Out-Of-Control Shoplifting at the St. Louis Galleria

Chad Garrison, Riverfront Times (St. Louis), August 20, 2008

St. Peters alderman Don Aytes remembers well the fears some of his constituents expressed back in 1998, the year MetroLink supporters tried to bring light rail into suburban St. Charles County.

“I thought for sure it would pass, and then someone on the MetroLink campaign made the decision to advertise that the train would connect Mid Rivers Mall with East St. Louis,” Aytes recalls. “That pretty much killed it right there. Soon you had people saying MetroLink riders would come to St. Charles by train and leave by car—stolen car.”

Ten years later and a growing number of Saint Louis Galleria and Delmar Loop merchants worry that St. Charles voters may have been right: that maybe MetroLink actually enables criminals, especially teenage lawbreakers.

Ask virtually any store manager at the Saint Louis Galleria about shoplifting, and you’ll invariably get two responses: One, it’s out of control; and two, it’s gotten exceedingly worse since August 2006, when MetroLink opened a stop just 500 yards from the high-end shopping center.

In the first six months of this year, Richmond Heights police made 345 arrests at the mall. That’s nearly double the number of arrests made in all of 2005, before MetroLink opened its Shrewsbury line.

More alarming are the numbers of juveniles (kids under the age of seventeen) arrested at the mall. This year police are on pace to take 276 juveniles into custody for shoplifting and other offenses—a sevenfold increase over the 39 kids arrested at the Galleria in 2005.

“I know it’s not politically correct, but how else do you explain it?” comments a frustrated Galleria store manager who, like many Galleria shopkeepers interviewed by Riverfront Times, says her employer prohibits her from officially speaking for the company.

“Anyone can see all these people crossing Brentwood Boulevard from the MetroLink station,” the manager continues. “Most of them aren’t here to shop. They’re here to hang out and cause trouble.”

Mall workers say it’s not just shoplifting that’s causing problems. In November 2006 police arrested five juveniles and four older teenagers following a fistfight at the Galleria that involved dozens of minors.

Four months later in March, another fight in the mall—this one involving up to 100 teens—led to three more arrests and the Galleria imposing new sanctions on teenagers. The so-called “Parental Guidance Required” policy, put in place in April 2007, prohibits anyone under age seventeen from entering the mall after 3 p.m. on weekends without an adult chaperone.

“It’s not as bad as it used to be on the weekends,” states another store manager. “But come here any weekday while school is in session—it looks like there’s an entire high school class here for a field trip. Instead of going to school, they come to the Galleria.”

Now—eighteen months after the Galleria curfew first went into effect—many store owners in University City speculate the ban has resulted in pushing troublemakers six stops up the MetroLink line to the Delmar Loop. Police in University City confirm that they first noticed large groups of teens congregating in the Loop in June 2007, two months after the Galleria imposed its curfew.

In recent weeks dozens of those same teens have been implicated in violent attacks that have hospitalized people working and living near the light rail stations in the Loop and the nearby DeBaliviere neighborhood. On July 26 a group of at least twenty teens assailed a family as they left the platform at the Forest Park-DeBaliviere station. That same night another group, according to police, attacked a person at the Delmar station.

MetroLink officials contend that the same group of teens was involved in both attacks. Moreover, the transit agency vigorously denies that the commuter train has anything to do with the assaults in the Loop or the spike in shoplifting and juvenile misconduct at the Galleria.

“What we do for the Galleria is take them their employees and shoppers,” stresses Metro spokeswoman Dianne Williams. “With the Loop incidents, we and our passengers were the victims. These kids aren’t traveling there by Metro. They’re coming by car or walking. They’re not coming by Metro.”

Police testimony, however, tells a different story. The two seventeen-year-olds implicated in the group assault of the family were apprehended on the MetroLink platform. The teens told police they were on their way to their homes in Jennings and St. Louis City after spending the night hanging out near Loop restaurants and bars.

Several teenagers who gather at the Galleria and in University City connect MetroLink with the rowdy behavior. “We used to hang out in the Galleria, but when MetroLink opened it got too crazy there,” notes Johnnie Fields, a senior at Gateway High School who met with friends on the sidewalk of Delmar Boulevard on a recent weekend.

“We started coming to the Loop last summer,” says Corey Stewart Glaze, an eighteen-year-old student at CBC High School. “Then more and more people started coming. Now, it’s a lot of the same people from the Galleria who hang out in the Loop. It’s like you have two groups. There are people like us, and then there are the dropouts. I don’t know where, or if, they go school. But they’re ruining it for all of us.”

University City Police Chief Charles Adams says the possible tie between the Galleria’s curfew and the increased teenage crowds in the Loop has not escaped the notice of his officers.

“We definitely noticed an upswing, but to us it really doesn’t matter why they’re here,” comments Adams. “Our concern is that they behave themselves, which for teenagers is sometimes hard to do.”

Such was the case Saturday, August 2, says Adams, when a larger-than-normal group of teenagers converged on the Loop. Near midnight Adams and his officers started to enforce the St. Louis County curfew, which requires that anyone under seventeen be off the streets by 12 a.m. on weekends. Some of the crowd then crossed Skinker Boulevard into St. Louis City limits and ended up in front of The Pageant, the concert venue located a block from the MetroLink station.

