He'd always been acutely intelligent. "[In his studies], he barely had to exert himself," one friend told Del Río's hometown newspaper. More telling, though, was his penchant for gamberradas, minor acts of hooliganism and vandalism. Instead of outgrowing his passion for criminal behavior, Del Río plunged headlong into it, often between boxing training sessions. Using Photoshop and databases of birth and death records, he created fake driver's licenses with real names. He then applied for credit cards, using them to purchase electronics, which he would later fence. But this grew tiresome. As far as he was concerned, he was accruing "a whole bunch of junk" to sell for half the price. It wasn't worth the hassle. Burglary? That was different. "More satisfaction, more adrenaline, more everything," he says.
In 2004, Del Río began pursuing this rush in earnest. A 30-year-old olive-skinned nomad, he found himself a new family, a band of west-side crooks from L.A.'s ethnic Romani community. He apprenticed under two women who taught him the art of distraction burglaries: The "looker" keeps watch, the "doorman" lures the homeowner from the house, and the "ghost" strikes. Half the time, Del Río worked as the doorman; half the time, he was the ghost. But, he says, he grew unhappy with his teachers and their methods. The Romani mostly targeted senior citizens suspicious of banks. Del Río knew he could be more effective on his own. More important, he wanted to hit wealthy folks.
"I was disgusted with society," he says. "I saw [it as] selfish, fake, and money-oriented. I separated myself from my family. . . . I would steal from the rich and help the poor."
But he did not help the poor. He helped himself. The architect's son, raised in a family of high achievers, had finally discovered his talent. Away from the Romani, he homed in on his own kind, breaking and entering with a boundless energy into the homes of well-heeled families like the one he'd left behind in Spain.
Most of the time his methods were instinctual and easy. He'd knock on the front door. If no one answered, he'd check the windows, then walk to the back of the house. He'd put on gloves and a headlamp and pop a lock or a window with a flathead screwdriver. Enter, loot, and leave. He reconnoitered neighborhoods dressed in workout clothes, probing residents for helpful tips. "The best tool I ever had," Del Río says, "was the human brain. Being able to read people's minds and being able to influence them, I was able to get into many places without tools, gather information, finish the job, and get away if caught, always without using violence." He was so good at talking his way out of trouble that despite being stopped by police patrols dozens of times, he claims, he shrewdly escaped being taken into custody. The only variables Del Río couldn't control were his luck and when it would run out.
On December 20, 2005, a man at a Public Storage facility mistakenly opened the locker of a promptly paying customer instead of the one belonging to a deadbeat. Inside were neatly stacked suitcases, bags, and paintings. The first bag was packed with guns and ammo. As the police would soon learn, the guns were stolen by Del Río, who liked to take them apart and study them. He brazenly practiced his marksmanship downtown at the Los Angeles Gun Club, a short drive from LAPD headquarters.
Stolen goods worth as much as $40 million were packed away in Del Río's storage
locker when it was discovered by the LAPD in late 2005.
The ATF arrived to claim the firearms. The police visited the locker the next day and took what was left. And what was left was astonishing: 74 watches, many of them Rolexes; 248 bracelets, most of them gold; 546 necklaces, pendants, charms, and chains made of precious metals and gemstones; 572 rings of every imaginable make; $150,000 in gold coins that a couple had saved to send their daughter to college; thousands of collectible stamps; 26 Swiss gold bars; and an Edgar Degas pastel of ballerinas later revealed to be fake, but at the time estimated to be worth $10.5 million. It took Detective Bill Longacre and seven of his colleagues a week to catalog all the evidence.
Longacre began matching stolen property with items from police reports. Painstaking work, but he had to locate victims, witnesses, to build a case. On the back of one charm bracelet, he found a first name—Steven—and a date. He prayed it was a birthday and started calling every Steven of a certain age in the vicinity of the crime scenes. This is how Marsha Kline, Steven's mom, got her jewelry back.