In the latest development regarding a rash of property crimes that began over the summer, Petaluma Police arrested members of a local crime ring Friday for allegedly stealing $22,000 in gift cards, left in a vehicle, that were intended for a school fundraiser.

According to Petaluma property crimes detectives, the three Petaluma men arrested, Robert Reid, 20; Andre Rojas, 22; and Zack Fortune, 18; are part of a crime ring which has been operating for at least several months and is responsible for multiple thefts throughout the city.

Their method of thievery, known as "car-hopping," consists of picking a neighborhood and trying all the door handles to vehicles parked in driveways and on streets.

"They have been trying door handles on vehicles during the nighttime hours, gaining access to the unlocked ones, and taking any items they find," said Property Crimes Detective Paul Gilman. "This has included sunglasses, wallets, checkbooks, change from ashtrays, anything they found. We think they are responsible for a large number of auto burglaries in Petaluma."

In the case of the stolen gift cards, Petaluma resident and Meadow School parent Heidi French had been in charge of selling the cards to support her child's school through her position with the PTA. The PTA had purchased the cards from numerous Sonoma County businesses.

According to police, French claims that after she finished loading the gift cards into her car at approximately 5:15 a.m. Thursday morning, she locked her car and went back into her home. When she returned soon after, French found the car door open and the cards gone. Police said they were unable to determine how the suspects gained access to the car, and that the three men admitted that they had been opening unlocked car doors and stealing items from open vehicles. "We weren't able to identify this crime ring as being responsible for any forced entry to any vehicles," said Gilman.

Waugh School District Superintendent Robert Cmelak said Tuesday that French, as the PTA member in charge of handling these gift cards that can net the school between $40,000 and $60,000 per year, spends countless hours selling them to parents in an effort to raise funds for Meadow School. He added that the police department's work in solving the case was "spectacular."

"We paid for these cards in advance and to have so much effort put into saving our little school the money, and keeping us well-informed, has been incredible," said Cmelak.

The theft was reported to police early Thursday morning, when French found the gift cards missing. After police launched an extensive search and investigation, an officer was called to the Kohl's store on North McDowell Boulevard for an unrelated petty theft. Police Officer Lance Novello responded to the call, and happened to encounter Reid and Rojas while on the premises. Police said Novello located several of the stolen gift cards in Reid's and Rojas' possession — though they didn't explain how he came to do so. Novello arrested both men on suspicion of possessing stolen property.

As officers continued to investigate and follow leads, detectives became aware of another suspect, Fortune, and executed a search warrant at his home on the 200 block of Hill Boulevard in Petaluma. Upon searching his property, police said they discovered more of the stolen cards, along with prescription medication. Fortune was also arrested on suspicion of possessing stolen property and illegally possessing prescription drugs.

Of the approximately 900 gift cards that were stolen, police have recovered about 700 so far, along with merchandise purchased with the stolen gift cards. "We've recovered about $17,000 worth of cards and property so far, and have entered the remaining gift cards into a national database as being stolen," added Gilman.

The case remains an ongoing investigation for the remaining gift cards and any other possible suspects involved.

This particular burglary comes on the heels of a spike in home, commercial and vehicle break-ins that police have been investigating since the summer. According to Police Lt. Tim Lyons, the department recently circulated flyers to the West Haven and Country Club Estates neighborhoods, warning residents of the increase in local thefts and break-ins.

"Since Jan. 1, citywide we've had 17 residential burglaries, 20 commercial burglaries and 3 attempted commercial burglaries, along with 48 auto burglaries," said Lyons. "That's just from the beginning of the year and the number is probably higher because some are unreported and others are reported as vandalisms."

Lyons added that the spike in property crimes is not unique to Petaluma. "It's going on throughout the whole Bay Area, though no one has a great explanation as to why," he said.

While Gilman believes that busting the crime ring that stole the gift cards has solved a large number of recent property crimes, both he and Lyons agree that not all of the recent rash of thefts can be tied to this particular group. "We don't think they're all connected," said Lyons. "It's all over the map so we're continuing to try to gather information on other suspects operating locally."

The department is warning citizens to lock their doors, their vehicles and to be aware of people who are in their neighborhoods that look out of place. "We'd just like to reiterate for the citizens of Petaluma the importance of locking their doors and letting us know when something doesn't seem right with someone in their neighborhood," said Gilman.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)