“There must have been 400 teenagers,” estimates Tony Huelsmann, a bartender at the Delmar Lounge, which sits on the city’s border. “They streamed by our windows for fifteen minutes. The University City police had a K-9 unit out pushing the kids along, and it’s a good thing, in my opinion. These kids are ruining the neighborhood. You can’t walk the Loop without getting hassled by them. They clog the sidewalks and won’t get out of the way. I’ve heard numerous reports of them jumping innocent people.”

After arriving in front of The Pageant the crowd quickly turned violent, according to police. In an adjacent parking lot a group assaulted an employee of Pi Restaurant, at 6144 Delmar Boulevard, and robbed him of his cell phone. Minutes later a similar throng of unruly youths jumped another Pi staffer outside the restaurant.

Witnesses report a half-dozen police cruisers arriving minutes later, complete with wailing sirens and swirling lights. A police helicopter circled over the neighborhood. Captain Jim Moran, commander of the St. Louis Police Department’s Seventh District, reports that the Pi employee believed he was attacked by as many as twenty people.

“I can tell you that when we arrived the crowd just scattered,” recalls Moran. “I don’t know if they ran to MetroLink or what. But I do know that several people were assaulted, and that bothers me. We’re not going to take it.”

Three days later, the August 2 attacks remained the buzz of the neighborhood, though several store owners do not want to talk about it with a reporter.

“Don’t write a story,” implores Peggy Hou, owner of Chinese Noodle Café, located next door to Pi on the eastern edge of the Loop. “You’ll scare away business. Everything is fine.” (Pi owners declined to comment altogether.)

One business owner willing to speak is Rubina Patton, proprietor of Diversity Gallery and the Culture Café situated directly across the street from The Pageant. An African American and a licensed clinical social worker, Patton says it pains her to know that many of the teenagers involved in the attacks in the Loop are black. “I don’t care what color you are, you need to behave,” she says. “I don’t want this blown out of proportion, but it needs to be addressed.”

**{snip}

Richmond Heights prosecutor Stephen O’Brien acknowledges that Galleria-related incidents now consume half his caseload—and that doesn’t include charges against juveniles, which are handled through the St. Louis County Family Court. O’Brien declines to speculate as to why crimes are on the increase and says it’s “half-assed reasoning” to blame the uptick on MetroLink.

“I think that’s a bit of a knee-jerk reaction,” states the prosecutor. “The connotation with that theory is that MetroLink brings urban black youth into Richmond Heights to commit these crimes. That’s not what I’m seeing in court. We’re prosecuting blacks and whites.”

It is a Tuesday afternoon in late July and Maggie Schoenberg, an assistant manager at retailer Jimmy’Z at the Galleria, is ecstatic after catching a group of teenagers trying to steal several pairs of jeans.

For Schoenberg, dressed in cowboy boots and an airy sundress that reveals ribbons of tattoos blanketing her arms, the apprehension itself is no big deal. She catches thieves looting the store every day. What makes this bust so spectacular is that Schoenberg says she’s finally figured out how they do it.

“They leave their backpack unzipped just a bit,” Schoenberg elatedly tells her fellow manager, Spencer Mozee. “Then their friends follow behind them, stuffing merchandise into the bag as they walk through the racks.”

Schoenberg stops debriefing her colleague when she sees two young males enter the store. “See that guy with the dreads,” she says. “He’s a repeat offender. We’ve caught him in here stealing numerous times.”

Schoenberg approaches the men with a smile. “Do you guys ever leave the mall?” she asks. “No,” replies one of the men. “We’re mall rats.”

For the next five minutes, until the men leave the store, Schoenberg is at their side, offering assistance and watching their every move. “That’s the way we’re supposed to do it,” she says. “Kill them with kindness. We see them conceal a piece of merchandise, and we ask: ‘Could I get you something to go with that shirt you just stuffed down your pants?’”

{snip}

Try telling that to twelve-year-old Dante and his friends Recee, sixteen, and Unique, nine. On a recent Friday evening the three friends from North St. Louis County are walking through the mall when they’re stopped by Galleria security and escorted to the door.

As he leaves the mall property, Dante takes a moment to stomp the life from a begonia plant spouting from the Galleria’s manicured flower beds. He hurls a traffic cone into the street and tosses a sandbag from a construction site onto the sidewalk. “I’m angry,” concedes Dante. “How are they going to kick me out of the mall? It’s racist.”

As they wait on the MetroLink platform, a security guard approaches Dante and his friends and asks to see their tickets. Together the three youths can’t scrounge up more than the two dollars required for a one-way fare. The guard briefly lectures them about the fines they could face for riding Metro without a valid ticket, but the warnings fail to cause the kids any concern.

State law prohibits Metro from fining anyone under seventeen caught riding the train without a ticket. As the train arrives at the station, Dante and his friends walk past the guard and climb aboard. The doors close, and they’re gone.

{snip}

Edwards says he doesn’t know what the connection may be between the teenagers and the attacks in and around the MetroLink stations, but he believes public transportation is crucial to the growth and vitality of the city. He also notes that the Galleria and the Delmar Loop are two of just a handful of places in St. Louis where blacks and whites intersect.

{snip}

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