When Solimar Rodriguez Gonzalez messaged her stepfather on Facebook last month asking for surgical masks and gloves, he assumed she wanted them—like just about everyone else in the world right now—for protection against coronavirus.
However, the FBI says her boyfriend, William Rosario Lopez, in fact used the highly sought-after protective gear to disguise his face and fingerprints during an eight-day crime spree that ended with the couple’s arrest on April 9.
Under normal circumstances, walking into a store wearing a surgical mask in the US would be grounds for suspicion. But with many people now wearing some sort of face covering to avoid catching or transmitting the novel coronavirus, more Americans than ever are obscuring their features when they leave home.
Thieves appear to have capitalized on this trend. They became eager early adopters, using surgical masks during the commission of various crimes, seemingly recognizing an opportunity weeks before the Centers for Disease Control on April 3 issued its first official recommendation to cover your face when going outside. Face masks are so coveted at this point they can sell on the black market at premiums of up to 1,500%.
“No one would be alarmed at this now, compared to just a month ago,” said retired NYPD detective sergeant Joseph Giacalone, who teaches police procedure at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, referring to the number of people wearing masks in public.
Lopez and Gonzalez appeared to understand this. Shortly before 10pm on March 18, a clerk at a Connecticut gas station was cleaning a coffee pot when Lopez, wearing a surgical mask and blue latex gloves, entered the store. According to a criminal complaint filed in Connecticut federal court, Lopez pointed a silver gun at the clerk, grabbed him by the collar, and marched him over to the cash register, hitting him in the back of the head with the weapon along the way. After the terrified clerk handed over $1,188, Lopez fled in a dark-colored Honda Accord.
Four nights later, Lopez—again in a surgical mask—allegedly robbed another gas station in the area, getting away with $200. Apparently disappointed with the paltry take, he kicked the clerk and ordered him to the floor before fleeing the scene. He then robbed two other nearby gas stations, getting away with $500 in the first but coming up empty-handed in the second.
He hit a fifth gas station a few days after that, carrying the same silver gun and again hiding his face behind a surgical mask.
“Because another customer was in the store, the masked male perused store shelves and picked up several items, including a box of saran wrap and fruit snacks,” the complaint says. “After the other customer left the store, the masked male approached the counter, pointed a small silver pistol at the clerk and demanded money.”
Police circulated the surveillance video among several different law enforcement agencies. The footage not only included clear shots of Lopez wearing a surgical mask during the robberies, but also a woman with bright red hair who appeared on camera shortly before two of them. After casing the place, the woman—Gonzalez—can be seen texting someone.
A New Haven cop eventually recognized the pair from an unrelated disturbance call. During that incident, police captured body cam footage of the two, the Honda Accord, and the car’s license plate number.
Surveillance video also caught them—in surgical masks—outside a Connecticut Walmart after store security accused them of shoplifting.
Gonzalez’s parents positively identified the couple for investigators, and showed them Facebook Messenger conversations in which Gonzalez asked for masks and gloves they figured she needed to protect herself from coronavirus.
“Call me cynical, but it occurred to me at the outset of the increase of people wearing face masks due to the coronavirus pandemic, there would be criminals who would capitalize on the situation,” retired FBI agent Dennis Franks told Quartz. “This must also create increased trepidation on the part of store clerks and other potential locations for robberies.”
Police arrested Lopez and Gonzalez last week. Lopez is now detained pending an April 23 court date. Gonzalez is under home detention, awaiting her next appearance in court, scheduled for April 30. Lawyers for the two did not respond to requests for further details. The Department of Justice declined to comment.