AT 6:30 A.M. ON NOVEMBER 15, Rafat Salib was awakened by knocking on his suburban Porter Ranch home. Los Angeles police officers told the father of three to clear out — now. The so-called Sayre Fire had started the night before near Veterans Memorial Park in the Northern San Fernando Valley, burning more than 2,500 acres, leaping the 210 and 5 freeways, and threatening 1,000 homes and structures.
Cops were evacuating 10,000 residents in the area even as several hundred homes at the Oakridge Mobile Home Park caught fire and burned to the ground in nearby Sylmar. “We thought it was a mistake because we are far away from Sylmar,” Salib, a Los Angeles businessman, tells L.A. Weekly. “Maybe it was because of the wind and the smoke.”
Not that he argued about it. Three weeks earlier, the Sesnon Fire, which started in Porter Ranch, had claimed two lives, destroyed 49 homes and structures, and burned more than 18,000 acres after being set off by ferocious Santa Ana winds that knocked down a sparking power line.
Thirty minutes later, Salib, with only a handful of personal effects, grabbed his wife, kids and his golden retriever, jumped in the car, and joined a steady stream of vehicles under similar mandatory evacuation orders.
Hoping for the best, Salib, in his late 40s, dropped off his family at a relative’s house and continued on to work. But by 9:30 a.m., his wife started experiencing a nagging concern. She was watching TV coverage of the fires and couldn’t understand why their area was evacuated. “She kept calling me every 10 minutes,” says Salib. “Maybe she had a feeling.”
His wife’s prodding led Salib to leave work at 1:30 p.m. and head home. Driving down the eerily empty streets, he saw no signs of life – until he pulled into his own driveway.
There, he came face-to-face with a two-woman burglary team who police allege have quietly operated a lucrative home-burglary operation in the San Fernando Valley at least since summer.
Aware of the evacuation, the two female burglars headed to posh, emptied-out suburban Porter Ranch where they chose fancy-looking homes with price tags of $1 million and up. Police say they knew what they wanted, grabbing up designer baubles and handbags including Gucci and Chanel.
But the duo, Sabrina Devens, 32, and suspected ringleader Gina Rios, 19, were caught red-handed — by their intended victim.
“It is rare to get a female crew,” says LAPD burglary detective Floyd Walton, who is handling the investigation. “And it is rare to get two females for burglaries.”
Salib, rushing to evacuate, forgot to lock his back sliding door. Alarm system turned on? Negative. When he got home he found a “short girl,” Rios, standing near his front door and a strange car parked in front of his driveway. Walton says Rios told Salib she was “waiting for Jerry McGuire.” Salib responded that there was “no Jerry here.”
That was weird enough, but he then “saw someone in my bedroom. … I see somebody’s head there,” he said. “I knew right away — there is someone in my house.”
He peered into the window of the women’s 1994 Infinity and spotted two of his wife’s $800 purses, by Gucci and Chanel, on the back seat, right next to his son’s Xbox 360, a laptop computer and a wrapped gift he had planned to take to a party that night.
Salib demanded his belongings back and Rios refused with an emphatic “No!” but then relented when LAPD officers saw the younger of the women with shaved head and baggy jeans arguing with the middle-aged businessman. Police began questioning the arguing duo, demanding Salib’s ID, Devens suddenly appeared from the backyard and announced she couldn’t find “Jerry.”
Officers found five more purses and a pile of Salib’s mail on his back porch. In Rios’ pocket, officers discovered many keys, including a set belonging to Salib’s Mercedes. Inside the Infinity, police found gold jewelry and the Gucci purse with credit cards inside.
The story of looting during a horrific tragedy made national and international wires and newspapers, another example of the bizarre urban hazards of living in Los Angeles. “These are cowardly people,” says Salib. “Taking advantage of a situation like that. It is just unbelievable. On days like this, when people are losing everything, and on top of that, you have a couple of girls coming over to take advantage.”
Says Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Michael Bowman, who was in charge of the evacuations: “People are losing their homes and their whole world is sent into chaos. People who take advantage of their hardships is beyond my comprehension.”
Detective Walton says Devens, and possibly Rios, pulled off two separate, lucrative burglaries in the last six months. In October, a home in Van Nuys was burglarized after the owners forgot to lock their back door. The culprits pilfered $15,000 worth of goods including a watch and electronics. On June 24, another home was robbed of $28,500 in property, including a $3,000 Rolex, three diamond platinum rings, pink diamond earrings worth $7,000, and a laptop. The suspect was described as being white and heavyset. During Devens’ police interrogation on November 15, Walton says Devens admitted culpability in the two burglaries.
“Thank God they got caught,” says Salib. “I came at the same time they were there. I am so lucky and they were unlucky. … Five minutes later it would have been ‘have a nice day.’”