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YACS crime groups: an FBI major crime initiative.

In 1992, organized burglary teams using walkie-talkies, police scanners, look-outs, and an array of tools began targeting supermarket and Automated Teller Machine (ATM) safes. Centered in the New York City area, the burglars also committed thefts along the entire East Coast and as far west as Des Moines, Iowa. While the burglars' mobility subverted detection efforts by law enforcement officers, the prevalence of Yugoslavian or Albanian suspects arrested for these crimes gave investigators a new avenue to pursue. However, while state and local authorities exchanged information about these suspects on an informal basis, no formal, centralized clearinghouse existed to aid officers in effectively dealing with this emerging crime situation.

By the summer of 1994, the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), an international association of supermarket corporations, had attributed hundreds of attempted or successful burglaries to these groups of Yugoslavian or Albanian suspects. Losses in property and income led the FMI to meet with high-level FBI officials and seek federal assistance in coordinating an attack on this increasing crime trend. In response to this request, the FBI created the Yugoslavian/Albanian/Croatian/Serbian (YACS) Crime Group initiative. Because the most active burglary teams resided in the New York City area, the FBI assigned the case to its New York Office.

The proliferation of ATMs in banks, supermarkets, and shopping malls provided a perfect opportunity for YACS teams to reap vast amounts of cash and cause an even greater amount of property destruction. In the broadest sense, a threefold problem involving private industry security measures, law enforcement coordination matters, and statute and prosecution difficulties contributed to the YACS success in evading detection and apprehension. The FBI's initiative provided a comprehensive approach to bring these three factions together to combat the freewheeling crime spree of the YACS burglary groups.

PRIVATE INDUSTRY SECURITY MEASURES

When supermarket or bank employees arrived for work on a Monday morning to discover a hole in the roof, damage to the store or ATM safe, missing currency, and severed telephone lines, the commercial world met the YACS crime groups. By cutting the telephone/alarm lines, YACS burglars could effectively terminate protection for the target location. After no subsequent police response occurred, the thieves could complete the burglary undetected. Following such instances, business owners began to upgrade their alarm systems so that severed lines would register as "telecommunication failures" at central monitoring stations. These failures alerted alarm companies to dispatch their vehicles or contact local police agencies to further investigate these situations.

At the same time, FMI security managers developed a partnership with the FBI and began reporting suspected YACS incidents to the FBI's New York Office. Usually within 24 hours of a burglary incident, supermarket owners completed a standard burglary reporting form and faxed a copy to the Washington, DC, office of FMI. Then FMI faxed these forms to the FBI's New York Office. By examining these reports, the FBI could determine those supermarket burglaries across the country that fit the YACS pattern.

To educate corporate security officers about the YACS burglaries, FMI, the Jewelers Security Alliance and the FBI jointly participated in numerous conferences primarily in the most victimized areas of the country. The group discussed security measures that could protect store employees, prevent burglary attempts, and aid police in apprehending perpetrators. Corporations examined their own security measures and found that their systems often did not work as expected or as promised by outside alarm companies. Improved alarm systems and appropriately enhanced safes assisted police in their efforts to decrease the number of YACS burglaries.

Moreover, one corporation took aggressive measures to counteract a YACS group that had targeted its restaurants throughout the boroughs of New York. Thieves cut telephone lines, pried rear doors opened, and removed safes in almost 20 restaurants during June and July 1995. Cash losses averaged between $4,000 and $8,000, not including the property damage to the restaurants. Corporate management installed upgraded alarms in all the restaurants and instituted a new preventive procedure - if telephone lines were cut at a location, a guard would be posted inside until the lines were repaired and the alarm system restored. These efforts resulted in a known YACS burglar being captured at one restaurant with an upgraded alarm system and a sharp decrease in the number of subsequent break-ins.

LAW ENFORCEMENT COORDINATION MATTERS

The FBI took a two-pronged approach to improve the coordination among law enforcement agencies involved with YACS crime groups. First, the FBI established its New York Office as the intelligence repository to assist police agencies with information and available FBI Laboratory services. Next, the FBI began focusing investigations on the most active YACS crime groups in the New York metropolitan area.

Prior to the FBI's entry into the YACS investigation, only an informal network existed for law enforcement officers to exchange information about the thefts. To enhance this network and create a centralized clearinghouse for YACS information, the New York Office established a 24-hour telephone hotline and a computer network system to maintain and continually update any YACS criminal activity. Next, New York agents attended numerous law enforcement conferences to explain the FBI's role in attacking the YACS crime problem. To help police agencies, the agents discussed specific response tactics and strategies that other departments had used to successfully apprehend YACS burglars.

At this point, the New York office faced a serious dilemma in its coordination efforts. In June 1994, the FBI Laboratory had stopped accepting property crime evidence from local agencies due to personnel workload constraints. However, New York agents knew that FBI Laboratory services would prove crucial in attacking these YACS crime groups. After discussing this situation with these agents, the FBI director modified this policy to exempt evidence submitted by state and local agencies involved in suspected YACS investigations. To further assist police agencies, the FBI Laboratory and the New York Office began a separate YACS fingerprint file.

