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Obits gave burglars their targets, police say

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG
  • Star Tribune
  • October 5, 2012 - 9:42 PM

Two St. Paul men were charged Friday with burglarizing a woman's home the day after her funeral, allegedly stealing wedding bands belonging to her and her late husband.

Jeffrey Lancman, 42, and John M. Contreras, 24, read newspaper obituaries to target their victims, according to charges filed in Ramsey County District Court.

Each is charged with second-degree burglary.

Contreras' girlfriend told police that he and Lancman looked up obituaries, used the Internet and phone book to locate addresses and used Google to view photographs of houses to determine whether they were good targets, the complaint said.

Contreras told police that he used obituaries to find a target house in the 1700 block of Juliet Avenue. He used the woman's name to search property records and scouted the house, in the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood, with Lancman.

According to the complaint, they found lights on in the house on one scouting trip, so they returned the next morning, Sept. 25, between 4 and 6 a.m. The lights were on again, so they assumed the house was vacant.

They entered an unlocked porch, and Contreras kicked in the door. They put valuables in a paper bag and searched the home for about 40 minutes before leaving as dawn broke.

The woman's daughter arrived about 3 p.m. and discovered the break-in. She told police that a metal lockbox and jewelry box had been pried open.

Items reported stolen included a bar of silver, a new DVD player, a MacBook laptop, a Dell laptop, a Kindle e-reader and jewelry.

The woman's son-in-law, who did not want the family identified for fear of exposure, said the wedding bands also were taken.

The victim's wake was held Sept. 23, when the family was last in her home before the burglary. She was buried Sept. 24.

"It's kind of a low blow to be taking advantage of people when they're already in a vulnerable state when their loved one has passed away," the son-in-law said.

It's unclear whether the wedding bands have been recovered. But the complaint said that some items may be in Lancman's basement. Contreras told police he had sold the MacBook.

Police tracked down Contreras when he activated the MacBook, and searched his home Oct. 4. There they found black gloves in plain view, a silver bar and pawn receipts.

Contreras' girlfriend told police that he was addicted to meth and burglarized homes to support his addiction and gambling trips, the complaint said.

He allegedly gave her a tennis bracelet taken in the burglary as a birthday present, and she allegedly pawned it for $200.

Contreras has pending burglary-related cases in Anoka and Hennepin counties and three prior felony convictions, including second-degree burglary. He has a pending case in Dakota County for allegedly receiving stolen property.

Lancman is a co-defendant in the Anoka County case. According to charges filed Sept. 27, a Ramsey resident called police about 1:46 a.m. on Sept. 26 when a moving van pulled into the driveway of a neighbor who had recently died.

Police saw Lancman digging through a dresser and jewelry box, handing items to Contreras, the complaint said. They each face one count of second-degree burglary in that case.

St. Paul Police Sgt. Paul Paulos said authorities are investigating whether the pair are linked to other burglaries. He could not recall when obituaries were last used in home burglaries, but said it isn't new.

"We want to make sure the public is safe, let them know this is going on and to take precautions at a time when they are not thinking about it," he said.

Paulos said families should ask neighbors or friends to watch or occupy a house during funeral services, or request extra patrols by police.

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib

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