Members of a Bay Area theft ring believed to have stolen merchandise worth millions of dollars from retailers have pleaded guilty in the case and its leader is expected to be sentenced to several years in prison, California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta announced Friday.
The admissions by Danny Louis Drago, the purported head of the ring, and four others came two years after authorities opened an investigation into the operation, in which the group resold products stolen from Target, CVS and other stores, officials said.
"Today's announcement should be a warning shot to anyone who is thinking about participating in organized retail theft and committing brazen crimes with no regard for the safety of workers, our businesses and our community. You will be held accountable," Bonta said.
Bonta's warning came amid growing concern over a recent surge in thefts and robberies involving large groups of people who mobbed luxury stores in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
A team of investigators from the state Department of Justice, San Mateo County Sheriff's Office and California Highway Patrol broke open the Drago case during raids in 2020 on warehouses in which about $8 million of stolen merchandise was discovered. Later, $1.8 million in cash was recovered from bank accounts associated with the organized crime group.
San Mateo County Sheriff Carlos G. Bolanos said the investigation found an international network of criminals that was "moving millions of dollars in stolen merchandise." He said retail thefts were a main component of the scheme, which also involved car thefts, home burglaries and robberies.
"Smash-and-grabs, luxury store shakedowns, the pillaging of department stores: The organized retail theft we are seeing throughout the country and in California is unacceptable," Bonta said at a news conference outside a CVS store in San Mateo County that was among the places targeted by the group. "Organized criminals resell their stolen goods and in many cases use the money to fund additional illicit activity."
Bonta's office worked with San Mateo County prosecutors on the case.
Under the terms of his plea agreement, Drago is expected to be sentenced to six years in state prison early next year, Bonta said, although the judge has the final say in the punishment. Drago and the others pleaded guilty to an array of theft-related felonies, including conspiracy to commit organized retail theft, receiving stolen property and money laundering.
The recent string of high-profile thefts and robberies has led to other charges. San Francisco Dist. Atty. Chesa Boudin charged nine people with felonies in a series of shoplifting incidents, including a smash-and-grab operation at luxury stores in the city's Union Square neighborhood.
In that incident, dozens of people broke into a Louis Vuitton store, grabbed the brand's high-priced goods and escaped in cars parked outside. The shoplifting caravan cut a swath through San Francisco’s high-end boutiques, stealing more than $1 million in merchandise, police said.
In Los Angeles, 14 people have been arrested in connection with a series of similar thefts in the last few weeks.
Nationwide, retail organizations have warned of a rise in the amount of merchandise being stolen as many states have changed shoplifting laws to raise the amount a thief needs to steal to be charged.
Along with Drago, Edgar Geovany Robles Morales, Isis Vasquez Villanueva, Jose Villatoro and Michelle Renee Fowler were arrested in September last year and later pleaded guilty.
Fowler was sentenced to three years in state prison, but the judge agreed to spare her from that time behind bars if she completes two years of supervised probation and spends 364 days in San Mateo County jail.
Morales and Villanueva were sentenced to probation. Villatoro was sentenced to probation and 30 days in jail.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.