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An unrelated arrest by the Chicago Police Department on Sunday led to a state task force this week seizing millions of dollars’ worth of goods stolen from retailers in what Attorney General Kwame Raoul described as an organized retail crime operation.
Raoul announced the raid in a news conference Friday, calling it the “first major bust” by the Illinois Organized Retail Crime Task Force overseen by his office. That statewide public-private collaboration includes retailers, online marketplaces, law enforcement agencies and state’s attorneys.
“The task force brings together law enforcement from federal, state and local agencies, retailers, online marketplaces, to share information and resources to identify and prosecute criminal enterprises frequently behind these well-organized schemes that can sometimes be mistaken for isolated incidents of retail theft,” he said.
The task force seized four semi-truckloads of goods found after a search warrant was served on eight storage units at two separate locations.
Chicago Police Chief of Detectives Brendan Deenihan said the bust announced Friday started with a beat officer who made an unrelated arrest on a gun charge. That suspect was charged with a crime, but the retail theft investigation is ongoing, he said.
“So I really want to compliment everybody who’s standing behind me but also a beat officer who made an arrest and said, ‘Hey, there’s some something wrong here. There’s something different, you know, this guy’s got some stolen items in his car,’” Deenihan said. “Then we get our retail crime team involved. And then the communication really starts with the attorney general’s office, and we’re able to recover these items before they go missing.”
While Raoul said a complete inventory was ongoing, the task force seized tens of thousands of items, including apparel, beauty products, furniture, food items and electronics from multiple nationwide retailers. Raoul said they’re worth millions of dollars.
It took a team of 15 AG investigators and law enforcement officers nine hours to unpack all of the items that were recovered, Raoul said.
The task force was launched in response to smash-and-grab incidents and other retail crimes in which several individuals clear out retail merchandise from stores in a matter of minutes. Downtown Chicago has seen several such incidents, including at luxury handbag retailers and other high-end stores.
But Raoul said it’s a nationwide problem.
“This is something that’s evolving for law enforcement nationally,” he said. “I’ve spoken to (AG) colleagues in California … and in Michigan and they’re sort of following our lead and establishing similar task forces within their state. So this is evolving, the way that law enforcement is being pulled together to collaborate and share information, because we can’t do it alone.”
Raoul also said the schemes are more sophisticated than the smash-and-grab videos that circulate online. For example, the loot uncovered this week appeared to have been stolen “at different points along the supply chain,” he said.
“There’s a well-organized secondary market,” he said. “Our goal is to disrupt the criminal enterprises that engage in the overall scheme and send a message to these criminal operations that we will identify them and the destruction they cause to our communities.”
Raoul said that often the people seen on videos committing retail theft are not the “kingpins” behind the organized effort.
“Frequently, the criminal enterprises behind these crimes are connected to other crimes, such as the drug trade and human trafficking,” he said.
Raoul said the “brazen” acts his office is investigating differ from someone “trying to inconspicuously put something in their purse.” In response to a question about prosecuting retail crime, Raoul said a bust like the one announced Friday does not “lend itself” to the type of debate as to whether a smaller retail theft would be punished as a misdemeanor or felony.
“These are very brazen acts where, quite frankly, any prosecutor that knows the Illinois Compiled Statutes can find plenty of charges to levy against these criminal actors,” he said.
The Friday bust was proof of a level of organization that investigators did not have previously, he said.
Deenihan said the retail theft operations were done by criminal networks, “and gangs are involved.”
“The goal is to start looking at these as long-term complex investigations to make the community feel safer, the retailers feel safer, and this team has done a lot of work to do that,” he said.
The bust drew praise from the Illinois Retail Merchants Association.
“This seizure is about more than recovering lost goods, it’s about protecting our communities and sending a strong message that these crimes will not be tolerated,” IRMA President and CEO Rob Karr said in a news release. “By working together, we can better understand how these perpetrators operate and work to dismantle these criminal rings that steal tens of billions of dollars a year, using profits from thefts to fund other illicit activities such as illegal firearms purchases, while also depriving local governments of sales taxes needed to fund important services we all rely upon.”