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Same Thieves Suspected of Preying on Women in Houston Parking Lots [UPDATED]

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Sarah Elsea was loading groceries into her trunk in the Walmart parking lot on Yale Street in August when a blue Toyota sedan pulled up next to her — a little too close, Elsea said. A woman in the backseat rolled down the window and asked for directions. It was a Saturday at 4 o'clock in the afternoon. The parking lot was packed.

Elsea couldn't understand what the woman was saying, so she got closer to the car, asking the woman to come again.

“At that point, the driver said, 'Oh, never mind,' and the woman reached out and grabbed my purse and pulled it into the car,” Elsea said. “I was shocked, and immediately reached back in after my purse and grabbed onto it. And she's pulling and hitting at my arm — and then he drives away.”

Elsea's arm whacked into the car as the driver hit the gas, speeding through the narrow parking lot aisle.

“I screamed. I didn't know I had it in me," Elsea said. "I screamed like I never screamed before.”

The people police suspected robbed Elsea, 48, were arrested one week later. Each was released on bond or probation — but now the police have reason to believe those same suspects, ages 17 to 22, may be committing more of the same crimes across Houston.

What happened to Elsea in the middle of the day has happened to at least five other crime victims in the Houston area in the past couple of months, according to the Houston Police Department. In each case, purse snatchers preyed on women in the parking lots of large stores, then sped away. And those are only the cases the police know about. Elsea said Walmart security officials she talked to that day, August 6, told her the same crime had happened to another woman a couple of weeks earlier in the Yale Walmart lot, near the Heights. Elsea also said a police detective told her about the same crime occurring at a Walmart on Wayside Drive.

On September 24, a woman told police and KTRK that she was run over by a black Dodge Ram after a girl had hopped out of the truck and snatched her purse while she was loading her groceries into her car. She was in the Sam's Club parking lot on Fuqua — also in broad daylight. The woman, Melissa Martinez, said she tried to grab her purse back from the suspects,  but then when the girl hopped back into the truck, dragging Martinez with her, Martinez fell and the truck ran over her arm, putting her in a sling.

In that report, the police told KTRK the robbery was the third purse snatching in less than two weeks in that same parking lot, though HPD spokesman John Cannon told the Houston Press police were aware of only three similar crimes total, including Elsea's incident.

Cannon said police believe the several recent incidents are connected, since victims gave similar descriptions of suspects and the manner in which they were robbed.

In Elsea's case, Cannon said police pulled over a stolen vehicle on August 15 to find four suspects inside. Elsea said detectives told her her credit card and car keys were discovered in the vehicle — and that the suspects confessed to robbing her and others. “When [police] interviewed them, they described my incident as different because of the way I screamed,” Elsea said. “They remembered it.”

The driver, identified as 17-year-old Joel Jones, was charged with auto theft — but was only sentenced to three years of probation and deferred adjudication three days later. Three women in the car were only charged with trespassing (for riding in a stolen vehicle) because the Harris County District Attorney's Office determined there was not yet enough evidence to accept any robbery charges against them at that moment, Cannon said.

Elsea said she fears the same suspects are continuing to victimize unsuspecting Houstonians on grocery store runs, and says she has felt disappointed with the police investigation. She said the disappointment started when it took Houston police two and a half hours to show up at the Walmart after she called 911. While she was impressed to learn a week later that police had already arrested the people suspected of robbing her, she said basic details in the police report that she had relayed to officers, such as the color of her purse, were incorrect, and that even though detectives told her she could probably expect charges to be upgraded against the women once their investigation was complete, it has now been two months and it has not happened.

“That I find very upsetting," Elsea said. "It certainly made me lose confidence in the police and their follow-throughs with anything that they do. It's very troubling. We depend on them to do the work and complete the work."

Cannon said the investigations into all of the robberies are ongoing. He stressed that people remain vigilant no matter where they go. “It doesn't matter if you're in a grocery store, a large or small parking lot or if it's day or night: The thing that we advise people to do, if you face this type of predicament, is give up your purse. As hard as that is to imagine yourself doing, the safest thing to do is just to give them your purse and get the best possible description as you can on the criminal."

Cannon encouraged anyone with additional information to contact Crime Stoppers at 713-222-TIPS.

Update, 9:45 a.m.: HPD spokesman John Cannon called Thursday morning with new information from crime analysts: Police have ruled the incident at the Sam's Club on Fuqua is unrelated to Elsea's robbery. Police have so far connected four incidents: two at the Walmart on Yale and two at the Walmart on Wayside, each involving a blue Toyota Camry. Cannon said charges will be upgraded to a felony, likely engaging in organized crime, for at least one of the women.

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