ST. GEORGE — Four people are in custody in Washington County following an alleged wallet-snatching incident.

Stock image of St. George Police vehicles on River Road in St. George, Utah, Oct. 12, 2023 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

Shortly before 2 p.m. on Tuesday, a patrol officer responded to Walmart after receiving a report that a wallet was taken from a customer’s purse that was sitting in the cart while they were shopping. 

The customer told police that shortly after the wallet went missing, she received a fraud alert from her bank indicating a $404 purchase had been charged to her credit card — one of four financial cards that were taken, along with some cash. 

Officers said the customer described having an “unusual encounter” with a woman who was asking about granola while in the produce section of the store. 

Officers later saw on security video a woman who appeared to be following the customer through the produce section with a man who appeared to be “mimicking” the female suspect’s movements as he followed close behind. 

The footage also showed the customer turning around to answer the female suspect’s question, and as she did so, the male looked around before grabbing an item from her cart and walking away. Police say they believe the item was the customer’s wallet.  

The footage showed the man leave the store with what appeared to be the customer’s wallet “tucked into his armpit.” 

The female suspect was then seen leaving the store through the same exit.

In the meantime, officers were called to the Walmart on Telegraph Street in Washington City after two of the suspects who matched the description of the pair were spotted in the parking lot. Officers also noticed two other men sitting in the car, and all four were detained by police. 

Washington City Police Chief Jason Williams told St. George News that once the incident took place on Pioneer Road, loss prevention at the store often alerted all surrounding stores with the details of the incidents, which also happened in this case.

He also said a Washington County Sheriff’s deputy was on patrol in the area when he observed the suspect’s vehicle in the parking lot on Telegraph and watched as they got into the vehicle and was able to stop them before they had a chance to leave. By then, he said, officers from St. George and Washington City were at the scene to assist.

2020 file photo for illustrative purposes only of the Walmart store in Washington City, Utah, on July 15, 2020. | St. George News

Surveillance footage from the store in Washington City showed the same two suspects enter the store, where the female suspect used a bank card that she then threw in the trash as she exited. The card, Williams said, that was later retrieved by police belonged to a victim in an unrelated theft case reported in St. George.

The two suspects reportedly involved in the wallet theft were identified as Maria Alexandra Marcos Arrunategui, 22, and Jorge Armando Razuri Gonzales, 42. The two suspects in the vehicle were identified as Andres Avelino Nunez Chumbiauca, 36, and Joseph Luis Vela Bracamonte, 32. 

During a search of the vehicle, officers located multiple gift cards and receipts on the front passenger’s side of the vehicle, along with thousands of dollars in cash and additional gift cards found on the suspects. 

Investigators recovered paperwork issued out of a court in New York that revealed a grand larceny charge related to a different vehicle under the name of Gonzales, one of the suspects arrested at the Washington City Walmart. 

“This appeared to be the same individuals that I had stopped for the theft at the Pioneer Road Walmart,” the officer noted in the report. 

The evidence also suggests that all four parties “actively participated in concert to further a criminal enterprise in distracting elderly females,” the officer stated in the report, and then taking the victim’s purse and using their bank cards to purchase gift cards for financial gain.

When officers attempted to interview the group all four suspects invoked their right to remain silent and refused to speak with officers. 

All four suspects were transported to Purgatory Correctional Facility facing multiple charges, including four third-degree felony counts of unlawful acquisition of a financial card. Each also faces three misdemeanor charges of theft, unlawful use of a financial card and unlawful possession of an ID of another, as indicated in the charging documents.

Chumbiauca faced three additional misdemeanor charges of theft, unlawful use of a financial card and unlawful possession of an ID of another. During a background check, officers found an active extraditable $100,000 warrant out of California for Chumbiauca’s arrest that was issued in a fraud case. 

Arrunategui faces an additional third-degree felony count of unlawful acquisition of a financial card, and Gonzalez faces two additional counts of the same charge.  

The suspects also face charges related to the incident in Washington City that have yet to be filed, Williams said.

South American crime rings

Law enforcement officials are warning residents to be extra cautious after a noted increase in theft, break-ins and a litany of other crimes allegedly being committed by South American crime rings, also known as South American Theft Groups that are entering the United States under the guise of tourists.

Court documents released in May reported that nearly 1.7 million known “gotaways” or those who have entered the United States illegally and have yet to be apprehended by customs or border patrol officers are still in the country, according to testimony provided by retired Senior U.S. Border Patrol Chief, Rodney Scott, during a House Judiciary Committee hearing held in Washington D.C. on May 23.

Those numbers do not include the number of unknown crossings along the hundreds of miles of border that regular surveillance and go unpatrolled for days and even weeks, Scott said during his testimony.

Additionally, news stories involving reported retail thefts, burglaries and other crimes associated with these international criminal groups abound, and in Southern Utah, the crimes primarily involve purse and wallet thefts, as well as car burglaries and other activity that nets these groups the means to use the financial cards to purchase gift cards that are then exchanged for cash; similar to what happened at the stores in Washington City and St. George.

St. George Police Officer Tiffany Mitchell said that while the number of reports involving these groups has remained consistent in recent months, the four suspects arrested were part of a specific criminal distraction group out of South America.

She said there are steps that residents can take to reduce the risk of becoming a victim — the first of which is to keep any belongings such as wallets, purses and so on under their control instead of leaving them in the shopping cart with the purse unzipped, for example.

Speaking to elderly family members about these types of crimes can also help, since they seem to be an easy target for these groups.

“Be aware that people are coming from outside the country to target us,” she added. “They do this by distracting us, stealing our wallets, and then trying to spend as much money as possible.”

Following the arrest of the suspects, investigators requested a no-bail hold be placed on each based upon the documented criminal enterprises that are operating throughout the United States and since the parties are “Peruvian Nationals suspected to be in the country illegally,” with no ties to Utah or to the United States, they are likely to flee the jurisdiction of the court if released. 

The request was approved by District Judge Jay Winward who signed a no-bail hold for each of the suspects that remain in jail in Washington County without bail. 

This report is based on statements from court records, police or other responders and may not contain the full scope of findings. Persons arrested or charged are presumed innocent until found guilty in a court of law or as otherwise decided by a trier-of-fact.

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