Men convicted in home-invasion series face life in prison

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SAN DIEGO -- Two men who took part in a series of home-invasion robberies in northern San Diego, including one in which a woman was tied up and sexually assaulted, were convicted Monday of multiple counts of burglary, robbery and conspiracy to commit a crime.

Thomas James Smith, 27, and Aaron Rico III, 22, each faces life in prison when they are sentenced Aug. 17.

After a trial that lasted nearly a month, Smith was found guilty of 30 charges and Rico was convicted of 27 counts.

Smith has a 2008 robbery conviction from Juvenile Court and a 2014 conviction for burglary. He was on probation at the time of the 10 break-ins in early 2016 in Mira Mesa, Sorrento Valley, Carmel Mountain Ranch, Sabre Springs, Scripps Ranch and Rancho Bernardo.

Both he and Rico were also convicted of sexual penetration with the use of force.

Deputy District Attorney Jalyn Wang told a jury that Smith and Rico were part of a robbery crew dubbed the "Open Door Bandits," so named because in most of the break-ins, the robbers gained access to homes through an unlocked door.

Wang said that Smith and Rico were two of the major players in the robbery crew.

A third major player, Stephen Ramon Gomez, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 years, eight months to life in prison.

Wang said the home-invasion series began the night of Jan. 23, 2016, when Smith, Gomez and Shawver used garage door openers they found in cars to get into two residences in Mira Mesa, where they stole items including an Xbox gaming system.

A man returned to his residence in Carmel Mountain Ranch at about 1:20 a.m. on Jan. 26, 2016, after taking a friend home and saw that his house was being ransacked, Wang said. The man chased one of the robbers, but could not catch him, Wang said.

The DNA of Smith and Gomez was found on items left at the scene, according to Wang.

Three nights later, on Jan. 29, 2016, the bandits gained access to a home in Scripps Ranch through an unlocked door and robbed a family at gunpoint, yelling, "Where's the money? Where's the jewelry? Where's the gold?" Wang said.

Smith, Gomez, Rico and Harvey were charged in that break-in, Wang said.

On Jan. 31, 2016, a woman was awakened at gunpoint in her Sorrento Valley home, tied up and sexually assaulted by one or two of the defendants, according to the prosecutor. The perpetrators took jewelry off the woman's body and threatened to shoot her.

Wang said Gomez pawned the woman's wedding ring and his DNA was found on a pillowcase on her bed.

On Feb. 5, 2016, Smith and Rico broke into a home in Rancho Bernardo through an unlocked door and held a couple at gunpoint while ransacking the residence, Wang told the jury.

The night of Feb. 11, 2016, four homes in  Carmel Mountain Ranch and Sabre Springs were broken into, including three in the same neighborhood, the prosecutor said.

In one robbery, a barking dog alerted a sleeping couple to intruders, and the wife's 911 call forced the suspects to flee, Wang said.

In another break-in, the robbers tied up a family -- including a 2- year-old who had his wrists taped together -- and spent an hour ransacking the home before leaving, the prosecutor said.

Smith's attorney, Deputy Public Defender Damian Lowe, said that once police determined the crimes were connected, they started to follow a number of suspects, not including his client.

Lowe said "significant" mistakes were made in the investigation of the robbery series.

He told the jury the case would come down to "what evidence is going to prove beyond a reasonable doubt as to who did what?"

Deputy Alternate Public Defender Matthew Mohen told jurors they needed to separate what Rico did, as a lookout, from what others did as went into the homes. Mohen said Rico would not have expected a robbery to turn into a sexual assault.

Four other defendants, Aaron Rico V, Victor Harvey, Robin Shawver and Jordan Wilson, also pleaded guilty and have been sentenced.

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