Crime

GPS tells Miami homeowner where $27,905 in stolen goods went. That’s not enough for cops

A Miami police car outside a LIttle River apartment complex where a homeowner says her stolen computer was sending out GPS signals for nearly two weeks.
A Miami police car outside a LIttle River apartment complex where a homeowner says her stolen computer was sending out GPS signals for nearly two weeks. Miami Herald

Having tens of thousands of dollars worth of electronics and heirloom jewelry stolen was bad enough for Eyla Cuenca.

What really got her goat was she knew exactly where her pilfered stuff was. A GPS tracking device in one of her computers showed it had been turned on at an apartment building just a few blocks from her home in Little River, a community that had been hit by a recent string of home burglaries. But, she said, Miami police told her that alone wasn’t enough evidence for them to get a search warrant.

The GPS kept signaling for more than a week after the break-in, she said, but police continued to maintain their hands were tied by legal restrictions.

“I called the detective. He said he was going to check it out. Then he said there was nothing he could do without a warrant. He said he couldn’t even knock on the door,” Cuenca said.

After the Miami Herald inquired about the case, Miami police late Tuesday night arrested a 16-year-old based on another GPS signal — this one from the suspect’s ankle monitor. It showed he was at Cuenca’s property at the time of the burglary on July 1. The police report says officers also tracked him going five days later to a storage room, where they did recover some of Cuenca’s stolen goods.

Police brought the teen in for questioning along with his father, before releasing him. Now he’s facing charges of burglary, grand theft and criminal mischief. Still, because police have not yet secured a warrant, they haven unable to enter the building where they suspect the rest of Cuenca’s property may be hidden — including the still-signaling GPS device.

Deputy Miami Police Chief Ron Papier said he hoped the arrest will help his officers soon obtain the search warrant for the apartment, in the 100 block of Northeast 82nd Street.

“As of now we have not recovered anything,” Papier said.

It’s been a frustrating experience for Cuenca, a freelance photographer and teacher who lives in Little River, a community just north of Little Haiti. She and other neighbors had been on high alert even before her house was broken into on the afternoon of July 1. Several homes in the neighborhood had been burglarized earlier in the year, and many residents had purchased home security devices as a result.

Statistics released by Miami police show 22 reported burglaries either of homes or commercial properties within a quarter-mile of Cuenca’s home so far this year. Five of those burglaries happened in the week before the heist at Cuenca’s home, all within two blocks of her property.

It’s a neighborhood of fixer-uppers just west of the Upper East Side, which has undergone a residential and commercial boon the past decade. Cuenca bought her home in a division called Royal Palm Gardens a little more than two years ago after living in the Buena Vista neighborhood just to the southeast.

So Cuenca wasn’t completely shocked when, as she was helping her father during a physical therapy session in Broward County, her security system sent a message to her phone that the back window of the home had been breached. She quickly called 911.

Miami police got to her home before Cuenca got home. They noticed a gate open and the home’s back window pried open. Police said a witness saw a man cross the street with one of Cuenca’s computers.

The burglars made off with quite a haul: A $6,000 Nikon camera, a $6,000 Apple Mac desktop computer and her $2,800 engagement ring were among the $27,905 worth of items stolen. Cuenca said this week that the total of stolen goods is actually much higher than that, as she continues to discover more items that were stolen.

“We’re still finding stuff missing,” she said.

Then the next day, July 2, as Cuenca was teaching a class from her home. she received notification that one of her computers had been turned on — at an apartment just around the corner. She called the police.

Cuenca said when the police got there, they encountered a dozen or so people living in a small apartment who were hostile and threw things at the police. One of the officers even told her he recognized a juvenile on the property who was suspected of multiple crimes in the neighborhood.

But, Cuenca said, Miami Police Detective Billy Suero told her the police couldn’t enter the apartment and retrieve her belongings. Upset, Cuenca notified friends and posted her frustrations on the popular Internet site Nextdoor, a website where neighbors can sell items and communicate about local issues.

By the middle of this week dozens of neighbors had responded to Cuenca’s post, many sharing her frustrations; others telling stories of their own. One response was from a woman who said she suffered a similar fate, losing televisions, computers and jewelry.

“When my husband called who was in charge of the investigation of our case, he said exactly the same thing,” the woman wrote. “If they did not find him committing a crime, they can not go knocking on his door. Seems like a joke!”

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