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Tourist Crimes Unit busts purse snatchers

On March 29, detectives placed a designer Coach purse on a chair in front of a “Blue Blazes” slot machine at Planet Hollywood Resort and waited.

In an effort to curb crime against tourists on the Strip, detectives with the Tourist Crimes Unit earlier this year began using high-end purses or clutch bags to bust would-be thieves preying on vacationers on casino floors.

Joseph D’Antona, 56, began strolling the floors near slot machines without playing, according to his arrest report. Police said that is a common practice by thieves searching for abandoned payout tickets, a felony offense.

D’Antona stood by the purse and claimed it was his when a cocktail waitress inquired. When a slot technician approached about the bag, D’Antona again waived him off.

“D’Antona then sat on the bait purse and again looked around in all directions,” the report said.

Detectives said D’Antona took off his sports jacket, placed it on the chair over the purse and picked up the jacket with the purse.

Confronted by detectives, “D’Antona stated that he was ‘stupid’ for taking the purse and that he was ‘sorry,’” the report said.

Police implemented the bait-purse program after reports of property theft appeared to be on the rise, court documents show.

Capt. Robert Duvall, who heads the police department’s Convention Center Area Command which encompases the Strip, spearheaded the creation of bait-purses and said police have made dozens of arrests using the tactic.

The key is duplicating situations where “tourists actually lose property” and make the property seem real, Duvall said.

For instance, the handbags aren’t just filled with cash. There’s other property that would lure criminals into believing the bag was innocently left behind by an unsuspecting tourist.

In D’Antona’s case, the Coach handbag was packed with cash, jewelry and a mobile phone. When added up, the total value was more than $900.

It turned out, it wasn’t D’Antona’s first run-in with the law. He was a six-time felon for robbery and kidnapping charges and was previously kicked out of Caesars properties for selling counterfeit jewelry, police said.

He was arrested and charged with grand larceny.

In April, D’Antona took a deal from prosecutors that dropped the felony grand larceny charge to an attempted grand larceny. He is set to be sentenced by Judge Michael Villani on Oct. 8. Until then, D’Antona remains free on his own recognizance.

The public defender representing D’Antona did not return a call requesting comment.

Investigators don’t just use handbags. Other high-priced items are also being used as bait items, Duvall said, though he declined to elaborate. “We don’t want to give away all of our secrets,” he quipped.

Duvall has a history of battling theft crimes.

In 2006, when Las Vegas was infamously named the worst city in the U.S. for vehicle theft, it was Duvall who implemented a bait-car program in town.

In 2007, Las Vegas dropped to the No. 2 spot. The following year Las Vegas was out of the top five for vehicle thefts.

“Not everybody’s a thief,” he said, explaining that there are many more people out there who try and find an owner to the purse or turn it in to security.

Duvall said a key to the tactic’s success was the involvement of the prosecutors from the Clark County District Attorney’s office, many of whom did ride-alongs with the detectives as they conducted bait operations.

Hilary Heap, who prosecuted D’Antona and has handled a number of these cases, praised the program for “targeting only the criminal element.”

She said the tactic used is allowing detectives to arrest “the people who are out there intending to commit crimes against tourists.”

And legally, no one is making the thieves take the purse, she said. “I don’t think it even comes close to entrapment,” Heap said.

But what surprised Heap the most during her ride along with detectives, was that she did not encounter a single crook.

“Every single person, they blocked (the purse) and got security,” she said.

Heap added it was encouraging to see so many people do the right thing. “I see so many of these cases, I thought everyone was stealing these purses every time. Most people are honest.”

Contact reporter Francis McCabe at fmccabe@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039.

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