With the first part of the approach to improving the coordination among law enforcement agencies underway, the New York Office began the second phase, investigating the most active YACS burglary teams. After reviewing available police reports, intelligence sources, and court records, agents examined the targeted suspects' past crimes and current criminal activities to find grounds

for federal prosecution. The agents also began to notice certain patterns among YACS crime groups. Although organized while committing a burglary, the groups did not follow the traditional organized crime structure. While one YACS burglar might emerge as a leader of a particular team of four to six members, this individual probably had committed burglaries with other groups over the years. The makeup of the burglary teams proved diverse and oftentimes arbitrary, with members chosen only hours before committing the thefts.

The mobility of YACS crime groups emerged as another pattern that caused problems for law enforcement agencies. Although based in New York City, YACS groups committed burglaries in locations far from the New York metropolitan area, such as Des Moines, Iowa; Chicago, Illinois; Fairfax, Virginia; and Noonan, Georgia. Further, when arrested, typical YACS criminals called a prearranged New York telephone number for bail, provided false identity information, and were released before their true identities could be determined. Unfamiliarity with the languages, respective cultures, and practices of these groups caused more difficulties for police agencies. Some miscommunication was subtle. Officers often misconstrued dates of birth given in the European method of day, month, and year as the American standard of month, day, and year. Therefore, officers recorded a numeric date given as 3/5/70 as March 5, 1970, instead of May 3, 1970. This type of error and the unfamiliar spellings of Albanian and Yugoslavian names continually hindered law enforcement agencies in identifying YACS burglars.

With the inception of the centralized clearinghouse and telephone hotline at the FBI's New York Office, police agencies could send photographs of arrestees and obtain their true identities and FBI numbers in many instances. Through this process, officers located numerous fugitives or individuals who failed to appear for hearings following arrests in other jurisdictions. Also, the central clearinghouse helped provide investigators and prosecutors with sufficient information to seek higher bail for offenders with an increased risk of flight or prior history of failing to appear for hearings.

Investigative Assistance

In September 1995, Los Gatos, California, police officers arrested two YACS burglars and contacted the FBI's New York Office to find out if any YACS members had a specific distinguishing hair color and style. The New York office advised the officers that one had this unique characteristic when photographed months earlier at a social club in the Bronx, New York. They faxed the individual's photograph to the officers who confirmed that they had arrested the same person.

Further, in December 1995, Saratoga Springs, New York, police officers apprehended five YACS burglars. All resided in the Bronx or Westchester County, New York, area except one who gave a Michigan address. After receiving photographs of the five burglars, the New York office advised the Saratoga Springs police that the arrestee from Michigan actually lived in Yonkers, New York, and was wanted for an ATM burglary in North Wales, Pennsylvania, and for possession of burglary tools in Coweta County, Georgia.

While these two successful uses of the central clearinghouse at the FBI's New York office show the effectiveness of collaborative police efforts, continuing problems in identifying YACS burglars led the New York Office to prepare a YACS photographic album. A unique investigative resource available to police agencies across the country, the album explains the YACS method of operation and contains a list of YACS names. However, the core of the album is the photographic section. Each page contains a YACS burglar or criminal associate's personal descriptive data, master name and other aliases, FBI number, photographs, one of the individual's fingerprints, and the unique YACS identifying number assigned to that person.

Labor Day Initiative

After less than a year of covert investigation, the FBI decided it was time for a more proactive approach to countering YACS criminal activity. Because YACS crime groups often target locations during holiday weekends, the New York Office planned a major initiative for Labor Day 1995. Combining liaison with numerous major alarm companies in the New York area with surveillance of two selected YACS burglary groups, the effort began on Friday, September 1, at 4 p.m. and continued until Tuesday, September 5, at 6 a.m. Investigators hoped that aggressive response to selected alarms at banks and supermarkets during these critical times would result in preventing burglaries or in apprehending the thieves. During the final planning stages in August, New Jersey authorities arrested one of the two originally targeted groups so another YACS team took its place.

To facilitate investigative efforts, the FBI's New York Office set up a command post at its New Rochelle resident agency. When a participating alarm company received notification of a break-in, they followed their normal response procedure, contacted their roving patrol, customer, or local police agency, and then called the FBI's command post. Agents discussed the location and type of alarm with the alarm company officials. Then, agents at the command post contacted responding police officers to determine what their patrols had discovered. When targeted establishments fit the profile of a YACS burglary, agents at the command post advised appropriate teams of agents and New York City Police Department detectives, stationed at locations reporting the highest incidents of safe burglaries, to investigate. At the same time, different shifts of agents constantly surveilled the two targeted YACS teams.

