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Hotel room heists on the rise with guests targeted while sleeping

The crimes have a number of elements in common.
Interior renderings of a hotel room in Las Vegas
Posted at 10:34 AM, Jul 15, 2023

Las Vegas vacationers ripped off in their rooms while they slept.

It's a scary scenario Scripps News Las Vegas first reported two years ago, but the crime seems to be on repeat on the Las Vegas Strip.

The crime we reported on in 2021 remains unsolved, but the circumstances are eerily similar to the batch of burglaries at the center of a recent bust.

Some of what Scripps News Las Vegas learned in the police report gives keen insight for anyone planning a vacation or staycation, such as which hotel rooms are more likely to get robbed, and why you should think twice before using the "Do Not Disturb" sign.

"We were terrified when we woke up at the thought that there was somebody in our room," said a Southern California man who asked to remain anonymous. The case he's involved in is still open, and the accused burglar is out on bail.

He and his wife were among six Paris hotel guests whose rooms were hit on the same night in early June. Their cash was stolen while they slept.

"It's that feeling of being violated," he said.

Police records show hotel security had seen a spike in room burglaries over the past two months.

The typical M.O.: A burglar gains entry into a room, vandalizes the peep hole, steals only cash and jewelry, and leaves the victim's property near the room's front door.

"I got up to use the restroom about 6:00 a.m. in the morning and I noticed her purse was next to the door—kind of like over by the entryway door where the bathroom is—and it was on the floor. She said, 'Your wallet is down here on the floor, too'!"

All the money in both the wallet and purse—about $250 in cash—was gone.

"The first thing my wife said was, 'What would've happened if we would have woke up and caught him?'" he said.

Another guest did.

Police records show that same night, a couple was awakened around 4 a.m. by the sound of the hotel room door opening. The man called out asking who was there. He got no reply, and then the door closed. He told security he did have the deadbolt locked and no one else had access to his room keys.

Nothing was taken, but that's not the case for victims in four other rooms who lost from $500 to $2,400.

The police report contains another odd detail about the crimes. One of the victims told police that in addition to the missing money, there was an item missing from the mini bar that he did not consume.

The victim we spoke to found an unopened Modelo beer in the room safe, which neither he nor his wife had placed there, and which he also says was not there when they went to sleep.

"As frequent as this occurs, especially in Las Vegas at the bigger resorts, I think it's time for them to add cameras, at least into the hallways," said the victim we spoke to.

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Paris security had been stymied by the recent rash of room burglaries, having no leads because there are no video cameras in the hallways to capture entries into the rooms.

"Cameras in hospitality—it's a fine balance between weighing the privacy of the guests, weighing the security of the hotel, but also weighing the liability and risk to the hotel," said security expert Adam Coughran, who spent 19 years as a police officer in Orange County, CA with the Tourist-Oriented Policing Unit.

"While in-room burglaries are not necessarily uncommon anywhere in the world, no less on the Las Vegas Strip, what I do find interesting is the manner in which they're getting into the rooms, and the fact that people are actually still in their rooms," Coughran said.

Room 1474 was one of the six hit at Paris the night of June 2. Only it was no ordinary room.

It was a trap.

The bait room was set up to appear occupied with suitcases—one of which held a wallet filled with $600 of the casino's cash—and several other items of value placed around the room.

Hidden cameras sent a live video feed to security in the room next door. They set the bait and caught Robert J. Black--a two-time convicted felon for conspiracy to commit robbery and attempted burglary in 2017.

Security took Black into custody after watching him enter the bait room and grab the wallet from the suitcase. He'd used a hotel towel to prop the door open while inside and had money on him that matched the amounts other guests had reported stolen.

"I think he had a master key to get into the amount of rooms he was able to access," the victim we spoke to said.

The arrest report shows Black did have a key registered to a guest in a suite where multiple people were staying. That guest told police all keys were accounted for, they didn't give anyone a key, and did not know a Robert Black.

"I don't want to insinuate anything, but it seems like an inside job," the Southern California victim said.

