Cook County State’s Attorney and law enforcement partners announce arrests in Pre-Holiday Investigation targeting widespread retail theft

More than 50 people have been arrested and face charges in a pre-holiday undercover investigation that targeted organized retail theft rings, whose members are stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in merchandise from retail outlets throughout Cook County ranging from large suburban shopping malls to high-end boutiques along North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez announced. 

Operation “Whoville,” targeted individuals as well as persons operating in organized retail theft crews, who work together to steal product from retailers at great cost, and then pass along the stolen goods to major “fencing” operations who resell them for significant untaxed profits throughout Cook County and in neighboring counties and states.  According to investigators, the crews generally work in groups and they designate a time and location for the thefts, targeting retail outlets to shoplift particular merchandise.

The month-long intelligence and enforcement operation was coordinated by the State’s Attorney’s Regional Organized Crime Task Force (CCROC), a group of law enforcement and retail partners formed by State’s Attorney Alvarez last year to combat the growing crime of organized retail theft and fencing.   The investigative partners in the operation include the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agency, the U.S. Marshal’s Service, the Chicago Police Department, the Orland Park Police Department, the Schaumburg Police Department and the South Barrington Police Department.  The operation also received major support from private sector retailers including Target, JC Penney, Sears, Sam’s Club, Wal-mart, Limited Brands, Victoria’s Secret, The Gap, Banana Republic, Abercrombie, Dominick’s, Jewel, CVS, Toys R Us, Meijer and Macy’s. 

The operation, which began in mid October, involved a series of separate covert undercover sting operations at the Orland Square Mall in Orland Park, Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg and several stores along North Michigan Avenue in Chicago.  Stings were also conducted at large stand-alone retail stores as well.  As part of the stings, investigators from the participating agencies worked undercover at the locations to conduct covert surveillance on theft crews and professional shoplifters known as “boosters” and to move in and make arrests immediately after the thefts had occurred.  A major part of the operation also involved the collection of data and intelligence information on theft crews or boosters and their patterns, which will be analyzed and shared between the members of CCROC for use in future prevention and enforcement.    

A total of 59 offenders were arrested during the course of the operation and investigators estimate the total amount of merchandise recovered in the operation to be in the tens of thousands.   Merchandise recovered included name brand clothing, jewelry and cosmetics, over-the-counter medicines, baby formula and DVDs.  A crystal vase, valued at $5,200 was also recovered after being stolen from an upscale boutique at 900 N. Michigan Avenue.

Since the CCROC task force was formed last year its membership has grown to more than 800 participating law enforcement agencies and private sector retailers who are working to increase the prosecution of large-scale organized retail theft and fencing operations and sharing resources and intelligence throughout the Chicago Metropolitan Area and in neighboring states to prevent the crime. 

State’s Attorney Alvarez pointed out that organized retail theft and fencing has a direct impact on consumers on many levels, including driving up consumer prices and presenting potential dangers to consumer health and safety.  She also noted that the crime causes an extensive loss of much-needed sales tax revenues in the county and the state. It is currently estimated that Illinois loses $77 million in tax revenues each year as a result of organized retail theft and fencing.   

Alvarez said her office will continue to work with task force partners to crack down on this crime and she said that operations such as this should send a message to retail theft crews that they are being watched, particularly as the holiday shopping season approaches. 

“We intend to continue to use the intelligence we have gathered to be active and aggressive in the investigation and prosecution of this crime,” Alvarez said.  “Those that receive the greatest benefit will be the consumers of Cook County, who take a direct hit in their pocketbooks as a result of these crimes.”

Gary Hartwig, special agent in charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland  Security Investigations in Chicago, lauded the unique law enforcement partnership between federal, state and local agencies. 

“Recognizing that partnerships are essential, HSI is pleased to join forces with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office to disrupt and dismantle organized retail crime organizations and the illicit proceeds they generate,” said Hartwig. 

Orland Park Police Chief Timothy McCarthy said such partnerships are crucial for local police agencies, particularly for communities such as Orland Park with large shopping venues.

“Local police agencies are always being asked to do more with less, particularly in these trying times, and this partnership is crucial in helping our agency continue to effectively tackle the problem of retail theft on behalf of the citizens of our community,” McCarthy said.

Among those arrested in the operation were:

Phillip Mazurek, 65, of Skokie, who was arrested Nov. 18 in a sting in Chicago at 900 N. Michigan and charged with felony Retail Theft.

Andrew Owens, 22, of Chicago, who was arrested Oct. 18 in a sting at the Woodfield Mall and charged with felony Retail Theft. 

Della Nicholson, 46, of Chicago, who was arrested Oct. 27 in a sting at the Orland Park Mall and charged with felony Retail Theft.

The public is reminded that criminal charging documents contain allegations that are not evidence of guilt.  The defendants are presumed innocent and entitled to a fair trial at which the state has the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.