Lance Newby, a 59-year-old former U.S. Marine who owns an international real estate brokerage, was sitting in his home in Escazú, west of San José, watching Monday Night Football and having a drink with his wife a couple of months ago.
It was a little before 10 p.m. and the only thing on his mind at that moment was the loss his favorite team, the Washington Redskins, had suffered the day before.
However, the couple was about to become the next victims in a string of armed home invasions that have been plaguing the San José area for the past several months (TT Dec. 16).
Although police detained Jhan Pablo Alfaro more than two months ago on charges of being the leader of a group of thieves who allegedly carried out six home-invasion robberies, other armed groups still operate in the country, according to robbery investigator Jaime Carrera, with the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ).
Though numerous victims have contacted The Tico Times with reports of these incidents, the violent nature of these crimes has held many witnesses from speaking with The Tico Times about their experience. Newby was the first to tell his story on the record when he sat down with The Tico Times at TGI Friday’s in Escazú.
“I heard a click (coming from the front door), and before I could do anything, I saw something coming out of the corner of my left eye,” he said. “I turned around and I had a pistol to the back of my head.”
In the blink of an eye, at least four men wearing ski masks and one carrying a revolver had entered his living room and were shouting out orders, in what Newby described as “English in some kind of accent,” for the couple to get on the ground.
“I kept feeling this tapping at the back of my head,” Newby described as he recreated the scene, knocking two of his fingers against the back of his head. “They told us … not to speak. They said,‘Don’t move, or I will shoot you.’”
The gunmen made Newby and his wife get on the floor as they covered their heads with pillows and blankets to obstruct their vision. One of the assailants stood guard over the two hostages while the crew started moving quickly through the house.
The man who spoke English shouted out orders in Spanish to the other men as Newby heard them rummaging through the house.
The entire time he could hear the sporadic sound of a voice, speaking in Spanish, that sounded like it was coming from a radio.
“They must have had somebody outside because I kept hearing him talking (through the radio),” Newby said.
It wasn’t until the thieves had gone upstairs that Newby became nervous. He guessed they would go into the master bedroom, and was sure that if they did, they would find Newby’s .45-caliber handgun. Now, he said, he was sure that the group had a working firearm and ammunition.
After about 20 minutes, one of the men approached Newby and asked him if he was wearing any jewelry. After rejecting Newby’s offer of his watch, the assailant reached into his back pocket and sifted through his wallet. Without taking any of the credit cards, he folded the wallet back up and returned it to Newby’s pocket.
Although the crew didn’t take any of Newby’s wife’s jewelry, they grabbed her purse and all of her credit cards.
“All of a sudden, I hear the voice on the radio say, “Vamonos!” (“Let’s go!”), and the group left,” he said. Before leaving, the one who spoke English said that the group would come back and kill the couple if they called the police, he said.
After waiting for a few moments to make sure that they were safe to get up, Newby ran out the front door to ask his neighborhood’s guard if he had seen the thieves, and if so, which way they had gone. All the guard could say is that he saw five men in a light-colored sport utility vehicle.
When he returned home, he and his wife set about to determine just what the thieves had taken.
The burglars had stolen two laptop computers, a digital camera, a 20-inch television, Newby’s .45 caliber handgun and ammunition, his U.S. passport, his wife’s purse and credit cards, as well as $500 and ¢100,000 ($202) in cash. The total amounted to more than $7,000 in losses, according to the police report Newby filed shortly after the crime took place.
Newby told The Tico Times that he believes the incident was sparked by a visit from two Costa Rican women who said they wanted to interview for a job as a maid.
He contacted one of the women independently to see if she would be interested in a job as a housekeeper at the suggestion of a friend from the United States. When the woman first arrived for an interview, she didn’t speak very good English and left the home after only a few minutes.
A few days later, the woman reappeared at Newby’s home unannounced, this time bringing a friend who spoke fluent English, two days before the robbery. The two women spoke with Newby and his wife about potential employment, had pizza with them and left after about an hour and a half.
“The next day we noticed that the extra key that we had sitting on the bench in the kitchen for when we take the dog out was missing,”Newby said. “We didn’t think anything about it until the next day when we were robbed.”
Though Newby’s accusation about the maids appears to be the only one reported to the OIJ, it is not the only report of an organized home invasion for robbery.
Although some sources to The Tico Times have put the number of armed robberies at 20, the OIJ has only officially linked six cases to one group in Escazú and Santa Ana, west of San José, as well as in the eastern San José neighborhood of San Pedro and the western neighborhood of Pavas. Investigators are also investigating cases in Ciudad Cariari and Heredia, north of San José, that may also be linked to this group.
The OIJ has not been able to officially list Newby’s case as one of Alfaro’s alleged robberies or link it to that of a different specific group, despite the fact that it “matches the m.o. (modus operandi) of the others,” Carrera said.
Newby doesn’t hide the fact that he is less than optimistic that the OIJ will find these robbers.
“This happens and nobody does anything about it and it’s just terrible… you’re talking about 20 (sets of victims),” he said.
“You have a police force here, but the Costa Ricans themselves need to get involved, because (finding these criminals) needs to be a mutual endeavor.”
Despite his reluctance to think that this case will be solved, Newby says he hasn’t developed a negative opinion toward Costa Rica.
“I’m not discouraged,” he said as he crossed his arms across his chest and leaned back in his chair. “I’m not going to leave.
I’m here to work and sell real estate internationally.”
Still, Newby admits there is plenty to be learned from his experience.
“You need to look at whom you’re hiring and make sure that you know that person,” he said. “Don’t let anyone into your house who you don’t know because you just don’t what they could be up to.”
People should also be careful with publicly displaying personal wealth such as driving expensive luxury cars and openly flaunting a lot of cash, as they may also trigger an attack from this group, according to Carrera.
Anyone with information about this case or wanting to report a crime should call OIJ’s Property Crimes Division at 295-3305. To make an emergency call, dial 911 from any part of the country.