They look nothing like George Clooney or Brad Pitt.
But two career criminals who recently were nabbed on suspicion of 33 brazen burglaries of El Pollo Loco eateries throughout Southern California, and are possibly linked to other burglaries of small businesses in Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura and Los Angeles counties, have been dubbed the “Ocean’s 11” crew after the popular heist flick.
That’s because when the jig finally was up, Garden Grove police, in a joint investigation with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, seized from cars and homes linked to the two men gas-powered saws, window-cutting tools, drills, binoculars, two-way radios — even an Obama and a clown mask.
They also seized five weapons, including three loaded assault rifles — one equipped with a silencer — and a laptop that included a Power Point demonstration on how to avoid motion-detection sensors.
These and other items, Garden Grove cops believe, were employed in the suspects’ relentless pursuit of their ill-gotten gains.
Police allege the duo made off with a total of $197,549 in cash from 11 El Pollo restaurants in Orange County and 22 other El Pollo Loco eateries in cities including Camarillo, Riverside, La Puente, Newhall and Castaic.
“They were sophisticated,” said Det. Dennis Wardle, who, working closely with Det. Luis Payan and reporting to Sgt. Carl Whitney, was the lead detective on the investigation that led to the arrests, on Nov. 11, of Travis Kupuno Laguisan, 41, and Kevin Charles Henry, 33, who attended Bolsa Grande High School together.
“To get away with so many burglaries,” Wardle said, “they had to be sophisticated.”
Laguisan, whom police believe was the leader of the two-man crew, remains in custody at Orange County Jail.
Henry posted bond and has been released.
Both suspects face years behind bars if convicted of the El Pollo Loco crime spree that began June 24 and ended Nov. 11 with their arrests in a Walmart parking lot after detectives watched them burglarize an El Pollo Loco in the 12000 block of Beach Boulevard in Stanton.
Matt Damon, Bernie Mac or Carl Reiner were nowhere in sight to whisk the suspects to safety before they were cuffed without incident and taken to the Garden Grove PD.
“Am I good or not?”
The man seen in the surveillance video is talking though a Bluetooth to his crime partner, who presumably is outside in the getaway car.
The video footage is from early Oct. 19 at an El Pollo Loco in Camarillo.
The man in the video, whom Garden Grove police allege is Kevin Charles Henry, is in the process of trying to bust into the safe.
He’s feeling pretty cocky.
Then the alarm goes off.
“(Expletive!)” he yells. “Go to the hotel!”
The burglar was referring, police believe, to a nearby Motel 6.
The burglar and his partner leave without getting any cash, but they leave behind damage: a window they busted through to gain entry into the fast-food joint.
That was the MO of the El Pollo Loco burglary crew, police allege.
The bad guys would case out an El Pollo Loco joint, in some instances using a camcorder to shoot video of the exterior and while driving through the takeout lane, then hit the eatery up in the early morning hours, typically between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m.
One of the suspects would peel the weather stripping off a door window (he was a window glazer by trade) and then use a suction device to remove the window or, in some cases, a tool to smash through it.
In some of the burglaries, the crooks would do a “low crawl” along the floor to avoid motion detectors that trigger an alarm.
After they had perfected their technique of using a gas-powered saw to break into safes and make off with the loot, the burglars skipped the low crawl without caring about setting off the alarm.
They thought they were that good —- and, in many instances, they were, reducing to less than 10 minutes the time it took for them to break into an El Pollo Loco, cut through the safe, and get away with the cash, according to polic
In the beginning of the spree, the crooks had spent as much as two hours inside the restaurants, Wardle said.
“With better experience and tools they were able to get in and out quickly,” he said.
During the heists, when the roar of saw going through metal got to “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” levels, the lookout guy would use a laser to alert his partner he needed to stop cutting through the safe and leave, pronto.
The El Pollo Loco burglars first came on the radar of the Garden Grove PD on Sept. 12, when a regional security manager for Brinks Security called to tell them he was looking into a series of break-ins at the fast-food chain.
By then, eight El Pollo Locos had been burglarized.
Whitney thought the MO was similar to one used in an Original Tommy’s Hamburgers heist in Garden Grove in December 2014.
Wardle, 36, recently had been promoted to burglary detective and was itching for a big case.
Whitney put him in charge of the El Pollo Loco burglary investigation.
“I was pretty excited,” Wardle said. “I was kind of hungry for something like this.”
The Garden Grove PD started working with detectives from other counties, including deputies from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s major crimes bureau.
Sometime, the burglars got sloppy. At one El Pollo Loco they left behind a glove, at another a two-way radio.
The big break in the case came Nov. 7, when a delivery driver drove up to an El Pollo Loco in Castaic when the restaurant was being burglarized.
He took down the license plate of the car in which the suspects fled.
Cops later linked the plate to a home in the 9000 block of Jennrich Avenue in Westminster, where police say James lives with relatives.
They then put eyes on the house around the clock.
At one point, they saw James leave the house and burglarize a small computer shop in Westminster.
“We wanted to catch this guy in the act of doing an El Pollo Loco,” Whitney said, “because at this point he’s done about 30 restaurants.”
The operation was beefed up with helicopter surveillance courtesy of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Dept.
On the morning of Nov. 11, while Whitney, Wardle and other GGPD investigators and L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies were watching the house in Westminster, a report came in about the burglary of an El Pollo Loco in Hacienda Heights.
Same MO, same suspects.
The bad guys, cops figured, must have used another vehicle to slip away from the house.
The suspects then hit an El Pollo Loco in Orange, making away with $2,229 in cash.
With the cops now watching them, the burglars then cased out an El Pollo Loco in Westminster. But they got spooked when gardeners showed up, and they drove away. They then hit their fourth, and last, El Pollo Loco of the morning.
Minutes later, police made a felony stop and arrested Laguisan and Henry in the Walmart parking lot.
Just as the sun was coming up, the sun was setting on the suspects’ careers as prolific El Pollo Loco burglars.
Inside the black Ford Focus, police found stolen cash and tools they believe were used in the restaurant heists, including a huge saw used to cut open safes.
They also found clothing that appeared to be the same seen being worn by burglars in the Hacienda Heights and Orange heists that morning.
Police also found other evidence in Henry’s home in Westminster, as well as Laguisan’s home and his Cadillac in Garden Grove, that allegedly links the two to the El Pollo Loco crime spree, including a distinct orange-and-black backpack seen on one of the suspects in surveillance videos that captured several burglaries.
Police estimate total damage to the 33 burglarized El Pollo Loco restaurants to be around $225,000.
Whitney, 45, a GGPD veteran of 24 years, is a former detective who in March was reassigned to run the crimes against property unit, which has a total of seven detectives.
He said a lot of work went into the El Pollo Loco investigation, including extensive surveillance and seven search warrants.
“This was a big deal, a big operation,” Whitney said.
And, when it was over, it was a big case for the GGPD.
“It’s one of those really satisfying cases where all the hard work and long hours pay off,” Whitney said.
In the wake of the crime spree, El Pollo Loco has tightened security measures at its locations throughout Southern California.
Whitney said the suspects apparently never used their loaded assault rifles during the heists.
But they were prepared to, he said.
Among the evidence cops seized was footage from a camcorder used by one of the suspects to record himself going through an El Pollo Loco around 4 a.m.
At one point, the suspect gets out of the car, walks around the entire eatery, then gets back in his car.
As he sits down, the camera momentarily pans down to reveal what’s in his lap.
A loaded Glock 9mm, resting between his legs.
Thankfully, GGPD officers say, he never used it.