A Petersburg man pleaded guilty Thursday to breaking into an Ettrick business just three days after he was indicted, in the first case of its kind in Virginia based on the use of an invisible marking fluid known as SmartWater CSI.
“I’ve never heard of that before,” Chesterfield County Circuit Court Judge Frederick Rockwell III said as he listened to prosecutor Jennifer Nesbitt’s summary of evidence against the defendant, Christopher S. Gaines, 52.
“It’s a new thing,” Nesbitt replied. “This is my first case with it as well.”
After Gaines was taken into custody, police were able to confirm his involvement in the April 11 burglary of the Ettrick Deli on East River Road after officers used a special ultraviolet light to observe his clothing. It was covered with yellowish-green luminescent smears of SmartWater — a colorless and odorless liquid nanotechnology coded with a unique signature for each user.
As Nesbitt explained to the court, Gaines was sprayed with the water when he entered the business. A spraying device had been installed weeks earlier after two previous break-ins at the business.
The Chesterfield Police Department is so far the only law enforcement agency in Virginia to use the technology, but SmartWater is widely used in dozens of localities in the Miami-Dade County, Broward County and Palm Beach County areas in Florida, where it was first introduced into the U.S. in 2013 from England.
Chesterfield police Chief Jeffrey Katz essentially imported the idea from Boynton Beach, Fla., where he served as police chief before being hired by Chesterfield in January 2018. SmartWater is used in more than 70 neighborhoods in Boynton Beach, a company official said.
According to Nesbitt’s summary in the Gaines case, officers responded to the Ettrick Deli at 11 p.m. in response to an alarm triggered at a window in the deli’s shed. The shed, which is used as the deli’s office, has a locked door and is completely enclosed by a locked gate and fence.
Upon arrival, officers observed a person inside the shed and ordered him to come out. The man exited but then climbed onto the roof, ignoring commands to come down. He eventually led officers on a foot pursuit before they were able to apprehend him at gunpoint, Nesbitt said.
Police recovered $162.67 on the man’s person, along with a flashlight. The man was wearing a mask pulled up over his nose and ears as well as a fishing cap pulled down over his eyes.
“After being advised of his Miranda rights, the defendant stated that he was going there to look for food because he was homeless,” Nesbitt told the court. “He made no further statements and did not explain why he did not take food that was present in the shed.”
The officers then scanned Gaines with the UV light, and “the substance luminesced on his person, clothing, personal items and the money he had stolen,” Nesbitt said.
Defense attorney Erin Ranney said Nesbitt fairly summarized the evidence against her client, but noted the mask he was wearing was the type typically used only during the COVID pandemic. Nesbitt said it was dubious that Gaines was using a mask for that purpose, noting he was in a shed alone at 11 p.m.
In exchange for his guilty plea, Nesbitt withdrew two accompanying charges of felony petit larceny third offense and wearing a mask to hide his identify. Sentencing is set for Nov. 4.
Nesbitt told the court that Gaines has a “lifelong record of committing crimes” but they are largely burglary, theft and credit card fraud offenses — not violent crimes against people.
Although discretionary state sentencing guidelines have not yet been calculated, the prosecution estimates that Gaines faces a punishment of between 2 years and 7 months at the low end to 5 years and 4 months at the high end.
The judge allowed Gaines to remain free on bond with a GPS tracking device attached to his leg so he can continue to work two jobs, one as a cook at a restaurant and one at a BP service station.