SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Five people have pleaded guilty in one of the largest retail theft ring busts in California history.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta on Friday announced the sentencing during a press conference outside a Burlingame CVS store. He said the five pleaded guilty to participating in a multi-million dollar theft scheme targeting Bay Area retailers, with charges including conspiracy to commit retail theft, receiving stolen property, money laundering along with an aggravated white collar enhancement of over $500,000.

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The investigation began in April 2020 and led to the discovery of a major theft ring dealing in stolen property from burglaries across the Bay Area. According to the complaint, defendants transported, stored, and sold stolen goods in other countries and laundered the money back to the United States.

Over the course of the investigation, nearly $2 million was seized from the defendants’ bank accounts.

The man identified as the ringleader, Concord resident Danny Louis Drago, will be sentenced to six years in state prison, with four others already sentenced to lesser terms.

Danny Louis Drago (San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office)

“The retail theft we’re seeing across California is unacceptable,” said Bonta. “Those who break the law and peddle stolen goods, they will be held accountable.”

Bonta said those participating in the current wave of thefts should take note.

“Today’s announcement should serve as a warning shot to anyone thinking of participating in organized retail theft,” Bonta said. “You will be held accountable.”

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The five defendants were arrested in September of 2020 and during the operation law enforcement seized about $8 million in merchandise stolen from retailers such as CVS, Target, and Walgreens, as well as $85,000 in U.S. currency from the defendants’ warehouse, residences, and storage facilities.

Merchandise stolen by a retail theft ring from Bay Area pharmacies and other stores. (California Attorney General’s Office)

“We believe we have the key figures behind this operation,” said Bonta. “They have been arrested and they received the biggest punishment. We have covered the gamut here.”

The other defendants were identified as Drago’s wife, Michelle Renee Fowler, San Francisco husband and wife Edgar Geovany Robles Morales and Isis Vasquez Villanueva, and Jose Villatoro. Their arrests followed a joint investigation by the California Department of Justice’s White Collar Investigation Team, the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office’s Crime Suppression Unit, the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office, and the California Highway Patrol.

Drago, was scheduled to be sentenced to a six-year prison term on February 25. Fowler was sentenced to three years in state prison, suspended pending two years’ supervised probation, including 364 days in San Mateo County jail. Robles Morales and Villanueva were sentenced to probation with 364 days of electronic monitoring or work program. Villatoro was sentenced to probation and 30 days in jail.

Bonta promised more prosecutions of retail theft rings and the case was a good example of law enforcement agencies working together to hold these organizations accountable.

“The organized retail theft we’re seeing in California and throughout the country are coordinated efforts by groups that are targeting stores with the intention of stealing as much as possible with no regard for the safety of the workers or consumers in those businesses,” said Bonta in a prepared statement. “In this case, we see that the coordination doesn’t stop at the initial theft. Groups are in turn reselling items, and in many cases using them to fund additional illicit activity, including human trafficking and organized crime. The defendants in this case have been held to account for their crimes, and I can assure you, others will be as well.”

 

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