Welcome to Las Vegas. Now go lock your car.
A string of thefts from the vehicles of unsuspecting tourists at the "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign ended abruptly earlier this month after Las Vegas police caught two people casing automobiles.
Juan Cordero, 49, and Jakeline Delgado, 26, were arrested Feb. 10 on two counts of auto burglary.
Upon searching the suspects' homes, officers discovered more than a dozen pieces of luggage, cellphones, computers and other items belonging to visitors from around the world.
Cordero and Delgado probably will be charged with additional felonies after police identify owners of the stolen property, said Ray Flynn, a detective with the property crimes section. Police currently have enough evidence to link the pair to seven burglaries, but Flynn said they might be responsible for even more.
The detective said Cordero would discreetly snatch bags from unlocked cars in broad daylight as tourists posed for photos at the iconic sign. Cordero would hand the bags off to Delgado, an accomplice waiting in a nearby car.
Although most people were only away from their cars for five to 15 minutes, that's all it took for criminals to ruin vacations and devastate families.
"Some people were hit pretty hard," Flynn said.
One of those people was Folkert Rozendal, a Dutch citizen on a weeklong trip across the southwestern U.S.
As Rozendal left Las Vegas for Los Angeles near the end of his vacation on Feb. 8, he and two friends stopped for photos at the sign, located in the median at 5100 Las Vegas Boulevard South, near Russell Road.
When they got back to their rental car, however, their backpacks were missing.
Rozendal said he thought he locked the car and would have taken the packs if he had been in the Netherlands. But he felt safe at the sign, which had an excited, Disneyland vibe and was teeming with people, he said.
"This has to do with the illusion that such things would not happen to us since we were only 30 meters away from the car," Rozendal wrote in an email.
The stolen items included credit cards, a pair of Sennheiser headphones (a birthday gift from Rozendal's wife), a MacBook computer, their driver's licenses, cellphones, cameras, $120 in euros and -- most important -- their passports.
After filing a report with the police, Rozendal and his friends contacted their country's embassy in Washington, D.C., where they were told it would be impossible to get a temporary passport before their flight the next day.
On top of losing their belongings, they had to pay re-booking fees for their flight and also an extra night at a hotel and another day's rental on the car.
It didn't get any easier when they returned home, where in the Netherlands they had to arrange for new identification cards and file insurance claims for their missing property.
"Although it is just material things that we are missing, it is mainly the time that we lost which is frustrating us the most," Rozendal wrote. "Still we are looking back at a wonderful stay in Las Vegas, but next time we will be more careful."
TOURISTS DRAW THIEVES
The world famous diamond-shaped marquee, designed by Betty Willis in 1959, became more accessible after officials installed a 12-space parking lot at the sign in December 2008.
But from the very start, tourists weren't the only folks eyeing the improvements.
"Where the people are, that's where the criminals are," Flynn said.
He was the lead detective on this series, which spanned a few months. But this wasn't the first string of burglaries at the sign, and Flynn doubts it will be the last.
At least four or five other groups using the same methods have targeted the area since the parking lot was constructed.
Because most people stop at the sign on the way in or out of town, enterprising criminals quickly learned it was a great spot to snatch electronics, jewelry and cash from luggage.
"They (criminals) all know each other, and they'll talk to each other and brag about how much they got from each trip," Flynn said.
And although the sign is perhaps the most well-known landmark in Las Vegas, there are no permanent surveillance cameras, Flynn said.
There are cameras on streetlights, but those don't record video and only show current traffic conditions, he said.
Flynn said he would prefer two cameras: one pointed at the parking lot, and one pointed at the exit to record license plates.
Each camera should record video for a minimum of 30 days, he said.
Police identified victims from Brazil, Newfoundland and New Jersey, but no locals.
"I think it should be the focus of a city in an economic recovery to protect its tourists as well as its locals," Flynn said.
"We work closely with Metro and will do what they think is necessary and appropriate," a Clark County spokesman said.
Flynn said the latest culprits struck every couple of days, sometimes spending hours in the parking lot as they waited for a tourist with the right car or wearing high-end clothing.
All of the burglaries happened between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., when tourists were most likely to have their guard down.
"A lot of people were only gone for five minutes," Flynn said.
Sometimes a tour bus showed up, bringing hordes of people with it. But police said that was a good thing for Cordero, a nine-time felon with a history of burglaries. More people meant longer lines -- and more time to scour the lot for unlocked doors or open windows.
"He was very patient and methodical about the cars he'd choose," Flynn said.
As for Rozendal, chances are his friends will get back some of their property.
Cordero and Delgado were arrested just two days after Rozendal was burglarized and police recovered some of his money, two cellphones and a wallet.
Although his computer and headphones were not found, police told Rozendal that Cordero will have to pay restitution.
Flynn said he hopes tourists will be more careful at the sign, and has a message to visitors:
"Just because you're on vacation, don't be lackadaisical. Lock your car."
Contact reporter Mike Blasky at mblasky @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0283.