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Cook County sheriff's task force uses all means to bust organized retail theft in Chicago

Inside an Cook County sheriff's investigation into a Chicago retail theft operation
Inside an Cook County sheriff's investigation into a Chicago retail theft operation 03:07

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The Cook County Sheriff's Office's Organized Retail Crime Task Force is cracking down on thefts and burglaries that have been plaguing shopping districts across the Chicago area.

The task force isn't only responding to thefts on retail strips such as the Magnificent Mile or making arrests. They are working directly with businesses to understand what they are dealing with—and what they can do to help.

It appears in so many surveillance videos—a crew runs into a store, clears out the shelves, and runs out. One such video provided by the Cook County Sheriff's office shows several people doing just that at an Ulta beauty store on the Magnificent Mile.

"They're a criminal organization," said Lt. Michael Ware of the Sheriff's Organized Retail Crime Task Force. "They're part of a street gang."

The Sheriff's office has probing the theft crew in an investigation dubbed Operation Smell Good. The thieves have stolen $147,000 in perfume and other items from retailers across Chicago, according to the Sheriff's office.

They struck Ulta, Macy's, Sephora, Gap, and Marshalls stores in downtown River North, South Loop, and Lincoln Park locations, the Sheriff's office said.

The stolen goods were then sold on Facebook Marketplace.

"A lot of the smash-and-grab proceeds were actually funding other criminal activity—maybe such as drug sales and illegal weapons purchases," said Lt. Ware.

Ware said Sheriff's office investigators also find stolen goods being sold on Amazon, eBay, and more. That means anyone could be handing cash over to a gang without knowing it.

"It looks legit - just like a regular store," Ware said.

9 people arrested in Operation Smell Good, all with criminal records

The investigative work by the task force in Operation Smell Good led to the arrests of the following nine people:

  • Kiwon Doyle, 23, arrested in October and charged with continuing financial crimes enterprise and robbery.
  • Geneva Simmons, 24, arrested in October and charged with retail theft, and now on probation.
  • Justin Friend, 20, arrested in November and charged with continuing financial crimes enterprise and robbery.
  • Shelinda Jackson, 18, arrested in November and charged with continuing financial crimes enterprise and robbery.
  • Alyssa Reese, 22, arrested in November, charged with retail theft, and sentenced on April 15 to two years' probation with the Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities program.
  • Dominque Lee, 27, arrested in December and charged with retail theft. Lee pleaded guilty to retail theft and was sentenced to two years in prison.
  • Shantia Simmons, 2, arrested in January, charged with retail theft, and sentenced to two years' probation in April 15.
  • Joseph Austin, 26, arrested in January and charged with continuing financial crimes enterprise and robbery.
  • Kevin Johnson, 22, arrested in February and charged with continuing financial crimes enterprise.

Each and every one of the people arrested has an extensive arrest and conviction history. Most are for retail theft, but some are violent.

Austin was sentenced to 12 years in prison for armed robbery, and three more for aggravated battery to a peace officer, in 2016. He was paroled in December of last year.

In February of this year, Austin was also arrested on charges of attempted murder, armed robbery, and aggravated battery after authorities said he attacked a Chicago Transit Authority train passenger and took his cellphone. Austin was wanted on an active warrant at the time.

Doyle was charged with robbery in 2022 after authorities said he took six Chanel gift sets from a Macy's store and struck an employee who tried to apprehend him.

Ware said it was hard to track down the suspects.

"It's extremely hard," he said. "It's a lot of work."

Meanwhile, as noted above, two of the nine people arrested in Operation Smell Good are already out on probation.

"It's frustrating," Ware said. "But as long as we are doing our job, we have a job to do—and we can't focus on what happens after we are doing our job."

Operation Smell Good - the people arrested, the money followed, and merchandise returned - is just one example of the work the Sheriff's office task force is doing every single day.

"For the most part, people may see it as a victimless crime," Ware said. "But it's not, because it funnels other criminal activity, and is in direct correlation with violence in the city."

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said the task force started its work about a year ago amid worsening organized retail theft.

"There's a lot more organized operations now than have ever really been around," Dart said. "It's really killing the psyche of the primary retail district of the city of Chicago."

With retail crime so connected to so much more - including funding violent crime—across the Chicago area, Dart said there is a larger impact than what is known to be a nearly 30% vacancy rate in the Mag Mile—the city's prime shopping district.

"We'll have other elements we're going to be adding to this," Dart said.

"It's important, because it stops other criminal activity in the area," added Ware.

The task force will continue their work to bust retail theft crews and curb their crimes, with a focus on the Mag Mile and Oak Street. But the task force is working across the city.

So far this year, the task force has made 290 arrests this year, and more than 65 felony arrests. 

Efforts from the Illinois Attorney General, Cook County prosecutors

State law now allows the Illinois Attorney General's office to charge criminal organizations that engage in multi-county criminal conduct under a statewide grand jury. The office can also charge someone with a felony wen using violence to commit retail theft, or when acting as a manager for a criminal organization.

State law has also put online marketplaces on notice that stolen merchandise is being sold on their sites, and requires more oversight of such third-party marketplaces. Sellers are also required to provide information to verify their activity, and marketplaces may suspend sellers who do not comply.

The Attorney General's office launched a statewide Organized Retail Crime Task Force in 2021, as the first public-private collaboration of its kind in Illinois. The office has also funded more than 70 police departments' efforts to fight retail crime.

The Cook County State's Attorney's office said in the 114 days since the beginning of the year, it has issued charges in 324 out of 440 retail theft cases, with 204 prosecutions and 119 convictions – a conviction rate of 58%.

The State's Attorney's office this year so far has also issued charges in 20 out of 53 juvenile retail theft cases, with four case later disposed and one adjudicated.

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