SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - A violent and well-organized group of thieves that stole $20 million worth of merchandise from high-end malls around the country has led to arrests in San Diego and other cities, the U.S. attorney's office said Wednesday.
22 people were named in the indictment which details 38 thefts at stores including Victoria's Secret, Hollister Co., Abercrombie & Fitch, Banana Republic, and Express.
The crimes happened at Fashion Valley, North County and Plaza Bonita malls in San Diego County. Stores in San Clemente, Ventura, Oxnard, Camarillo, City of Industry, Orange, Mission Viejo, Northridge, Canoga Park, Las Vegas, Frederick, MD, Vancouver, WA, and Schaumberg, IL.
Investigators said defendants from the San Diego area formed crews of thieves to steal merchandise for resale. Team leaders selected stores to target, scouted the stores, and choreographed the actions of other team members using cell phones and hand signals. Mules hid the stolen merchandise in shopping bags with metallic linings to defeat the anti-theft sensors. Blockers would prevent store employees from seeing thefts by obstructing their view, distracting them or physically preventing them from responding.
Investigators believe the items were resold at a store in Tijuana.
The thefts led to violence in San Diego County.
In 2012, several defendants drove vehicles through a crowd while leaving a theft at the Hollister store in Fashion Valley.
In 2013, a defendant grabbed a loss prevention officer's throat and threw her to the ground after a theft at Abercrombie & Fitch at Plaza Bonita in National City.
The teams operated for more than a decade, prosecutors said.
More than 250 officials from local, state and federal law enforcement agencies made 12 arrests Wednesday. Three defendants were already in custody but seven are now considered fugitives, investigators said.
Investigators searched three homes in Lemon Grove, Chula Vista, and San Diego and seized $30,000 in cash along with a dozen large trash bags full of new clothing.
The U.S. Attorney's office of Southern California listed the defendants: