Attorney Andrew Slutkin thought his Lutherville home was secure: It had a sophisticated alarm system with the outside “lit up like a Christmas tree” and valuables in a safe concealed inside.

While at the Eastern Shore for July Fourth weekend, his alarm never went off. But he was later informed by his landscaper that the home had been broken into. When he spoke to Baltimore County Police, he received even more of a shock: Investigators believed it was the work of a crew of burglars from South America who had been hitting high-end homes in the area.

Through word of mouth, he learned his neighbors and friends of friends were also burglarized.

“Since this happened, we’ve learned that two other neighbors on our street have been burglarized,” Slutkin said. “I’m aware of at least a half-dozen people within a few miles of where we live who have been similarly burglarized in the last six months.”

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Following an inquiry by The Baltimore Banner this week, county police announced that five suspects had been arrested on Feb. 3. In court records, police said the suspects were positively identified through border control as members of an organization known as the South American Theft Group, and the police department said the men caught in Baltimore County have been connected to additional residential burglaries in North Carolina, Alabama and Oklahoma.

The groups “targets large homes in wealthy areas of often Asian business owners. Detectives know the group to be a travelling unsettled group who do not reside in the area where they commit their crimes. The group travels around the country committing thefts/burglaries then leave the area before they are identified or apprehended,” police wrote in charging documents.

The FBI has warned about such South American theft groups for decades, and in December said they believed such burglars are exploiting tourist visas to travel in and out of the United States and facilitate the theft and transport of stolen goods internationally. News reports tied crews to a recent $1.7 million theft in Connecticut, among many others.

The group suspected to be operating in Baltimore County was caught after police received a call from a homeowner saying there was a burglary in process at a home on Tufton Springs Lane.

The men, who charging documents say were carrying Chilean identification cards and burglar’s tools, told police they lived in Florida and came to Maryland to visit the White House.

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Police arrested 20-year-old Gabriel Matamala-Ponce, 21-year-old Thomas Crisosto-Araya, 22-year-old Jorge Gatica-Vergara, 23-year-old Luis Oyanedel-Valenzuela, and 27-year-old Gabriel Miranda-Gonzalez.

Since their arrest, they have been connected to at least three other burglaries or attempts, police said. One was carrying a phone that had conducted an internet search for “millionaire neighborhoods in various cities,” and another had taken videos inside of large homes as well as pictures of large amounts of jewelry, according to charging documents.

The group has not been charged in connection with the burglary at Slutkin’s home.

Security camera footage shows a man “dressed like a ninja,” as Slutkin described it, approaching his front door, knocking and running away. He said police told him that it’s not believed that the burglars spend much time casing the properties of their targets, but rather look for homes that do not have lights on inside and knock to see if anyone answers.

The burglars entered his home with precision — they did not open a window, as his security system is designed to detect that. They broke the glass instead, but pulled it out instead of smashing it in. Slutkin had a detector that would have caught that, too.

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And they kept their search confined to the bedroom, which security systems often do not have motion detectors.

There, they found a safe that was hidden. “They actually removed the wall safe,” he said. “They found it, and actually just took it. They pried it out and took it.”

At the time of the Feb. 3 arrests, police wrote in court documents, there had been four high-dollar burglaries over the past week in close proximity. In one case, $140,000 worth of property was taken. In another, the total loss was $820,000 worth of property. In another, the burglars were unable to get into a safe.

Detectives continued investigating and used cell phone tower data to link the suspects to additional cases, including a January break-in in Phoenix, Maryland, in which $190,000 worth of jewelry and clothing were stolen from the location.

Their cell phones hit off cell towers in the area at the time, and one of the crew members had photos of himself wearing large amounts of jewelry, which the victim confirmed belonged to him. There was also a video of the burglar taking shoes.

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Slutkin said police told him that while outside lights are important, so is having inside lights turned on. They also said not to keep important valuables in a main bedroom closet or bathroom. Because of frequent deliveries of packages, he also had shut off alerts from the camera when people approached the front door.

Slutkin said he has a good insurance policy, but the thieves took items that can’t be replaced, such as his wife’s engagement ring, which was his mother’s diamond. They also took his wife’s father’s class ring. Chilean police intercepted some valuables and sent photos to Baltimore County Police, but their belongings weren’t among them.

“Stuff like that can never be replaced,” he said. “We would’ve passed it down to our kids. It’s gone now.”

Justin Fenton is an investigative reporter for the Baltimore Banner. He previously spent 17 years at the Baltimore Sun, covering the criminal justice system. His book, "We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops and Corruption," was released by Random House in 2021 and became an HBO miniseries.

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