No significant activity occurred during the first two nights, but around midnight on the third night, investigators observed the leader of the second YACS group pick up two individuals in a rental car and proceed north on Interstate 95 toward Connecticut. This action and the recent number of weekend bank ATM burglaries in the area led investigators to believe that the leader was preparing to commit a burglary. Advised by the command post of the situation, the FBI's New Haven Office and the Connecticut State Police activated an earlier formulated plan to monitor every entrance and exit off Interstate 95 in case any alarms were received during the weekend. Agents followed the leader's vehicle to a bank in Branford, Connecticut. After several hours, the leader and two other suspects burglarized the ATM at the bank. Agents arrested the three thieves as they attempted to flee the scene.

While the New York initiative unfolded, officers in other parts of the country arrested additional YACS burglars. Los Gatos, California, police officers apprehended two YACS burglars as they fled from a local bank. Montgomery Township, Pennsylvania, police officers arrested three YACS perpetrators after they stole $99,500 from an ATM inside a supermarket. North Reading, Massachusetts, police officers arrested a YACS member in an attempted burglary early in the weekend. While the Labor Day initiative proved a resounding success, it also illustrated how the combined efforts of many agencies, both public and private, could accomplish goals previously considered unattainable.

LEGISLATIVE CONSIDERATIONS

During the initial investigative strategy planning involving YACS crime groups, authorities discovered several shortcomings in existing federal laws, which did not adequately address the primary criminal activity of the YACS burglars. To improve the chances of successfully prosecuting these criminals, modifications to existing federal violations or enactments of new laws could be undertaken. One enhancement includes making bank burglary(1) a Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organization (RICO)(2) predicate offense, then adding it to the list of offenses permitting use of lawful electronic surveillance(3) during investigations. This action would aid police agencies and prosecutors in the apprehension and conviction of these burglars by making their crimes fit into a federal statute that carries severe penalties under the sentencing guidelines.

Additionally, the burglary of private ATMs in supermarkets or shopping malls is not a federal violation unless it can be shown that the thieves crossed state lines with more than $5,000 in proceeds from the break-in.(4) However, no legislative provision exists for cases involving perpetrators attempting unsuccessful burglaries and fleeing the scene or those apprehended with the proceeds before leaving the state where the crime was committed.(5) A federal commercial safe or vault statute could close this loophole for these professional burglars. Like bank burglary, this legislation also could include the RICO attribute and electronic surveillance authority.

A third improvement involves making the cutting or other disruption of telecommunication lines a federal offense. In most cases, YACS burglars tamper with the telephone lines to disrupt alarm systems near the break-in sites. Over the past few years, the main telephone lines into a well-known alarm company have been cut several times, causing alarm service disruptions for thousands of customers in New York and Connecticut. While any YACS involvement remains unproven, it is an area of great concern to police, alarm companies, and commercial establishments. Enacting appropriate federal legislation for these offenses will subject offenders to more than petty criminal mischief violations.

Finally, legislative changes could include forfeiture penalties.(6) Most major YACS burglars have no bona fide employment yet can lease luxury automobiles, purchase real estate, and finance expensive lifestyles. They obtained their ill-gotten gains through safe burglaries and not through the more traditional RICO crimes of robbery, extortion, arson, or gambling enterprises. However, if new legislation included forfeiture provisions for these crimes, some high-level YACS criminals, whose holdings remain beyond the reach of existing federal forfeiture laws, might risk losing their possessions through civil or criminal penalties.

CONCLUSION

Today, more than 3 years after the YACS initiative began, the FBI remains committed to educating even greater numbers of police agencies about this crime group. It is imperative that officers across the country gain the knowledge and resources to combat the YACS threat. With law enforcement pressure continuing on these groups in the New York area, YACS burglaries are occurring more frequently in other parts of the United States. As with any group of well-organized, highly motivated criminals, the YACS burglars remain reluctant to relinquish their grip on such a profitable way of life.

However, increased interagency cooperation and more thorough police response to alarms combined with improved security systems from the private sector will aid law enforcement agencies in apprehending these professional criminals. Legislative improvements will make it easier to successfully prosecute them and have their illegal proceeds forfeited. The watchword for police agencies in this attack on such an insidious criminal threat is cooperation among the entire law enforcement community to bring about the ultimate downfall of the YACS crime groups. Only when these groups realize that law enforcement agencies are united in their efforts to stop their crimes in all parts of the country will the YACS burglars see their influence diminishing and their futures threatened.

Endnotes

1 18 U.S.C. [section] 2113. 2 18 U.S.C. [section] 1961-1968. 3 3 U.S.C. [section] 2516. 4 18 U.S.C. [section] 2314. 5 18 U.S.C. [section] 1952. 6 18 U.S.C. [section] 981-982.

Special Agent Ballezza is assigned to the New Rochelle Resident Agency of the FBI's New York Office.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:Yugoslavian/Albanian/Croatian/Serbian
Author:Ballezza, Richard A.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Nov 1, 1998
Words:2839
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