier and some tools Wednesday.

This was the second time Vargo had been victimized. About one year ago, doors were stolen from the same home, and he installed fencing and parked a truck to block access to his home. He removed the truck and months later was hit again.

"I'm just glad they're caught. If I would have gone on and moved into the house, I would just know they could come back," Vargo said.

Areg Baghdassarian was building a six-unit apartment building in Burbank when the units were burglarized two weeks ago -- causing a $27,000 loss.

"They always steal tools and drills, small stuff," said the developer of 15 years, who had already reordered his stolen Jacuzzi tubs and windows. "But it's never organized like this. It's really surprising, and I never expected my things to resurface."

In addition to items intended for homes, construction equipment itself is in demand by thieves, said Sgt. Rodney Ellison of the California Highway Patrol.

"Construction equipment is everywhere in our communities. Where are they not building something?"

The Sheriff's Department in San Bernardino County has begun installing tracking devices on heavier equipment such as cranes and Bobcats that are being stolen from one construction site and sold at another, building industry officials said.

Stealing from homes under construction is nothing new, said Neil Devroy, spokesman for Centex Homes.

"Since home-builders have been building homes, there have been individuals who have targeted home-building sites to get an extreme discount on everything from lumbers to faucets," cracked Devroy. "But, primarily what we've experienced has been random, ad hoc-type situations and we're not aware of any organized pattern."

But thefts are a growing concern for builders, who see rising material costs and skyrocketing insurance rates.

The Building Industry Association of Southern California is in the process of creating a construction site crime prevention program to help builders secure construction locations, said Frank Williams, chief executive officer of the group's Baldy View Chapter, which covers San Bernardino and parts of Los Angeles County.

"In the past, builders were reluctant to report thefts to insurance carriers because of high insurance rates," Williams said. "In today's times, materials are so expensive and the losses are getting larger."

The association is advising its members -- which account for about 85 percent of all single-family construction in Southern California -- to take precautions in protecting their areas, including being aware of who's coming in and out of a job site, putting in guards, fencing, lighting and cameras.

Williams said some of the measures might be too costly for smaller projects such as people simply remodeling their homes. In those cases, an alarm system, lighting and fencing is recommended.

If you have any information on the Glendale suspects or if you believe you've been a victim of a crime, call (818) 548-2097, authorities say.

A 24-hour hotline has been set up, (800) 432-7257, Ext. 823, for people to report thefts or suspicious activity. Officials offer up to a $1,000 reward for anyone with information leading to the recovery of the property.