Police blotter: Silicon Valley burglars busted

In this week's installment, two men are accused of orchestrating at least 12 late-night computer burglaries of tech firms around Sunnyvale, Calif.

Declan McCullagh
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Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
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"Police blotter" is a weekly News.com report on the intersection of technology and the law.

What: Two men are charged with carrying out at least 12 "smash-and-grab" burglaries in the heart of California's Silicon Valley

When: California's Court of Appeal, Sixth District, ruled on December 15.

Outcome: Burglary convictions upheld.

What happened, according to court documents:

In February 2003, a security guard in a Sunnyvale, Calif., office park saw a car pull into the parking lot and two young black men emerge. They wore jackets with hoods over their heads, moved through the bushes, and drove away when confronted. The guard, Michael Hamburger, wrote down the car's license plate number from memory as 4KJT596.

Two days later, sometime after 3 a.m., a window was smashed at Cellgate, a company in that office park. Two computers were stolen.

Another early-morning burglary took place in May 2003, when a window was smashed at Tuvox in Cupertino, Calif., and a laptop computer stolen. Employees working late heard the noise and called 911. A police officer patrolling nearby spotted a car leaving the area and wrote down the license plate as 3KJT456, which turned out to be registered to Eric Matthew Riley.

A third incident took place around 4:30 a.m. in October 2003, when Sunnyvale Public Safety Officer Hyun Choi was conducting a security check and spotted a white Geo Prizm pulling into the corner of the parking lot of Nuvelo, a biopharmaceutical company. One man got out of the back seat of the car and started walking toward a company called Artest, which tests integrated circuits.

Choi drove over to the Prizm in his patrol car and spotted a hammer, ski mask and dark gloves in the back seat. He called for backup, and when additional officers arrived they noticed that the hammer and gloves had glass shards on them. An additional ski mask, hammer and gloves were found in the trunk. Police noticed a laptop was visible through a window at Artest.

Three men were in the Prizm: Riley (the car's owner), David Brown and Anthony Eugene Yarbrough. They claimed they were driving from Sacramento to Riley's girlfriend's house in San Jose and had pulled off Highway 101 to rest.

They were arrested. Yarbrough and Riley were charged with second-degree burglary, attempted burglary and conspiracy to commit burglary. Brown plead no contest to conspiracy to commit burglary and served a relatively short time in prison. He was nabbed again for breaking a restaurant's window in April 2005 and loading a wide-screen TV into his van. (He pleaded guilty to the TV burglary charge.)

During the trial for Yarbrough and Riley, investigators testified they matched the soles of Yarbrough's shoes with impressions made in the soil outside burglary sites at Anda Networks, Cloudshield Technologies and Sunext Design. Riley's shoes were also linked to crime scenes, and glass fragments found on them were tied to glass from Tuvox.

Police also claimed that, after the trio was arrested, smash-and-grab burglaries in the area around northern Sunnyvale dropped from two to eight crimes a month to nearly zero. In addition, the security guard and police captain who wrote down the license plate numbers both identified Riley as the driver.

A jury convicted Yarbrough and Riley of multiple counts of burglary (Yarbrough was acquitted of a burglary of Epicor), and both were sentenced to four years in state prison. Yarbrough was ordered to pay $12,500 in attorney's fees.

The two men appealed. Much of their appeal was based on procedural matters, such as whether Yarbrough could afford to pay the fees, and whether police investigators should have been allowed to testify that they believed 12 burglaries were committed by the same people.

California's Court of Appeal, Sixth District, in Santa Clara County rejected the appeal on all grounds but attorney's fees. The appeals court said a trial judge should evaluate whether Yarbrough, who is in prison, had the ability to pay.

Excerpts from the California Court of Appeal's opinion (PDF)

The other burglaries were tied to defendants by evidence recovered at the scenes of the crimes. These were burglaries of Anda Networks (count 1), two laptop computers taken on July 23, 2003; Sunext Design (count 7), one laptop computer, at the end of July 2003; and Cloudshield (count 2), two laptop computers, total loss of $6,010, on August 17, 2003.

Sunnyvale crime scene investigator Ted Zitnay recovered pieces of broken glass that retained muddy shoeprints from the burglary sites. He also produced photographs of shoeprints found outside the various buildings.

Santa Clara County criminologist John Bourke compared the soles of Yarbrough's shoes with shoeprint impressions made either in the soil outside the burglary sites or on pieces of broken glass from the smashed windows. He determined there was a match for Yarbrough's left and right shoes with the impressions recovered from Anda Networks and that Riley's shoes could have left some impressions; there was an association of one of Yarbrough's shoes with an impression from Cloudshield. There was an identification of Yarbrough's shoe from an impression at Sunext Design, and Riley's shoe could have left an impression there. Mark Moriyama, a glass expert, found that glass fragments on Riley's shoes shared characteristics with glass from Tuvox.

The trial court admitted other crimes as evidence, consisting of a list of 12 similar cases Detective Schillinger had developed as part of the investigation. These cases all occurred in the north Sunnyvale area, involved window smashes and the taking of laptop computers, and occurred around the time of the charged burglaries. Five of the six charged burglaries--but not the Tuvox burglary--were part of the list.

The import of this evidence was that commercial burglaries where the perpetrators had broken a window and reached inside for a laptop came to "either a screeching halt or went down to nearly zero" after defendants were arrested.

In addition, Linda Gentry, Sunnyvale crime analyst, analyzed reports of smash-and-grab burglaries in northern Sunnyvale, focusing on those that occurred at commercial establishments late at night and in which high-tech items were stolen. She testified to the frequency of such crimes as classified by month and year. From January 2003 to November 2003, there were from two to eight such crimes a month. From December 2003 to June 2005, four such crimes were committed, one each in February, June, and July 2004 and April 2005. The remaining 15 months had zero smash-and-grab burglaries. Defendants were arrested in October 2003.