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Hotel room heists have guests questioning security on Las Vegas strip

Room invasions reported while guests are sleeping
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Posted at 12:28 PM, Apr 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-26 14:28:12-04

LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Amid the lights and luxury of Las Vegas Boulevard rises the Encore Tower Suites, a favorite indulgence for California couple Ambria and Justin Luettjohann.

"We decided to take off on New Year's Day just for a little mini vacation for the weekend," said Ambria. "And we are very used to staying at the Wynn. It's kind of been our favorite place."

It was their first vacation since the pandemic broke out.

"An opportunity to do something after being sheltered for such a long time during the quarantine of 2020," said Justin.

Due to restaurant restrictions in early January, they ordered room service. When they were done, Justin says he took the tray outside.

Ambria did the same thing she does every night at home before going to bed.

"I take my rings, my watch, any jewelry and set it all in one spot."

When she awoke the next morning, she walked a few yards to the kitchen area where she'd left everything.

"I went to go put on my wedding ring and it's not there!"

"And that's when I noticed my stuff was gone too and I was like, wait a minute, where's my watch?" Justin added.

That was gone too. As was all their cash from the previous night. A $37,000 loss according to the police report, including their Rolex watches and Ambria's ring.

Right out from under their sleeping noses.

"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!" said Ambria.

In the police report, a Wynn corporate investigator tells Las Vegas Metropolitan Police the room lock log showed the suite door was opened from the inside at approximately 1:49 a.m., which could mean the door was not shut all the way.

Justin says that's not the case.

"I had locked the French doors with a deadbolt. There wasn't one of those flip-over (latches) because of the style and design of the door."

But there's no record of someone coming into the room from the outside.

"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," said Security Expert Adam Coughran, who spent 19 years as a police officer in Orange County, California with the tourist-oriented policing unit.

"And these types of crimes, believe it or not, we would see quite a bit what we commonly call 'door pushers' or folks just walking down hotel hallways pushing doors to see did they latch correctly? Were they locked right?"

That would be after a would-be thief was able to bypass layers of hotel security.

At the Encore Tower Suites, Justin describes, "It's got a private access. You've got to have a key to get into that and then just to get to the elevators you've got to have another access key to get to the elevators and then to go up. So, we thought that was a very, very secure location."

Their police report cites a second event with a similar M.O. that happened 10 minutes after their room was hit.

"When we do come across these types of crimes then we start keeping track of them to see if they're connected," said LVMPD Lt. Jose Hernandez of the Convention Center Area Command.

He said a connection is likely in this case based on the close timing of the two Jan. 2 crimes.

"The majority of these crimes are typically committed by suspects and not necessarily hotel staff," Hernandez explained.

One exception: Jeff Berk. He and his wife stayed at the Encore in November 2017 when Carlos Valle worked there as a guest room attendant.

As detailed in court records, Jeff explains how Valle "Took one of the hotel keys that were our spare keys that we left in the room behind us, and he took it to craft and plan and execute a crime days later."

Valle and his accomplice, Jesus Cervantes, were both convicted of felony grand larceny to the tune of over $100,000.

"What it says to guests is don't take the false comfort that there's a security level that can't be permeated," said Berk.

Police are still investigating the Luettjohann's case and no one from the Wynn would go on camera.

Vice President of Security, Investigations and Crisis Management Todd Fasulo wrote, "There is nothing more important to those of us who have worked to make Las Vegas an appealing tourist destination post-pandemic than guest safety. Creating a safe environment involves ensuring each suspected theft is reported to Metro. Because they handle criminal investigations, they have all available information on suspects, etc. We also conduct an internal investigation of all incidents and turn that information over to Metro as well. We routinely check room and suite doors to ensure that, if the guest closes the door, they shut properly."

Coughran says there are ways around that.

"Number one, 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."

He says thieves have also been known to electronically hack the door lock or take the simple route of renting a room themselves.

"And they spent hours on the floors over the course of the evening into the early morning hours committing crime."

You might think, with all the cameras in casinos, these crimes should be easy to solve.

"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," says Coughran, which is why most cameras are on the gaming floor, in lobbies and elevator areas, but likely not in hallways on the guest room floors.

We asked the Wynn about that and they said, "As a matter of practice, we don’t publicly disclose the locations of our cameras or what areas are covered by them. Of course, we assure our guests that their individual rooms, for their privacy, are not covered by cameras."

KTNV has been tracking hotel room heists for years. After the Berks' case in 2017 at Encore, a thief used a key card to break into a couple's hotel room at the Venetian in 2019 and stole $4,000 worth of personal items.

And just last month, a police report was filed by locals after a staycation at the Cosmopolitan. It details another alleged in-room theft while the guests were sleeping. Thieves reportedly stole their bag, wallets, credit and debit cards, Apple watch and room key. According to the police report, there's no video surveillance available.

The Cosmopolitan said in order to protect guest privacy, they "Do not comment on details surrounding an individual's stay."

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.

"We didn't put our stuff in the safe," Justin said. "We didn't. We felt that in a locked room while we're there was pretty darn secure in a very, very secure -- in our opinion -- hotel room in Las Vegas."

Jeff Berk sued the Wynn. His case ended up in arbitration where he got $25,000 for emotional distress.

On the criminal side, LVMPD says these investigations take time and often hinge on thieves pawning property they can trace back to the victim.

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

Another way you can protect yourself while traveling, Coughran advises, is to "Travel with the toddler alarms that you can hang on the door."

Justin's taking it one step further.

"I'll probably, going forward in staying places, have to set up my own cameras internally in my room so I know what happens when I'm either not there or even when I'm sleeping."

All the victims we spoke to hope their stories convince others to take safety into their own hands.

They say they won't come back to Las Vegas anytime soon because they feel the hotels are more concerned about protecting their reputation than their guests.

This story was originally published by Darcy Spears at KTNV.