'Salt and Pepper Bandits' case reminds seniors to stay vigilant

Photo: Sarah.249 via Creative Commons

They were dubbed the "Salt and Pepper Bandits" because they targeted senior citizens and sometimes even donned disguises to look like seniors. Now this crime spree is being used to teach Montgomery County residents how to avoid similar crimes.

The bandits once left a Montgomery County Target store after racking up thousands of dollars on a senior’s swiped credit card. For two and a half years Tamara Claiborne and John Washington preyed on countless seniors, always over 70, throughout the D.C. area while they shopped at grocery stores, using the same scheme that nabbed Tish O’Brien’s wallet.

“She put it close to my chin and asked me if it had any peanut products in it because she was allergic to peanuts and I started to try and read it… went to reach for my glasses in my purse and she pulled it back, ‘That’s alright, it’s the wrong product anyway, thanks,’ and she walked away,” says O’Brien.

Washington walked away with O’Brien’s wallet. Security cameras caught Claiborne in disguise charging thousands of dollars of gift cards.

“They were looking for elderly individuals who were relatively defenseless and who were trusting,” says John McCarthy, Montgomery County State’s Attorney.

But this wasn’t just any pickpocket operation. They used a variety of disguises like hats, wigs and sunglasses to obscure their faces. They even borrowed an idea from James Bond with a license plate cover they controlled with a switch inside the getaway van.

Their spree of thefts targeting seniors at grocery stores finally ended when they slipped up and someone got their license plate number. Washington is already behind bars serving ten years for his crimes in Maryland. Claiborne will be sentenced in January.

Now the case is being used to educate seniors on why they need to stay vigilant.

“It’s a matter of drawing your attention away,” says McCarthy.

Speaking to residents at Leisure World in Silver Spring, McCarthy reminds the crowd that crimes targeting seniors are up 20 percent in the last decade.

“This is a prime time for people who want to prey on vulnerable people including seniors in our community, take advantage of them. We are trying to make them aware when you are out during the holiday season, don’t leave your purses unattended.”

“I learned to keep my purse closed and my hands on the handle of the purse and the cart,” says O’Brien.