Sting nabs 22 people in high-end mall thefts

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SAN DIEGO - A well-organized and often violent group of thieves has stolen more than $20 million worth of merchandise from high-end shopping malls in San Diego and around the country for over a decade, according to a federal indictment unsealed Wednesday.

During searches Wednesday, law enforcement officials confiscated approximately $30,000 in cash plus about a dozen large trash bags full of new clothing -- with merchandise tags and security devices still attached -- from retailers 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 found piles of new Louis Vuitton shoes and boxes full of security sensors that had been removed from clothing.

"The mall is supposed to be a safe place for families to shop, eat and enjoy themselves," Acting U.S. Attorney Alana W. Robinson said. "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. With today's action, we are protecting customers and businesses both physically and economically, and we are restoring and preserving the safety of our community gathering spots."

The indictment -- which charges 22 people -- describes how defendants from the San Diego area formed crews of thieves to steal merchandise from retail stores throughout the United States and transport the merchandise across state lines for sale in Mexico.

The indictment describes how "team leaders" would select stores to target, then assign "mules" to get the stolen merchandise out of the stores in bags with metallic linings designed to defeat anti-theft sensors.

"Blockers" would prevent store employees from seeing the theft by obstructing their view with clothing or by physically preventing the employees from responding, according to the indictment.

The indictment alleges that in November 2009, defendant Sergio Manuel Montano Nava knocked over an infant in its stroller and injured the child's father to avoid being arrested for a theft at a Hollister store in 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.

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