Suspects in $20-million theft ring appear in court - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Suspects in $20-million theft ring appear in court

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SAN DIEGO (NEWS 8/CNS) — Nine of the 22 people indicted in a massive shoplifting ring appeared together before a federal judge Thursday.

Prosecutors allege they've been working together for 10 years, stealing $20 million dollars worth of clothes and merchandise from major retailers nationwide; then transporting them to Mexico where they were sold at a luxury boutique.

Authorities from local, state and federal law enforcement agencies made 12 arrests and searched multiple homes Wednesday as part of a raid to break up the large theft ring, according to officials.  

The group of thieves has stolen merchandise from shopping malls in San Diego and around the country, according to an indictment unsealed Wednesday which charges 22 people.  

In addition to the 12 arrests, three defendants were already in custody and seven were fugitives as of 1 p.m. Wednesday.  

During the searches of homes Wednesday in Lemon Grove, Chula Vista and San Diego, agents confiscated approximately $30,000 in cash plus more than 10 large trash bags of new clothing with merchandise tags and security devices attached, including items from Victoria's Secret, Guess and Express and brands such as Calvin Klein, Armani and Kenneth Cole.  

Agents also reportedly found piles of new Louis Vuitton shoes and boxes full of security sensors that had been removed from clothing. 

Authorities say well-organized the theft ring's teams operated consistently for over a decade.

The indictment describes how various members of the theft ring had specific roles in order to choreograph the removal of merchandise from stores.  

The thiefs reportedly used “booster bags,” which are shopping bags with metallic linings designed to block anti-theft sensors.    

The indictment lists 38 thefts which occurred at clothing stores in Escondido, San Diego, National City and other California cities and outside the state in Las Vegas, Nevada; Frederick, Maryland; Vancouver, Washington; and Schaumburg, Illinois. 

In November 2012, according to the indictment, defendants Jose Damazo Herrera, Robin Macias and others drove vehicles through a crowd while fleeing from a theft at a Hollister store in the Fashion Valley Mall in San Diego.

In March 2013, a defendant grabbed a loss prevention officer by the throat and threw her to the ground while running from a theft at Abercrombie & Fitch at the Plaza Bonita Mall in National City, according to the indictment.

The indictment alleges that on Oct. 23, 2013, defendant Maria Angelica Mendez Valdivia had $482,275 worth of merchandise -- stolen from at least 57 retailers -- which was being transported to Mexico.

The thieves sold the stolen merchandise to an alleged "fence," defendant Sara Portilla, who is accused of selling it from a store she operates in Tijuana, according to the indictment.

“The mall is supposed to be a safe place for families to shop, eat and enjoy themselves,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Alana Robinson. “Instead, a prolific and violent group of thieves has stolen millions of dollars in merchandise as well as peace of mind from mall employees and customers." 

San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman praised the efforts of law enforcement to bring down the crime ring. 

“Crimes that cross jurisdictional lines can be challenging for any one agency to investigate,” said Zimmerman. “It takes a partnership and commitment from agencies at all levels to collapse the most sophisticated crime rings that exist today. I am so proud of the efforts in this complex case to bring these thieves to justice.”   

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