Victims, stolen items reunited
Authorities say a couple burglarized more than 80 homes and pawned the goods to get drug money.
By STEPHANIE HAYES and REBECCA CATALANELLO
Published July 25, 2006
TAMPA — It was like Christmas morning for Karen Whitehead.
“Oh, that’s my diamond ring!” Whitehead yelped joyfully. “That’s mine, too! That was my grandmother’s.”
Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ryan Balseiro showed images of jewelry and other items on a large projector screen at Chamberlain High School Tuesday night.
Investigators believe the items were stolen by Ismael Mahsel , 28, and Amanda Velazquez , 27, during a burglary spree that began in March and hit more than 80 homes.
The pair, who were apprehended July 14 at a Nebraska Avenue hotel room, were heroin addicts, Balseiro told an auditorium of burglary victims.
They kicked in the doors of homes while residents were away, stole items and pawned them quickly to support their drug habits, he said.
Apparently, they had help.
Investigators believe the couple’s 8-year-old and 11-year-old children served as lookouts, honking the horn on Velazquez’s black 2005 Ford Focus if anyone showed up.
“That is an addictive person if they’re putting their children up like that,” Balseiro said.
Detectives from the sheriff’s office and Tampa and Temple Terrace police departments worked together to track down the items. They discovered a person who was “pawning an extraordinary amount of jewelry,” Balseiro said.
Investigators went to the various pawn shops and photographed everything.
This is the first time Velazquez has been charged with any crime in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Mahsel, by contrast, has had numerous past arrests here, including battery, burglary, providing false information on a pawn broker form, driving under the influence and violation of probation.
The children were taken into protective custody at the time of the arrest.
Mahsel, who is from Afghanistan, is being held in jail on $177,000 bail and has an immigration hold. Velazquez is in jail with a $67,000 bail.
Thieves broke into Whitehead’s home on N Boulevard in June. She estimates the burglars took $13,000 worth of jewelry.
She sobbed Tuesday, becoming emotional after seeing precious items including her husband’s wedding ring.
“This is amazing,” she said. “It’s really special stuff to me.”
Ten large television sets sat on the stage at the high school, as well as a table filled with DVD players, video game systems and speakers.
The total estimate of the stolen merchandise was not available, but Hillsborough County Det. Mark Montano said he guessed the value of the items amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
There were more than 300 pieces of jewelry in the slide show. Most of it was gold, and much of it personal. There were pendants that said
“MOM,” a bracelet that said “Samuel,” several zodiac sign charms, and a 1956 class ring.
DVDs, laptop computers, binoculars and even a pressure washer were presented as stolen goods.
Before the forum, investigators contacted the burglary victims, asking them to come and try to identify their missing items.
Montano said the group-style forum is an anomaly — it’s rare that so many items are recovered from a crime spree.
“We’ve never had a forum like this, but it beats having everyone come to the office individually,” he said.
Most of the items are still at various area pawn shops. By law, the pawn shops have to hold the items for 30 days after receiving them.
Montano said people can buy back their items, then go to court to demand restitution. Other items were found in the Ford Focus at the time of arrest.
Thea Broom of Carrollwood sat in the audience with her husband and children. She laid claim to a gold sea shell bracelet.
“I never imagined that we would be a part of this whole thing,” she said.
Kathy Suarez of Temple Terrace identified some rings that belonged to her. She was impressed with the police work and forum, and had a message for any other would be criminals out there.
“Take a look at this,” she said, signaling the recovered goods. “You will get caught.”
Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.
[Last modified July 25, 2006, 22:54:02]
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