By Michael Wilson
A man and woman walked out of a subway car at the 51st Street station in Manhattan and darted into the next one on the same train. A plainclothes police officer noticed.
It was rush hour on a Tuesday evening in September on the busy No. 6 line. The officer watched as the woman dipped her hand into a commuter’s purse while her partner stood in front of her, shielding her from view, according to the officer’s affidavit. The woman lifted out a wallet, and the officer and his partners closed in.
She threw the wallet to the ground, and the commuter quickly identified it as hers. The woman, Jenny Gomez Velandia, 27, and her accomplice, John Diaz-Albarracin, 31, were arrested, according to a criminal complaint. What seemed like a routine pickpocketing had been thwarted.
But the suspects were not routine. Unlike most pickpockets, they had no criminal history in New York City. They were not locals. They were from Colombia and had come to New York for the purpose of stealing wallets on subways, one of several international pickpocket rings to descend on the transit system in 2018, police said.
“They come, they do what they can do, then they move,” said Chief Edward Delatorre, who leads the Police Department’s transit bureau. The woman and man arrested in September were tied to nine other thefts in the subway, the police said.
Little is known about these international pickpocket crews outside of the narrow scope of their crimes, police said. They tend to avoid detection longer than their local counterparts because they are new faces, and their lack of criminal histories in the city is to their advantage when they are caught. They move from city to city, trying to stay ahead of investigators.
A three-man ring from Chile worked the No. 7 train in Queens during the U.S. Open last summer, when the platforms were extremely crowded, the police said. The three were finally caught in Manhattan. On Aug. 28, a straphanger on an uptown No. 4 train “felt himself being jostled” by a man beside him wearing a black bag. He realized his wallet was gone, and he told officers at the 59th Street station, who arrested the man with the bag, Victor Diaz Jimenez, 33, according to a criminal complaint. He was carrying, among other things, three MetroCards and four phones.
“I’m used to this,” Jimenez later told police, according to court documents. “Everywhere I go, every country kicks me out.”
He described his methods. “This is how I make my living,” he told a detective. “I open the purses, put my hands in and take the wallets out. I pick people who are distracted.” He recalled lifting a wallet from “a tourist on the green line.” He took stolen credit cards to Target to buy watches he sold on the street, he said, and if the card had already been reported stolen, he threw it away.
“I’ve only been here for two weeks,” he said.
The police also arrested two teenagers who worked with Jimenez, Michael Camilo Joya Pinzto and Jhon Quintero Santos, despite Jimenez’s claims that he did not involve them in his work.
That group, like the Colombians, was tied to other crimes: nine previous grand larcenies in Queens and Manhattan — and in Jimenez’s case, elsewhere in the country. Police discovered an open arrest warrant for Jimenez from Kansas City, Kansas, where he was wanted for charges of larceny and identity theft, according to prosecutors there. Jimenez remains on Rikers Island, facing a possible extradition to Kansas, and he declined a request for an interview.
The 18 thefts linked to these two teams, along with the perennially robust activity of local thieves in the subway system, contributed to a rise in grand larcenies in transit in 2018 compared with previous years. In Manhattan alone, transit larcenies were up 15 percent in 2018, with 754 reported cases; in Brooklyn, there was a 4 percent increase, to 474 cases.
“They feed off our ridership,” Delatorre said. “It’s always around.”
The international pickpockets blend in with the “Nifty Fifty,” police parlance for local repeat offenders, who appear to be too busy to care about foreigners encroaching on their hunting grounds.
Two New Yorkers were arrested 11 times each last year for lifting wallets from commuters in the subway; they had 39 previous arrests between them. Another arrested eight times had 16 previous arrests.
The “Fifty” — more a nickname than an exact number — are well known to plainclothes officers who keep track of their patterns. “We look at where they’re hitting, when they’re hitting, what line,” said Yeuris Mejia, a detective with more than 10 years in transit.
The surveillance and countersurveillance between police and pickpockets never stops. Officers loiter at busy platforms, where most picks occur, in the jostle of boarding and exiting a train. The pickpockets are watching, too. One was recently seen outside a transit police building near Canal Street.
“This guy was casing our station,” Mejia said.
Proficient pickpockets dress to blend in with the people they want to steal from. “Some guy with earbuds in bumps into you — that’s Wall Street,” Sgt. Bryan Giordano said. “That’s you bumping into you.”
Perhaps there is another well-dressed individual nearby, watching the pickpocket. “We play their game,” Mejia said. “I see pickpockets who wear a suit, I wear a suit.”
International visitors who pick pockets thwart this strategy. “When they come here, no one knows them,” Delatorre said. “They get a bit of a stretch there.”
But sooner or later, they attract notice, as their tactics are universal. “Behavior’s behavior,” Giordano said.
When pickpockets are arrested, however, a second advantage comes into play. Their lack of a criminal history in New York leads to light sentences. Jimenez, after pleading guilty to grand larceny, was sentenced to 30 days in jail, prosecutors said. Pinzto, 18, was sentenced to three days of community service; Santos is 17, and thus his case was sealed. The two from Colombia received 70 hours.
The youth of Jimenez’s confederates stood out to officers more used to watching for veterans of the age-old crime.
“We have these real young groups doing picks,” Mejia said. “One guy told me he learned it from an older guy. He went off with him and he taught him how to do it.”