Las Vegas Sun
Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011 | 2 a.m.
To the unsuspecting passer-by, the people in a nearby store aisle might not spark curiosity. They’re browsing for goods, seemingly unaware of each other’s existence.
But when the right moment strikes, police say these organized retail thieves transform into a fast-acting team: One swipes bundles of merchandise, while others serve as lookouts.
In a matter of minutes, they’re gone — along with sometimes thousands of dollars of merchandise — and off to hit their next target, police say.
“It’s not what people typically view as shoplifting,” said Sgt. Will Seifert, of Metro Police’s property crimes unit in the South Central Area Command. “These are teams that work together, usually with two or as many as four, five, six (people), and they come in with a designed plan.”
Enter the Retail Apprehension and Prevention team, or RAP for short. The new undercover initiative operates on a similar premise: Plainclothes officers work in teams, blending in as customers while scouring stores for the crime rings, Seifert said.
It’s a hunting game as officers discreetly track the suspects from one store to another, watching as they steal hordes of goods, police said. Once officers determine the suspects have established a pattern, they drop their shopper façades and make arrests.
The RAP team, Metro’s first planned effort to combat organized retail theft, has arrested 11 people and recovered nearly $12,000 of stolen merchandise since its debut shortly before Thanksgiving, Seifert said.
Police said the following suspects were arrested on counts of burglary: Luis Silos, 22; Josue Barrios, 22; Melissa Renee Ramirez, 23; Beulah Mae Walker, 55; Karen Denise Walker, 44; Sandy Roberto Conesavidea, 25; Yussef Ruiz, 21; Brian Guerrero, 33; Victor Delgado, 18; Jazmin Ficklin, 18; and Chelsee Rodriguez, 19.
Seifert said the undercover operation formed after Las Vegas retailers told police organized theft was becoming a bigger problem — a point the National Retail Federation solidified with its 2011 Organized Retail Crime Survey.
The retail trade association cited Las Vegas for the first time in its list of top 10 metropolitan areas affected by organized retail crime, according to the report. The NRF said the survey found that 95 percent of retailers nationwide reported they had been victims of theft crime rings in the past year, a 6 percent increase.
“This time of the year is the perfect environment for them because they’re looking for the clerks to be busy helping other, normal customers,” Seifert said. “They take advantage of that.”
The 11 suspects arrested worked for five separate retail theft crews and struck a variety of stores, such as Gap, Banana Republic and Hollister, Seifert said. Each crew allegedly burglarized at least four retailers in a span of 40 minutes to an hour and a half, he said.
In the process, one crew stole almost $4,500 worth of clothing, he said.
“They just keep moving until they’re stopped or until they get enough items to go back out and resell it,” he said.
That’s how the ripple-effect problems related to organized retail crime occur, said Lt. Susan Shingleton of Metro’s property crimes bureau.
“It is the one thing that funds anything bad you can think about,” she said. “It funds prostitution, human trafficking, it funds other organized crime activities, homicides … whatever you can think of.”
Las Vegas’ image of excess doesn’t help the situation. One crew arrested admitted they traveled from El Paso, Texas, specifically to target Las Vegas retailers, Seifert said.
Police say retail theft crews’ structure often mirrors a cartel — with one head honcho making decisions for a hierarchy of “workers.” A woman arrested by the RAP team told officers someone paid her $100 for every bag she could fill with stolen clothes, Seifert said.
“It’s all about making money,” Shingleton said.
Police say the RAP team, which consists of one sergeant and 15 trained officers, will continue its undercover operations after the holidays, as long as retailers keep asking for help.
“You can imagine if you’re the retailer and you’re losing that much money on a daily basis, it affects us,” Seifert said. “That cost then gets passed back on the consumers.”