Staff writers

HERCULES -- What began as a petty theft -- two small-time criminals trying to buy items at a discount cigarette store using counterfeit $20 bills -- led Hercules police to a much bigger discovery: a cache of stolen mail and documents from across the Bay Area and the state.

According to police, it began with the arrest of 27-year-old Justin Conlon of Martinez and 25-year-old Brandon Thomas-Harris of Hercules, who tried to use the phony money to purchase items from Cigarettes Cheaper in the 1500 block of Sycamore Avenue shortly before 3:15 p.m. on Tuesday.

Officers tracked them down after they left the store and said they found Thomas-Harris holding three counterfeit $20 bills and a black briefcase in the back seat of a truck that contained other stolen documents.

On Wednesday, detectives with a warrant searched a home in the 2300 block of Redwood Road and arrested Hercules residents Paul Pena, 36, Carlos Rivera, 63, and Silvia Solorzano, 54.

Conlon was held on a $25,000 felony warrant out of Napa County charging him with possession of stolen property and will be charged with the same crime in this case because of the items in the truck, police said.

Thomas-Harris, who police say tried to make a purchase at the cigarette store with at least two of the counterfeit bills, was arrested on suspicion of burglary for entering the cigarette store with the intention to commit theft. He also is expected to be charged with possession of counterfeit money, passing counterfeit money and possession of stolen property after the inventory check of the truck uncovered a "large number" of items belonging to victims living in 20 cities spanning four counties, police said.


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Police said they believe numerous people were burglarized at the hands of those arrested. In sifting through mail found in the truck and in the home, police determined so far that victims hailed from Concord, Walnut Creek, Lafayette, Danville, San Ramon, Berkeley, Oakland, El Sobrante, Moraga, Pleasant Hill and Orinda.

More mail was found from as far as Napa, Mill Valley, St. Helena and even Torrance, in Southern California. At least seven victims of the thefts were from Hercules.

"We still have a whole lot of mail to go through, to track down (victims)," said Officer Connie Van Putten.

Pena, Rivera and Solorzano were all arrested on suspicion of possession of stolen property, possession of a controlled substance and possession of a controlled substance for sale; police said their search of the Redwood Road home uncovered drugs, additional stolen property and non-counterfeit cash.

All five suspects were booked at County Jail in Martinez on bail amounts ranging from $5,000 to $45,000.

Contra Costa prosecutors have charged Conlon with seven counts of stolen property and Thomas-Harris with commercial burglary, Van Putten said.

More changes were likely to be issued as investigators and the District Attorney's Office reviewed the case, Van Putten said.

Contact Rick Hurd rhurd@bayareanewsgroup.com. Contact Katie Nelson at knelson@bayareanewsgroup.com.