Tustin PD’s GPS program turns out more than 125 felony arrests

By Jaimee Lynn Fletcher

A program to use GPS technology to nab criminals committing felony thefts in Tustin has led to the arrest of more than 125 suspects since its inception nearly two years ago.

Tustin PD’s Special Enforcement Detail spearheaded the implementation of the program in 2015 and began using GPS trackers on commonly stolen items — an effort that was kept under wraps until recently when local media broke the news after a high profile Nov. 10 burglary case.

(The use of GPS technology was originally proposed by Crime Analyst Suzanna Howard and Detective Eric Haug after learning of the technology while attending a metal theft training conference.)

Two suspects broke into a pharmacy on Newport Avenue to steal several bottles of codeine, an opioid used to make prescription cough syrup.

The liquid is sold on the street for about $20 an ounce and is most often mixed into a cocktail and used as a recreational drug, police said.

Police, both in Tustin and other cities in Orange County, have seen a rash of these types of burglaries from pharmacies. Tustin PD Burglary Detective Ryan Newton hatched a plan with the pharmacy owner to conceal a GPS tracking device inside a bottle of codeine.

The plan was successful as the burglars happened to snag the GPS-equipped bottle leading police to the suspects after several days of investigation.

Willie James Clark, 21, of Rowland Heights and Brian Vega Salinas, 20, of La Puente, were arrested on suspicion of felony burglary.

But cough syrup is just one way Tustin PD has used the technology.

Police have used GPS devices on commonly stolen vehicles, packages, laptops, video game consoles and car stereos, among other items.

“With a few devices we saw the immediate success with a number of arrests we made so we bought more,” said Tustin PD Lt. Jeff Blair.  “We try to find the hot spots where these burglaries are happening and target those areas.”

Blair added the kinds of suspects they have been picking up are often serious, sometimes career, criminals.

Recently, Tustin police arrested a suspect who took the bait on a car outfitted with a GPS tracker. As it turned out, the man was a probationer with a warrant out for his arrest for auto theft.

“There have been a handful of juveniles we have arrested, but these crimes almost always involve people with extensive criminal histories,” he said. “These are high-caliber criminals.”

Tustin PD currently is using the technology to aid in several other kinds of burglary cases and will continue to find new ways to incorporate GPS into their investigations, police said.

“The use of GPS is only limited to your imagination,” Blair said. “Whatever the hot commodity is, if possible, we put GPS on it, set the bait and wait to see if we get any takers.”