They are being called a "band of brothers," but there's little brotherly love involved.
Eight men with loose family ties are suspected in a string of brazen home invasion robberies in Ballico-Cressey, Delhi and Hilmar areas dating back to April 2006, according to Deputy Paul Barile, Merced County Sheriff's Department spokesman. Three are in jail now and five others are being sought.
No one has been hurt so far, but Sgt. Jason Goins, supervisor of the department's Major Crimes Unit, worries this could change if the shotgun- and handgun-toting group continues its string of early-morning robberies.
"There is a concern for us that something might happen. You're dealing with robbers and firearms, very dangerous people," Goins said.
At least six home invasion robberies in the north county area have involved innocent, law-abiding citizens, Barile said. Robbers also have targeted homes of drug dealers and these incidents have gone unreported. Other robberies have been reported in Turlock and Sonoma County.
"The bottom line is the age of innocence is over in Merced County. We hope to find the other five band of thugs," Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said.
Goins described the robbers as organized individuals who have recruited others to take the place of the three people arrested in July. They remain in Sonoma County Jail on seven felony charges, including robbery, conspiracy, burglary, participation in a criminal street gang and weapons charges.
Barile said some of the suspects have gang affiliations or associations, but it's unknown if they are validated gang members. It's thought the five are hiding out in the northern portions of Merced County or the Turlock area.
Pazin said the robbers pick their victims wisely and the attacks aren't random. That's why he is urging residents to call deputies right away when they see something peculiar in their neighborhoods.
The robbers all appear to be related, either as brothers, cousins or uncles. Their criminal organization appears to be specialized -- only doing home invasion robberies, Barile said.
Jose Luis Penaloza, 19, and Miguel Angel Maldonado, 23, both of Turlock, and Guillermo Calderon, 21, of Delhi are in Sonoma County Jail, charged with robbery, conspiracy, burglary, participation in a criminal street gang, being a gang member in possession of a concealed weapon, carrying a concealed weapon, carrying a loaded firearm and possession of ammunition by a convicted felon, Barile said.
Those being sought include Robert Penaloza, Jr., 32, of Delhi, Juan Carlos Alvarez, 26, of Turlock, Miguel Penaloza, 21, of Delhi, Hector Manuel Sanchez, 25, of Turlock, and Abelino Magana, 19, of Delhi.
"They are extremely organized and all they do is home invasion robberies. They are considered armed and dangerous," Barile said. The robbers show up between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m. while the home occupants are sleeping and enter homes by force.
In some instances, the robbers have used guns to blow locks off doors.
The men are responsible for anywhere from 10 to 15 home invasion robberies. In some instances where drug dealers' homes are targeted, cash and narcotics were taken. In other instances where law-abiding citizens' homes are struck, cell telephones, cash, electronics and household items and jewelry were taken as the robbers rummage through the residences.
Robbery victims generally have been restrained with duct tape or plastic ties. In one instance, a shot was fired but no one has been injured so far, Barile said. The robbers usually wear dark clothing with hooded sweatshirts, and their faces are concealed by bandanas.
Merced County Sheriff's Department deputies have been working with Turlock police and Sonoma deputies during the 18-month investigation. In the last month officers have been serving a series of search warrants in attempts to locate the robbers.
Barile said deputies are seeking the public's help in locating the robbers. Those with information are asked to call the department's tipline at 385-7616.
Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209-385-2485 or firstname.lastname@example.org.