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Citizens help under-staffed police catch ‘gypsy’ thieves

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

Three elderly residents were surprised by a trio of home invaders, but one screamed and a witness outside gave North Arlington police a license plate number as the bandits took off. A short time later, the trio was in custody.

Sam Eli, Ephraim Eli, Vito Yonko

All are believed to be part of a traveling band of thieves, commonly known as “gypsies,” who move around the East Coast using scams and diversions to get into people’s homes. They ordinarily begin turning up in North Jersey this time of year.

Two of those charged were wanted on warrants elsewhere, one in Broward County, Fla., North Arlington Police Chief Louis M. Ghione told CLIFFVIEW PILOT .

With his ranks dwindling, the chief said, the witnesses who helped police made the difference between the near-instant arrests and a clean getaway.

“We’re need this in the environment that we’re in,” Ghione told CLIFFVIEW PILOT . “When I started here, we had 47 (officers). Now we’re at 27, possibly going to 24.”

What makes it particularly worrisome is that North Arlington is so close to Newark, Belleville and Jersey City.

Two of the men arrested, brothers Sammy Eli, 46, and Ephraim, 21, are from Newark. The third man charged, 22-year-old Vito Yonko, is from Union City.

All are being held in the Bergen County Jail, charged with robbery.

Two elderly women and an elderly man were inside their house, in the 30 block of Devon Street, when one of the thieves knocked on the door around 5 p.m. Wednesday, the chief said.

Two of the bandits lured the man and one of the women to the backyard “indicating they were doing home construction work on a neighgbor’s house and needed to get inside,” Ghione told CLIFFVIEW PILOT . Meanwhile, another crew member went to the front door, not knowing the second woman was there.

He knocked, hoping to draw one of the victims from out back, as one of the other two accomplices “pushed his way past one of the victims and through the door,” then ran upstairs to the master bedroom, the chief said.

The woman inside began yelling that she would call police, and all three took off emptyanded, Ghione told CLIFFVIEW PILOT . However, one of them broke the glass on a screen door, drawing the attention of people outside, he said.

A witness got the Florida license plate number on the fleeing Jeep and gave it to his officers, who broadcast it over the SPEN network, the chief said. Moments later, Kearny police stopped the car on Schuyler Avenue, he said.

North Arlington Sgt. Gary Edwards, along with Officers Andrew Tomaszki, Tony Abilo and Paul Casele, collected the trio and brought them back to North Arlington for booking.

Ephriam Eli was already wanted on an active warrant out of Broward, Florida; Yanko was wanted on criminal and traffic warrants out of New Jersey, records show.

Police Officer Michael Horton, who recently joined the detective bureau and is the lead investigator in the case, is exploring a possible connection to a January burglary at the very same house. Horton, along with Casale, is on the Rice list of officers who could be laid off if municipal officials can’t reach an agreement with the PBA.

There doesn’t seem to be a connection between the accused thieves and the would-be victims. Those charged simply “saw what they thought was an opportunity,” Ghione told CLIFFVIEW PILOT .

Sam Eli has been charged with similar crimes in the past, including an aborted home invasion in Clifton in 1995, records show.

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