Nationwide Mall Theft Ring Accused of Shoplifting $20 Million of High-End Merchandise in Past Decade

Kristina Davis, San Diego Tribune, September 6, 2017

For at least the past decade, Tijuana vendors put in special orders for designer merchandise, dispatching teams of shoplifters to malls around the country to steal more than $20 million in loot that could be resold at lower prices in Mexico, according to an indictment unsealed in San Diego federal court Wednesday.

The highly organized shoplifting ring targeted malls around San Diego County — from Fashion Valley to Horton Plaza to Plaza Bonita — and as far away as Washington, Illinois, Oregon and Maryland, prosecutors said.

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On Wednesday, more than 250 law enforcement officers spread throughout the county with warrants, arresting at least 14 people by the afternoon and searching three homes in Lemon Grove, Chula Vista and San Diego.

A San Diego federal grand jury indicted 22 people in the scheme. Three of those arrested were already in custody. Some remain fugitives.

Agents seized about $30,000 in cash as well as about a dozen trash bags bursting with new clothing with tags and security devices still attached.

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Sara Portilla, who manages a boutique in Tijuana, and Maria Angelica Mendez Valdivia, both San Diegans, are accused of fencing the stolen goods in the store and at Mexican swap meets with the help of Jose de Jesus Mora, said David Shaw, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in San Diego.

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The 38 thefts in the indictment range from June 13, 2008, when one defendant is accused of trying to drive over an Abercrombie & Fitch employee in National City, to July 27, 2017, when several defendants stole about $5,500 in merchandise from an Abercrombie store in San Diego.

The thieves typically stole thousands of dollars in merchandise each time, including $5,000 from an American Eagle store in Visalia, $4,500 from a Victoria’s Secret in Escondido, $10,600 from a Tommy Hilfiger store in San Clemente and $6,700 from a Las Vegas Victoria’s Secret, the indictment alleges.

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The stolen merchandise was then sold in Mexico, prosecutors allege. For example, in October 2013, Mendez had more than $482,000 in merchandise that had been lifted from at least 57 stores, bound for south of the border, the indictment alleges.

The indictment includes charges of conspiracy and receiving and possessing stolen goods. Seven defendants are also charged with being in the U.S. illegally.

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