A new breed of brazen takeover robbers hitting California luxury retailers, raising ire

Union Square visitors look at damage to the Louis Vuitton store on Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, after looters ransacked businesses late Saturday night in San Francisco. (Danielle Echeverria/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)
Union Square visitors look at damage to the Louis Vuitton store on Sunday after thieves ransacked businesses late Saturday night in San Francisco. (Danielle Echeverria / San Francisco Chronicle via AP)
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The mayhem began Friday night, when thieves smashed a Louis Vuitton storefront window in San Francisco's Union Square and ransacked the store. Criminals also targeted about a dozen nearby stores for theft and vandalism, police said, including a Burberry and Hermes store, as well as an eyeglass shop and cannabis dispensaries.

On Saturday night, the raid of the Nordstrom in nearby Walnut Creek was even more audacious: Just before closing time, some 80 people jumped out of a pack of cars, flash-mob style, and swarmed the aisles, many escaping with merchandise. Two employees were assaulted, one of them pepper sprayed.

And just after midnight Sunday, criminals used a sledgehammer to smash storefront windows at a Louis Vuitton and Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, police said, but patrol cars arrived to scare the thieves off before they could get inside. Late Monday, another group attempted to break into the Nordstrom at the Grove shopping center in Los Angeles before leading police on a high-speed chase.

Organized retail theft is nothing new. Over the last few years, rings have targeted Rolex watches, fine jewelry and Apple products at multiple locations.

But a weekend in which high-end stores in famed shopping districts were hit by large and seemingly sophisticated theft rings has generated national attention as the holiday shopping season begins and retailers are hoping shoppers finally return as the coronavirus crisis eases.

Gov. Gavin Newsom described the incidents as “people smashing and grabbing, stealing people’s items, creating havoc, terror in the streets.” Newsom said he was speaking not just as governor but as a business owner.

“My business has been broken into three times this year,” said Newsom, who owns a hospitality company including wine shops and restaurants. “I have no empathy, no sympathy for these folks, and they must be held to account.”

The reaction to the thefts has followed now-familiar political lines, with some conservatives blaming California's criminal justice reform policies.

But though the incidents were terrifying to those caught in the middle of them, they don't point to a massive increase in such crimes.

Robberies in 2021 are up 3.2% in Los Angeles compared with 2020, but are 14.1% lower than in 2019. In and around Union Square in San Francisco, robberies fell nearly 5% from 2020 to 2021, while burglaries fell 2.3%.

Still, the lawlessness met with outrage in liberal San Francisco, with some keenly aware of the message it might send.

"What happens when people vandalize and commit those level of crimes in San Francisco? We not only lose those businesses, we lose those jobs," Mayor London Breed told reporters. "We lose that tax revenue that helps to support our economy that helps to support many of the social service programs that we have in the city in the first place. We can't allow that to happen."

Newsom said the state would be more aggressive in helping to catch and prosecute retail-theft rings, and will allocate more money for the job in next year’s budget.

He touted the successes of the state’s retail crime task force, which he reestablished in July amid criticism about his record on criminal justice and a recall campaign that derided him as “soft on crime.”

Newsom said the task force had conducted 773 investigations and recovered nearly $20 million worth of stolen merchandise.

The California Highway Patrol would immediately increase its presence “in and around areas that are highly trafficked” as the holiday shopping season reaches it apex, the governor added.

Greg Totten, executive director of the California District Attorneys Assn., said most shoplifting cases can be charged only as misdemeanors, even when it is clear that organized retail theft is at work.

“There are now huge hurdles to overcome to demonstrate it rises to the level of organized retail theft,” Totten said. “These poor retailers are suffering. We are not just talking about the big stores and luxury retailers, but small businesses.”

LAPD Capt. Jonathan Tippet, who leads the department’s Robbery-Homicide Division, said it appeared there were multiple groups committing such robberies, some of them copycats inspired by social media.

He said the robbers targeting high-end stores have been emboldened by the perception that penalties for crime have dropped. “They are finding this a lucrative enterprise, with consequences that they don’t think are that bad,” Tippet said.

Tippet said it is a trend the LAPD is seeing along with follow-home robberies and street holdups. “Sooner or later, someone is going to get shot and killed,” Tippet said.

Though Los Angeles as a whole has not seen a surge in robberies, some individual neighborhoods have been hit hard. In the Wilshire Division, which includes much of the hip Melrose Avenue retail corridor, there has been a 20% jump in robberies since 2020.

Beverly Hills police launched a controversial crackdown last year on Rodeo Drive after merchants complained about rising crime.

The effort is now the subject of lawsuits alleging police deliberately targeted Black shoppers. Ninety people were arrested in the crackdown. Documents obtained by The Times showed 80 of them were Black, four were Latino, three were white, two were Asian and one was classified as “other."

Rachel Michelin, president of the California Retailers Assn., said this weekend's thefts were dominating talk in the industry.

“A week ago I would have said it’s the supply chain and the ports, and now this is the big one,” Michelin said. “I’ve heard from legislators, I’ve heard from the governor’s office. ... It’s frustrating because we’ve been kind of ringing the bell on the fact that this is a growing problem in California.”

She said she was working with legislators to target the online marketplace where stolen items are bought and sold. “We need to shut down where they can sell these items,” Michelin said. “If you see some of these products sold at dirt-cheap prices, they’re probably stolen.”

Rick Caruso, a prominent Los Angeles developer whose shopping centers include the Grove, said in an interview hours before the incident at his mall that organized retail heists must be taken seriously.

“The minute you say, ‘We’re going to tolerate some level of crime,’ you send a signal to criminals to test the system," said Caruso. "The more success they have, the more emboldened they become.”

So far, three people have been arrested in connection with the thefts at the Walnut Creek Nordstrom. Police said they are reviewing surveillance footage to identify other culprits.

In the case of the Louis Vuitton raid in San Francisco, video shows a man running from the store with armfuls of clothes pressed against his chest. Nearby, police run toward an apparent getaway car and pound on it with batons, eventually pulling an occupant out and making an arrest.

At least eight people have been arrested, with surveillance footage expected to lead to more arrests.

San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott said the city is adjusting traffic patterns near high-end stores so thieves could not simply park in front, commit a crime and jump into the getaway car. He said he would also put enough officers in vulnerable areas to prevent a mob from overwhelming store security.

“We are going to do everything we can to put a stop to this craziness,” Scott said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.