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California touts major organized crime bust amid recent spike in retail thefts

State officials, including Governor Gavin Newsom, have rejected arguments that California’s criminal justice reform efforts are to blame for a recent spike in brazen shoplifting and smash-and-grab retail theft incidents.

(CN) — Amid a recent spike in “flash mob”-style retail burglaries, California’s top law enforcement official on Friday announced prison terms for defendants in one of the largest organized retail crime busts in state history.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta revealed the sentencing of five defendants involved in a sophisticated retail theft ring during a press conference with San Mateo County law enforcement officials at a CVS parking lot in Burlingame Thursday.

“Today’s announcement should serve as a warning shot to anyone thinking about participating in organized retail theft and committing brazen crimes with no regard for the safety of workers, our businesses and our community,” Bonta said.

The announcement comes about two weeks after packs of thieves ransacked high-end boutiques, including Luis Vuitton, in San Francisco’s Union Square on Nov. 23, stealing more than $1 million in merchandise. That was followed by flash mob-style burglaries at a Nordstrom department store in Walnut Creek and similar crimes targeting Best Buy stores in Minnesota and multiple retail outlets in Chicago and Los Angeles.

“This is the exact type of organized criminal activity we’re seeing today, and it’s really important to be focused on freezing out that secondary marketplace where the stolen goods can be resold for a profit to these organized criminal groups,” Bonta said.

A joint task force that included the California Department of Justice, San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department and California Highway Patrol spent years investigating the retail theft enterprise that was taken down last year. In September 2020, law enforcement officers raided the the crime ring operators' warehouse, homes and storage facilities, where they recovered $8 million in stolen merchandise from stores such as CVS, Target and Walgreens. They also found $85,000 in cash and eventually seized nearly $1.9 million from various bank accounts controlled by the defendants.

A criminal complaint filed this past March accuses five defendants of more than 64 counts related to the sophisticated theft ring operation.

The alleged ringleader, Danny Louis Drago of Concord, is expected to spend six years in prison for conspiracy to commit organized retail theft, money laundering and a special white-collar crime enhancement for stealing more than $500,000 in property. The six-year term is stipulated as part of his plea agreement. His sentencing hearing is scheduled for Feb. 25, 2022.

“We have what we believe to be the key criminal figures behind this operation,” Bonta said.

Another defendant, Michelle Renee Fowler, was sentenced to three years in prison for organized retail theft, receiving stolen property and a white-collar enhancement, but her sentence will be suspended pending the successful completion of two years' supervised probation, including 364 days in San Mateo County Jail.

Other defendants — Edgar Geovany Robles Morales, Isis Vasquez Villanueva and Jose Villatoro — received sentences ranging from 30 days in jail to one year of probation with electronic monitoring.

San Mateo County Sheriff Carlos Bolanos said his department is committed to working with law enforcement partners, such as the California Department of Justice, to hold criminals accountable and keep businesses, residents and visitors safe.

Last week, district attorneys for six Bay Area counties — including San Francisco, San Mateo, Alameda, Marin, San Joaquin and Santa Clara — announced a joint effort to investigate and prosecute retail theft crime rings.

“The recent premeditated retail theft mob action in multiple cities across Northern California is intolerable and will not be accepted by District Attorneys, law enforcement officials and our community members,” San Mateo District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said in a statement last week.

Some have blamed California’s efforts to reform the criminal justice system and reduce its prison population on the recent spike in retail thefts. In 2014, California voters approved Proposition 47, which raised the threshold for felony theft from $400 to $950.

In recent public comments, Bonta and California Gov. Gavin Newsom rejected theories that criminal justice reform initiatives like Proposition 47 have helped fuel a rise in retail thefts. The governor said prosecutors should use existing laws to go after retail thieves by filing misdemeanor charges or stacking multiple charges in felony complaints against repeat offenders, according to the Associated Press.

In San Francisco, District Attorney Chesa Boudin recently filed 128 charges against a woman accused of stealing more than $40,000 from a Target store in 120 separate shoplifting incidents. The woman, Aziza Graves, was recently released from jail by a San Francisco Superior Court judge with conditions to submit to GPS monitoring and stay away from Target stores, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Boudin, a former public defender who promised to end mass incarceration and reform the criminal justice system, is facing a recall election in June organized by opponents who claim his “soft-on-crime” policies have made the city less safe.

Under pressure to show his administration is responding to the recent rash of retail thefts, Boudin announced last month that his office is filing felony charges against nine people suspected of ransacking the Luis Vuitton store and other high-end boutiques in Union Square on Nov. 19.

“We have filed felony charges in every single arrest related to these incidents, and we are working with SFPD to identify others involved so we can hold them accountable,” Boudin said in a statement last month. “Our office is also committed to dismantling the fencing networks that make this type of crime profitable.”

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Categories / Business, Criminal

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