"The majority of these crimes are typically committed by suspects and not necessarily hotel staff," said LVMPD Lt. Jose Hernandez in 2021, when we spoke to him for the story of California couple Ambria and Justin Luettjohann.

"Maybe I'm naive to think that in my own room when I'm going to sleep, I'm safe, but that's the expectation!" Ambria said.

The couple's suite at the Encore was broken into and the crime was never solved.

They lost $37,000 according to the police report, including cash, their Rolex watches and Ambria's ring.

All of it was stolen while they slept.

"I had locked the french doors with a deadbolt," Justin said.

The guests at Paris told police they all had their doors locked too.

When Black was arrested, he had a flat blade screwdriver which police say he likely used to disable the deadbolt.

Coughran says there are other ways, too.

"You could have easily used an under-the-door tool. Essentially, a tool that slides underneath the door that allows the door mechanism to be opened from the inside, which would also bypass the deadbolt."

Police found a folded-up privacy sign outside one of the rooms robbed at Paris. Authorities learned the plastic sign can be used to open hotel suites by sliding it between the two double doors, releasing the door lock mechanism.

"When we do come across these types of crimes, we start keeping track of them to see if they're connected," Lt. Hernandez said in 2021.

Ambria and Justin hope the current investigation at Paris might solve their crime from two and a half years ago at Encore.

The police report notes a number of similarities and a very distinct M.O. for the recent burglaries:

- The peep holes were tampered with

- All rooms were entered between 3:00 - 4:40 a.m.

- All were what police call "hot prowls," meaning the victims were inside the rooms

- All rooms except one were suites with double door entries

- All rooms were located closest to the elevators, down the right side of the hallways

- All rooms were in the same wing of the hotel, which would only require one elevator and one stairwell to connect the floors

"I think going forward, my wife and I have learned that we need to bring an alarm device that we can manually hook up to the doorknob, or a motion sensor, or something that will alert us because we were both sound asleep when this happened," the victim said.

Coughran recommends traveling with toddler alarms that you can hang on the door.

Lt. Hernandez added, "Take photos of your expensive valuable items. Take note of any serial numbers."

We also spoke to Walter Kimble, a retired police chief who now works as a security consultant, specializing in tourism safety.

Kimble said, "Effective security is layered security, so you're not relying on one system or one device. With layers, it takes more time and hardens the target area, making a thief likely to move on."

Kimble recommends traveling with a portable door lock, like DoorJammer or Addalock, whether you're staying at a hotel or vacation rental property.

He says we are all responsible for participating in our own security and a lot comes down to carelessness with room keys. "Think of your room key like it's your house key and don't leave it laying around," Kimble said. "If a would-be thief finds a key, they can then use a black market device to create encrypted data to enter rooms."

Tips for travelers:

* Check to make sure the door is locked when you leave the room

* Always use the flip lock when going to sleep

* Use the key drop when you check out if it's in view of hotel personnel, or, best case scenario is to take room keys with you and shred or cut them up when you get home

* Lock interior doors when going to sleep if you're in a suite

A spokesperson for Caesars Entertainment, which owns Paris, declined comment, referring us to metro. Metro wouldn't talk about the Paris cases either, citing an ongoing investigation.3

Nevada's innkeeper statute says hotels are not liable for theft of any property a guest leaves in a room where they have access to a safe, none of which were being used when the crimes were committed.

Despite that, the victim we spoke to says Paris did work with him to make amends.

"They asked if we wanted a comped weekend there, and I was like, 'I do not want to stay there again. Why would I want to step foot back in a hotel casino where we were robbed?'"

Instead, and in exchange for a signed release of all claims, Paris ended up fully compensating the victims for the amount of $250.00 that was missing from their room, plus $500.00 in Free Slot Play.

As for Robert Black, he is facing 19 charges, most of them felonies. His preliminary hearing is scheduled for October 23.

We reached out to his lawyer who declined comment as the case is still pending.

This story was originally published by Darcy Spears at Scripps News Las Vegas.