They came to Baltimore not to pick horses, but the pockets of horse-racing fans, police allege.
That was the motive, authorities say, behind the actions of an alleged Chicago-based pickpocket ring that was in Baltimore last weekend for the Preakness and is accused of stealing credit cards, cash and jewelry from unsuspecting travelers and others.
Two women and two men were taken into custody by police at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on Monday night as they waited to board a plane to Chicago. Police say they tracked the suspects after one of them allegedly bought $60 in merchandise at an airport shop using a credit card that had been reported stolen the same evening.
The foursome has been charged with eight pickpocket incidents at the airport, the BWI light rail station, Pimlico Race Course, Fells Point and elsewhere in Baltimore, said Cpl. Gregory Prioleau, a spokesman for the Maryland Transportation Authority Police.
Stolen credit cards in their possession also apparently linked them to a March theft during national college basketball tournaments in St. Louis and to thefts in Chicago and Indiana, Maryland police said.
"We believe we have cracked a major fraud ring," Prioleau said. The number of crimes "is growing as we speak."
Arrested were Shenell S. Griffin, 31, La Shaun C. Rickman, 35, and Donald L. Davenport, 36, all of Chicago, and Anthony B. Dillon, 41, of no fixed address. All four have criminal records in several states and are believed to make up a roving pickpocket ring that targets well-traveled cities, police said.
The suspects were being held on at least $250,000 bail in Anne Arundel County jails yesterday. They face numerous credit card fraud, theft and identity theft-related charges. Dillon, who police say has a criminal record in at least 12 states, also was charged with giving a false name to investigators.
Detective Cedric Mitchell of the Washington Metro Transit Police, a nationally recognized expert on pickpockets, said he was not surprised to hear that people were targeted during Preakness weekend.
Pickpockets are "very intelligent individuals, very well-informed about what's going on," Mitchell said. "They read the newspaper and follow the big events."
Police were alerted to the alleged ring by an unusually high number of theft reports at BWI since Friday, when a 55-year-old woman reported her jewelry stolen. Four wallets also were reported stolen at the airport.
Although police at BWI and other Washington-area airports say pickpockets are not a major problem for them, Mitchell said airports and train stations are popular targets of pickpockets.
"The great thing about airports is that most people are about to board and go somewhere else," Mitchell said. "By the time they check their pockets, they're going to report the crime in another city, and that's a clean getaway."
Chicago and New York are the country's major pickpocketing hubs, the detective said. He estimated that a group of four could clear $100,000 from a day at Preakness, and more if it was adept at identity fraud.
A break in the case came Monday evening, when a 72-year-old Santa Rosa, Calif., woman who was on her way home after attending the Preakness reported her wallet was stolen. As she was waiting for an airport shuttle bus at the light rail station in Linthicum, a man offered to help her with her luggage, then bumped into her and snatched her wallet from her purse, she told police.
When investigators called a credit card company to help the woman cancel one of her charge cards, they learned that someone had just bought merchandise at a BWI store using the stolen card.
At the store, an employee described three people who were present when the credit card was used. They had bought two T-shirts and a pair of boxer shorts, worth a total $60.
Police tracked down the suspects in the airport's C pier as they waited to board the Chicago flight.
Police said they confiscated several items, including a laminating machine, fraudulent identification cards and a typewriter. The suspects are accused of using the laminating machine to affix their photos to stolen credit cards, police said.
They also recovered an antique wedding ring belonging to the Santa Rosa woman.