Twenty-two people were charged in a massive retail theft ring that robbed more than $20 million worth of high-end merchandise from shopping malls in San Diego and across the country.
Federal authorities announced a multi-year investigation that led to the discovery of a well-organized and violent group of thieves, according to an indictment unsealed Wednesday.
While searching the suspects' homes, agents uncovered about $30,000 in cash along with a dozen large trash bags stuffed with new clothing.
The clothes carried merchandise tags and security devices still attached from brands such as Victoria's Secret, Hollister Co., Guess, Express and Abercrombie & Fitch, and brands such as Calvin Klein, Hurley, Armani, Adidas, Kenneth Cole and Puma.
Agents also discovered piles of brand new Louis Vuitton shoes and boxes filled with security sensors that had been removed from clothing.
"There has been a group of individuals that have been smuggling, basically sending people out across the country, to steal merchandise to send it back to San Diego to sell down in Mexico," said Special Agent David Shaw, who was in charge of the Homeland Security Investigation.
More than 250 officials from local, state and federal law enforcement agencies arrested 12 suspects in connection with the theft ring, while searching three homes in Lemon Grove, Chula Vista and San Diego.
“Homeland Security Investigations, together with its law enforcement partners, has worked tirelessly to investigate and ultimately dismantle this theft ring,” added Shaw.
Homeland Security executed federal warrants in Mountain View. Officers dressed in Border Patrol uniforms, armed with assault rifles, pulled up in front of a house near 39th Street and Logan Avenue. They appeared in SWAT vehicles and "Bearcats" with their weapons drawn.
By 1 p.m., the authorities had taken one suspect into custody, and others in the home who are undocumented immigrants but not associated with the thefts.
In addition to stealing high-end goods, the criminal ring intimidated witnesses, according to the U.S. Attorney's office. That included throwing a rock at a window to try to intimidate a witness, and knocking over a baby in a stroller. They also grabbed a security guard by the neck in National City's Plaza Bonita.
Well-organized teams of thieves from San Diego would roam retail stores throughout the United States and transport the merchandise across state lines to sell in Mexico, according to the U.S. Attorney's office.
The theft ring operated consistently for more than a decade. The team leaders assigned each member a specific role. They would select stores to target and scoured their shops.
According to the U.S. Attorney's office, they would use cell phones and hand signals while Mules covertly stole merchandise out of stores using "booster bags." Those are special shopping bags with metallic linings designed to sneak through anti-theft sensors.
After that, the thieves would hand over the stolen merchandise to a female suspect in Tijuana, who is accused of selling the contraband in Mexico.
Nine of the defendants in custody are scheduled to make their first appearance in court Thursday morning at 10 a.m. in federal court.
Eight suspects connected to the ring remain outstanding.