by Brad Rollins
SAN MARCOS — When the kitchen manager arrived at Grins Restaurant at about 5:30 a.m. Thursday, he smelled burning metal before he even made it across the parking lot.
At first he thought there was a fire.
But once inside, he saw two men using a heavy reciprocating saw to cut through the back of a metal safe. He ran across North LBJ Drive to a gas station where he called police.
Officer Gean Tucker nabbed 18-year-old Gabriel Vega inside and within hours his alleged accomplice, 27-year-old Jose Eliseo Paez, was arrested at the Haynes Street house they shared.
They are being held on $60,000 bonds for the burglaries at Grins and KFC, which was hit earlier that night.
Additional charges are likely. Police say the two are responsible for a rash of 29 burglaries since March, mostly of independently owned restaurants and shops, many of them in the downtown area.
“They were pretty brazen to hit so many places — some of them more than once — in a small town like this,” said Johnny Ferrell, who co-owns Grins, which was also burgled June 18. “I know the cops were so happy to get them. They were all grinning from ear to ear.”
Police have been working overtime in recent weeks to thwart the burglars, using a “geographic profile” created by a Texas State criminology professor to put potential targets under surveillance.
A groundbreaker in the field of geographic profiling, Kim Rossmo has assisted federal agencies in high-profile investigations including the D.C.-area sniper in 2002 and the Green River, Wash. and Baton Rouge, La. serial killers.
“We had people on rooftops and in alleyways and behind Dumpsters. They were hitting so repetitively, we knew it was a matter of time before we caught them and we had a pretty good idea of the areas where they were going to hit. His information on that turned out to be pretty accurate,” Police Chief Howard E. Williams said.
Police are reviewing evidence in the other burglaries to determine if Vega and Paez can be connected. They also are working with police departments in other cities such Devine, where a spate of burglaries stopped at about the time the pair moved to San Marcos.
Paez has sold thousands of dollars of apparently stolen goods at San Marcos pawn shops, Williams said, which they believe came from out-of-town burglaries. Neither suspect was employed, the chief said.
“They apparently were supporting themselves with these burglaries,” he said.