Trial begins for 'Open Door Bandits' accused in North County crime spree

SAN DIEGO (CNS) - Two men conspired with five other people in a series of home-invasion robberies in northern San Diego in which sleeping residents were roused at gunpoint and tied up, and one woman was sexually assaulted, a prosecutor said Wednesday.

Deputy District Attorney Jalyn Wang told a jury that Thomas James Smith and Aaron Rico III were part of robbery crew dubbed the "Open Door Bandits," so named because in most of the 10 break-ins, the robbers gained access to homes through an unlocked door.

Wang alleged that Smith, 26, and Rico, 22, were two of the major players in the robbery crew.

A third major player, Stephen Ramon Gomez, pleaded guilty in the case.

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Four other defendants, Aaron Rico V, Victor Harvey, Robin Shawver and Jordan Wilson, also pleaded guilty.

Wang alleged the home-invasion series began the night of Jan. 23, 2016, when Smith, Gomez and Shawver used garage door openers they found in cars to get into two residences in Mira Mesa, where they stole items including an X- box gaming system.

On Jan. 26, 2016, at about 1:20 a.m., a man returned to his residence in Carmel Mountain Ranch after taking a friend home and saw that his house was being ransacked, the prosecutor said. The man chased one of the robbers, but could not catch him, Wang said.

The DNA of Smith and Gomez was found on items left at the scene, according to the prosecutor.

Three nights later, on Jan. 29, 2016, the bandits gained access to a home in Scripps Ranch through an unlocked door and robbed a family at gunpoint, yelling, "Where's the money? Where's the jewelry? Where's the gold?" Wang said in her opening statement.

Smith, Gomez, Rico III and Harvey were charged in that break-in, Wang said.

On Jan. 31, 2016, a woman was awakened at gunpoint in her Sorrento Valley home, tied up and sexually assaulted by one or two of the defendants, according to the prosecutor. The perpetrators allegedly took jewelry off the woman's body and threatened to shoot her.

Wang said Gomez pawned the woman's wedding ring and his DNA was found on a pillow case on her bed.

On Feb. 5, 2016, Smith and Rico III broke into a home in Rancho Bernardo through an unlocked door and held a couple at gunpoint while ransacking the residence, Wang told the jury.

The night of Feb. 11, 2016, four homes in  Carmel Mountain Ranch and Sabre Springs were broken in to, including three in the same neighborhood, the prosecutor said.

In one robbery, a barking dog alerted a sleeping couple to intruders, and the wife's 911 call forced the suspects to flee, Wang said.

In another break-in, the robbers tied up a family -- including a 2- year-old who had his wrists taped together -- and spent an hour ransacking the home before leaving, the prosecutor said.

Smith's attorney, Deputy Public Defender Damian Lowe, said that once police determined the crimes were connected, they started to follow a number of suspects, not including his client.

Lowe said "significant" mistakes were made in the investigation of the robbery series.

He told the jury the case would come down to "what evidence is going to prove beyond a reasonable doubt as to who did what?"

Smith and Rico III face life in prison if convicted of conspiracy to commit burglary, robbery, burglary and sexual assault.
 

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