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Rash of Organized Weekend Robberies Target Luxury Stores Across the Bay Area

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The entrance to a Nordstrom store in a shopping plaza.
The entrance to the Nordstrom store in Walnut Creek, where a group of some 80 people descended on Saturday, stealing thousands of dollars of merchandise. The incident was among a string of Bay Area thefts over the weekend that authorities say are organized robberies. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Groups of people, some carrying crowbars and hammers, smashed glass cases and window displays and ransacked high-end stores across the Bay Area over the weekend — including shops in San Francisco, Walnut Creek, San Jose and Hayward — stealing jewelry, sunglasses, suitcases and other merchandise before fleeing in waiting cars, among a series of incidents that sparked heightened safety concerns about the upcoming holiday shopping season.

The thefts are believed to be organized actions carried out by locally run criminal networks that recruit mainly young people to steal merchandise in stores throughout the country and then sell it in online marketplaces.

“We’re not talking about someone who needs money or needs food. These are people who go out and do this is for high profit, and for the thrill,” said Ben Dugan, president of the Coalition of Law Enforcement and Retail, a national trade group.

The weekend robberies started in San Francisco on Friday around 8 p.m., when a group of people broke into a handful of high-end retail shops in and around Union Square and the Westfield mall, a shopping district popular with tourists that was teeming with holiday shoppers. Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Bloomingdale's were among the stores targeted.

Videos of the chaotic scene, posted on social media by witnesses, showed police officers dragging one suspect from a waiting car and others running with merchandise in their arms or dragging suitcases.

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The people who participate in the robberies get paid between $500 and $1,000 to take as much as they can back to organizers, who then send it to other parts of the country, Dugan said.

“Crew bosses organize them, they’ll give them the crowbars, and in some cases even rent them cars, or provide them with escape routes or a list of products to actually go out and steal. It looks very chaotic but it's actually very well organized,” he said.

Jim Dudley, a criminal justice lecturer at SF State, and 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department, said the smart-phone videos of the incidents, uploaded to social media platforms, appear to almost serve as “inadvertent training films.”

“People are seeing that it's done fairly quickly, that the likelihood of success is high, that the merchandise, if selected carefully, can be in and out before a 911 call can get to police to get response there,” he said. “So it's not surprising that it's happened all over as we've seen it.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom said his office met with retailers over the weekend, who asked for more police patrols.

“You will see substantially more starting today, in and around areas that are highly trafficked and coming into the holiday season Black Friday in shopping malls,” he told reporters Monday at a San Francisco event.

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Newsom, who recently signed legislation targeting organized retail theft, said the California Highway Patrol immediately stepped up patrols along nearby highway corridors following this weekend's thefts, and asked local officials how they could help.

He said this year’s state budget included millions of dollars for local officials to address retail theft, and his January budget proposal will include an “exponential increase of support to help cities and counties.”

“My business has been broken into three times this year,” said Newsom, who owns a wine store in San Francisco. “I have no empathy, no sympathy for these folks, and they must be held to account.”

Until recently, most organized robberies had been happening in suburban stores near highways where police response is often slower, said Dugan, of the Coalition of Law Enforcement and Retail. But last year, he said, groups of people took advantage of nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis and ransacked stores in a number of cities, including San Francisco and Oakland.

“It was meant to look like looting, but it really wasn’t. It’s a criminal entity employing other people to steal for them so they can profit by selling it online,” he said.

The National Retail Federation said a recent survey found stores nationwide are seeing an increase in organized thefts and aggressive behavior among perpetrators.

Following Friday's thefts, San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott said officers arrested six men and two women, all young adults, and seized two guns and two vehicles. Most are residents of the Bay Area and some are known to San Francisco police, Scott said at a news conference Saturday, adding that he expects more suspects will be arrested in the coming days.

Car access to the streets in Union Square will soon be limited and the area will be flooded with police officers, Scott said.

“We will do what we need to do to put an end to this madness,” he added.

The following day, about 80 people, some wearing ski masks and wielding crowbars, ransacked a Nordstrom at an outdoor mall in Walnut Creek, stealing as much merchandise as they could before fleeing in waiting cars, police and witnesses said.

Two employees were assaulted and one was hit with pepper spray during what police called a “clearly a planned event” Saturday in the city's downtown shopping district. Walnut Creek police said they arrested two suspects and recovered a gun.

Similar scenes of young-looking people, clad in hoodies and masks, ransacking stores were repeated Sunday in jewelry, sunglasses and clothing stores in Hayward and San Jose, police said.

In Hayward, about 10 people walked into a jewelry store inside a mall Sunday evening, smashed glass cases, and stole items. Witnesses said the thieves then got into waiting cars.

Around the same time, a group of people ransacked a sunglasses shop and a Lululemon store in San Jose, stealing nearly $50,000 in merchandise, San Jose Police Sgt. Christian Camarillo said Monday.

“We’re not going to call this looting,” Camarillo told the Mercury News. “This is organized robbery.”

The group that targeted the Lululemon store consisted of two women and two men, including one who had a “visible gun in his waistband,” he added.

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This post includes reporting from KQED's Natalia Navarro.

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