March 4, 2008 -- First comes a knock on the door.
Two men in street clothes identify themselves as cops. They carry badges, at least one shows a gun, and they say they are looking for drugs, illegal immigrants or donations to the patrolmens' association. They are invited in and the robbery begins.
The Chelsea, Mass., police Monday released sketches of two men wanted in connection with about a dozen robberies over the past several months in which the assailants identified themselves as cops.
Authorities believe the con men are responsible for burglaries in Chelsea, East Boston and Everett, all neighborhoods and towns with large clusters of Hispanic residents — some of them undocumented — on the north side of the city. Authorities suspect the pair pulled off five robberies in Boston, six in Chelsea and two in Everett.
The latest incident occurred Sunday night in Chelsea. In that incident, the victims told police that they answered the door and allowed two men who they believed were undercover cops into their apartment. Once inside, the pair stole money and jewelry, then took off in a white Volkswagen with livery plates.
"The common thread with the victims is a lot of them are of Central American descent," said Brian A. Kyes, Chelsea's police chief. Kyes said that many of the victims may be in the country illegally, but his officers do not ask crime victims to provide citizenship documentation. Enforcing immigration law, he said, is the responsibility of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
"If someone's a victim of a crime, as far as their particular immigrant status, it is of no concern to us whatsoever," he said.
Kyes, who fears many more robberies have gone unreported by skittish victims, said that authorities met with 15 leaders of the area's Hispanic community Tuesday to talk about ways to educate the public about policing.
Gladys Vega, executive director of the Chelsea Collaborative, attended the meeting with police. She said the two men are "terrorizing the community."
Her organization, which does outreach work within the heavily Hispanic neighborhoods, has been hearing about the crimes for months. Like the police chief, Vega said she believes many more incidents have gone unreported because victims without proper documentation fear they will face arrest or deportation if they report the crimes. Others may resist contacting authorities out of fear they will be accused of "snitching."
"That's the pattern," Vega said. "Whatever crime is happening in the neighborhood, people are afraid of reporting it because they're afraid of the police department. They don't trust government."
What's most disturbing, she said, is that it seems the men in the sketches are likely known to other members of the community. Both men are described as Hispanic males, and in most of the cases, the victims targeted kept large sums of cash in their houses.
"This is not just random stuff that is happening," she said. "In every house they have gone to, people have had money in the house. These are people who have low incomes to maintain their families here and maintain their families at home."
She urged residents to take extra precautions, adding that she has a password her 12-year-old son knows means that something is wrong.
The chief's message to the public was to call police if there are any doubts about a plainclothed officer's credentials. "Ask those officers to have a uniformed officer respond," he said. "No egos will be crushed."
One of the men is described as about 5 feet 5 inches tall, weighing 150 pounds and with a chipped lower tooth. The other is 5 feet 2 inches and weighs 140 pounds. The suspects reportedly wore Bluetooth-style cellular ear pieces.