SAN DIEGO (CN) — California, which has led the country in so many things, has done it again — in shoplifting, according to an indictment accusing 22 people of stealing more than $20 million in merchandise from high-end malls nationwide to sell at a store in Tijuana.
Lead defendant Sara Portilla and 11 co-conspirators were arrested Wednesday, acting U.S. Attorney Alana Robinson said. Three defendants were already in custody and seven are fugitives.
About $30,000 in cash and a dozen large trash bags full of new clothes with security tags still attached were seized in raids on three homes in San Diego County, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Merchandise from stores such as Victoria’s Secret, Hollister Co., Guess, Express and Abercrombie and Fitch was seized along with new Luis Vuitton shoes and piles of security sensors which had been removed from clothing.
Prosecutors said the “highly organized” nationwide theft ring began as early as 2005 and used teams that included a leader, a mule and blocker, according to the 15-page federal indictment filed in August and unsealed Wednesday.
Leaders scoped out stores and goods they wanted to steal and choreographed the operation; mules scooped stolen merchandise into “booster bags” with metallic lining to defeat security sensors; blockers distracted store employees or obstructed their view of the thefts.
If necessary, the thieves used violence to escape: trying to drive over an Abercrombie and Fitch employee to evade apprehension, knocking over a baby in a stroller and injuring its father, and grabbing a loss prevention officer by the throat, among 38 “overt acts” listed in the indictment.
The teams hit malls throughout Southern California, in and around Las Vegas, and in Maryland, Washington state and Illinois, according to the indictment.
Homeland Security agent David Shaw said Wednesday that law enforcement agencies across the country used “old fashioned police work” to connect the dots in the cross-country theft ring.
When some of the defendants were arrested and charged and released from jail, they would “go right back to shoplifting,” Shaw said.
In an incident summarized in the statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, one woman was found on Oct. 23, 2013 with $482,275 in merchandise stolen from at least 57 retailers, en route to Mexico. The ring allegedly sold the stolen goods to Portilla, 39, of San Diego, who is accused of selling the stolen merchandise from a store in Tijuana.
Acting U.S. Attorney Robinson said her office prosecuted the thefts because it is “uniquely located” to coordinate the nationwide operation with its link to Tijuana.
The defendants face up to 10 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines. Several also face immigration charges.
Twenty of the defendants have addresses in San Diego County; one is from Georgia and one from Mexico. Their average age is 33.
The defendants are Sara Portilla, Maria Angelica Mendez Valdivia, Jose Mora, Julio Gabriel Lopez Moreno, Alejandro Madrinan, Araceli Razo, Eduardo Madrinan, Carlos Gomez Daza, Karina Yvette Saman Rojas, Juan Manuel Juarez Herrera, James Sanabria, Josue Antonio Damazo Herrera, Jose Damazo Herrera, Brandon Ramirez Salas, Jesus Raymundo Razo Del Angel, Jacob Palacios, Robin Macias, Giovani Razo Alvarez, Adrian Razo, Sergio Manuel Montana Nava, Vanessa Medina Munguia and Adrian Ulices Reyna Rodriguez.
The defendants in custody were to make their first court appearance Thursday.