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Twin Cities shoplifting ring took orders on Facebook, charges say

By Mara Gottfried / St. Paul Pioneer Press

Christina Coombs and Briana Nichole Jefferson were charged in December 2014 in an organized theft ring. (Photos courtesy of Ramsey County sheriff’sChristina Coombs and Briana Nichole Jefferson were charged in December 2014 in an organized theft ring. (Photos courtesy of Ramsey County sheriff's office)

Three people went into a Burnsville store, concealed 30 bottles of name-brand perfume valued at nearly $2,000 and left without paying.

The same thing occurred at Maplewood and St. Paul businesses, where women stole 41 pairs of Levi jeans at one and multiple handbags at another. Each haul was valued at $2,600.

There were many more cases, and police say it was all part of an organized theft ring in which women used Facebook to take "orders" and would then fulfill the requests by stealing high-end merchandise from big-box stores in the metro area, according to criminal complaints.

The Ramsey and Dakota county attorneys' offices recently charged nine women in the cases with 20 felony counts, linking them to thefts in five counties. Criminal complaints detail the theft of about $35,000 in merchandise from September 2012 to June 2014 and tell how organized the alleged thieves were -- they took specific routes to stores and parked out of range of surveillance cameras, teamed up with others for the thefts, knew which tactics worked at particular stores, and netted thousands of dollars a year.

"I'd be willing to bet this is just the tip of the iceberg," said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi.

Such cases are hard to crack and haven't always been a priority of law enforcement, but Choi said it's important to investigate and prosecute them.

"I think when you've got organized rings like this and you've got chronic individuals who are engaged in this type of activity, it really sends the wrong message if they can continuously get away with all this," Choi said.

The St. Paul Police Department's Organized Retail Crimes unit, which led the investigation while working with other departments, formed in 2013. The unit, consisting of a sergeant and two officers, investigated more than 1,500 cases between September 2013 and September 2014, according to the police department.

STEAL TO ORDER

One of the women whom prosecutors recently charged with five felonies described to St. Paul police Sgt. Charles Anderson, who heads the Organized Retail Crimes unit, how she built up a customer base through word of mouth. Christina Lee Coombs, 26, said the vast majority of the "orders" she took were through Facebook, where she'd post photos of items she'd stolen and list them "for sale," according to a criminal complaint. She'd resell stolen items for half-price, another complaint said.

Coombs told Anderson she had 200 to 300 customers, not counting repeat customers, a complaint said. She's ask her customers how much they wanted to spend and would sell about 10 outfits for $120, though the price depended on whether the items were brand names.

Criminal complaints filed this month link Coombs to more than 20 theft cases and Briana Nichole Jefferson to more than a dozen, saying the two often worked together. Jefferson, 22, is charged with five felonies in the cases. Of the women charged, the complaints accuse Coombs and Jefferson of being involved in the most cases.

Coombs couldn't be reached for comment and Jefferson declined an interview request made through the Ramsey County Jail. Jefferson's attorney declined to comment, and no attorney was listed for Coombs in court records.

The recent charges list Coombs' and Jefferson's biggest haul as $4,500 in merchandise from the Kohl's in Rogers. The two women fled with stolen goods through an emergency exit at the store in October 2013, according to a criminal complaint. State troopers pulled over a speeding car and the women fled from it.

The stolen Kohl's merchandise was in the car, along with clothing that had been stolen from JCPenney, T.J.Maxx, Babies "R" Us, Carter's and Old Navy and still had price tags attached, the complaint said.

'TYPICAL DAY OF STEALING'

Jefferson told Anderson in November 2013 "that she was a booster and did so to feed her kids and pay her bills," a complaint said. She denied stealing from a long list of stores.

Jefferson fled the state this year after she was caught using a credit card that had been stolen from an FBI agent's vehicle, according to a criminal complaint. She is now jailed in Ramsey County.

In November 2013, Anderson also talked to Coombs, who "described a typical day of stealing" -- she'd get an "order" and use different tactics to fill it depending on the store, a criminal complaint said. She'd remove security tags by popping them off with her hands or pulling them off with her feet, the complaint said. At one store, Coombs said scissors were needed to remove security tags and she'd usually steal a pair from another store first.

Coombs also told Anderson that "she used to steal a lot -- sometimes every day -- but recently has slowed down," a complaint said. She said she made about $30,000 a year from stealing.

It appeared to be a lot of work for a relatively small amount of money netted, Choi said. "If she had just applied herself to get a degree and get a job, I could assure her she would be doing much better," he said last week.

Nationally, the National Retail Federation says organized-retail crime costs retailers about $30 billion a year.

Nine out of 10 retailers in Minnesota are affected by shoplifting, which costs them millions a year, said Bruce Nustad, president of the Minnesota Retailers Association. Ultimately, thefts drive up prices for consumers, he said.

People tend to steal items they know they can resell for close to retail value, and retailers have seen a rise in what's described in the current case -- people "preordering" stolen goods, Nustad said. Knowingly buying stolen goods is a crime, Choi said.

Retailers in the metro area work to fight back against shoplifters by sharing information with each other and with law enforcement about the criminal activity they're seeing, Nustad said.

"That's one of our tools -- sharing information in a timely manner to stop things before they happen or shortly after because the shoplifters reuse their techniques, they do everything the same," he said. "That's how they become successful and that's how we can stop them."

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