A 26-year-old woman befriended people at Hmong establishments in St. Paul as part of a ruse that ended with her stealing gold necklaces from children, according to charges filed on Monday.
Police caught up with Tria Moua, who was pregnant with no known address, after an incident on Friday during which she talked a 10-year-old boy out of a music class and then forced him into her vehicle with a yank of his wrist.
Authorities say Moua drove around the block twice before returning to the Hmong Cultural Center, 995 University Av. W., where she ripped a gold chain from the boy's neck and sent him tumbling from the vehicle when he tried to get it back.
Three weeks earlier, she also allegedly tricked an 8-year-old boy into getting into her minivan by telling him they were getting food for his grandmother. He, too, had a gold chain taken from his neck -- a necklace that his mother bought for him when he was a baby, police said.
"We are very concerned at both the nature and the escalation of this crime spree," Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said in a news release on Monday. "Her actions endangered several children and caused great distress to their parents."
His office charged Moua with three felony complaints, each accusing her of theft and false imprisonment. Four victims were mentioned in the complaints.
Police still were investigating, spokesman Howie Padilla said.
On Oct. 20, St. Paul police issued a safety advisory about a woman stealing gold necklaces from children after engaging them and their relatives in conversation. At the time, the woman, described as Asian and pregnant, was driving a Toyota minivan with Wisconsin plates.
Police since have learned that Moua was living out of the van before it was impounded and that she then had been staying with people who owned the vehicle she used in Friday's alleged theft. She told police that she needed money because her minivan was towed and because she wanted to see her kids, the charges say.
She pawned the necklace for $160, she allegedly told police.
According to the charges, Moua saw the boy wearing the necklace a week earlier and returned to the Hmong Cultural Center to steal it. She found the boy in a second-floor music classroom and asked him to come talk to her son, who she said was too shy to come inside.
The 10-year-old boy was nervous because he didn't know her, he told police. But he was willing to help and persuaded the teacher to let him leave the classroom.
After forcing the boy into the vehicle, driving around the block and stealing his necklace, Moua allegedly yelled to a witness approaching the vehicle, "He's my son!" the charges say.
Txongpao Lee, executive director of the cultural center, said that the teacher thought Moua was related to the boy. The teacher was one of three in the after-school program, Lee said, and all were shaken by the incident.
The center is a friendly place, Lee said. He added that a letter had been written to parents and staff members stating that only parents could pick up or drop off children unless they provide notice that someone else has permission to do so.
Moua also allegedly stole necklaces from children she encountered at Hmongtown Marketplace, 217 Como Av., and Hmong Village, 1001 Johnson Pkwy., the charges say. According to police, she admitted to stealing three to four necklaces at both locations.
At Hmong Village, a woman reported chasing Moua after Moua played with the woman's 10-month-old daughter and then picked her up and walked off with her. Later that night, the mother noticed that the child no longer had the $600 gold necklace that she bought her.
Authorities ask anyone else who may have been victimized to call police at 651-266-5650.
Anthony Lonetree • 612-875-0041