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Chicago Area Detectives Investigate ORC Group of Romani Travelers

Cash and stolen product documented as evidence, some on it’s way to be shipped.

When it comes to organized retail crime (ORC), the  primary motivations behind theft and crime are simple: to make money and turn a profit. Retail stores are seen as a source of income, a place where thieves can feast upon the resources and labors of a faceless retail corporation to meet the needs and desires of the criminal enterprise. Methods both simple and sophisticated will be used, whether subtle and covert or blatant and aggressive, to steal merchandise—to the tune of billions of dollars every year.

The reasons behind those motivations can be incredibly diverse, whether to support a habit, pay off a debt, or any of a hundred reasons offered by criminal actors to excuse their illicit actions. Most are tangible, driven by poor decisions, personal circumstances, or other self-rationalizations that provide personal justification for criminal behavior.

But what happens when a group of individuals believe they have been blessed with the “divine right” to steal? How does this influence the methods and incentives of those involved? How does it impact the investigation? A case in the Chicago market recently culminated in an extensive operation that gave us that answer loudly and clearly.

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The Travelers

For suburban Chicago detectives, it all began in the spring of 2014 when an abrupt surge in forced entry burglaries took place in the Chicagoland area. From there, it developed into a multi-jurisdictional investigation that crossed state lines and involved an international ORC operation that found a home in their backyard.

As the crime wave continued, investigators learned that minivans were commonly employed by the perpetrators, largely because minivans are inconspicuous and easily blended into the neighborhoods where the burglaries were taking place. As the investigation unfolded, a Honda minivan became a point of interest, with the task force placing surveillance on the vehicle, the suspects, and their home.

Investigators also learned that the minivans were purchased from a used car dealership in Chicago that allowed the vehicles to be registered under false names and addresses to avoid detection by police. This proved to be just the tip of the iceberg.

Jeremy Thayer

“It started with what we thought was a group that was just exclusively burglarizing homes,” confided Lieutenant Jeremy Thayer with the Downers Grove Police Department. “But when we started to focus on them, put trackers on vehicles, and carry out our surveillances, what we really learned was that they were primarily committing organized retail theft. This evolved into an elaborate 8-year-long investigation into a large group of  foreign criminals—‘travelers’—perpetrating organized retail crime throughout the region. A case like this really highlights how involved and how intricate ORC investigations can become.”

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Travelers are part of the Romani culture whose groups historically move from one area to the next. Some groups adhere to, and act upon, a cultural belief in their “divine right” to commit theft and fraud. Many of the travelers involved in this investigation had origins in Poland, and had recently entered the country illegally with the intent to take part in this criminal enterprise. They were identified by detectives as the primary suspects in the sudden increase in criminal activity.

“There were many different clans consisting of families and groups of travelers that worked together with the same objectives—to steal,” added Thayer. “But detectives soon learned that the residential burglaries were only a small part of their operation. What we learned as the investigation moved forward is that the large-scale operation and their primary source of income was actually ORC. This was a sophisticated group of thieves using everything at their disposal to commit retail crimes and then use illicit fencing operations to sell millions of dollars in retail products.”

Stolen beauty products found warehoused and being readied to ship

As their criminal activity grew more sophisticated, surveillance teams continued to track groups of travelers while they stole product and moved the merchandise into various storage facilities. Product stolen in one state was quickly moved through common carriers to the fence in another state using storage lockers registered in fictitious names. Stolen items were then sold through illicit business operations and online marketplaces.

Ryan Pacyga

“The travelers were moving all across the United States to steal and we were able to use electronic trackers to monitor their movement,” disclosed Detective Ryan Pacyga with the Arlington Heights Police Department. “The method of operation for these groups was that each time they would head out of state they would have a specific retail target in mind. It might be a Walmart trip, a Target trip, or an ULTA trip; they would hit fifteen or so stores and then stop at a FedEx to ship the stolen product back to Chicago-area storage facilities where the merchandise would then be fenced primarily through various eBay and Amazon sites.”

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Theft teams were well trained, organized, efficient, and unwavering in their commitment to the operation. They strategically chose targets, attacked the retail stores, and followed well-established protocols to ship stolen goods back to the Chicago market for resale.

Sean Edmondson

One of the most prominent hurdles for investigators was the speed and efficiency with which merchandise was moved by the travelers. “Because of the efficiency of the operation, it would be very rare to find thieves in possession of large amounts of stolen merchandise as they moved across the country,” remarked Sergeant Sean Edmondson with the Arlington Heights Police Department. “It wasn’t uncommon for merchandise to be stolen by the traveling groups, shipped back to the warehouses, and made available for sale on the online marketplaces within twenty-four hours or so.”

The Importance of Teamwork and Relationships

As the case severity continued to climb, detectives from the Arlington Heights and Downers Grove police departments collaborated with other police agencies, prosecutors, various retail investigators, and online marketplaces to build their case. Detectives gave high praise to law enforcement partners and retail teams at Walmart, Target, Lowe’s, ULTA, eBay, Amazon, and others for their involvement and persistence in developing the investigation.

“It was the relationships that we made with the private sector that proved to be a huge advantage,” proclaimed Pacyga. “Those relationships have since led to great partnerships and we are super happy to have had the opportunity to work with these folks.”

Through these collaborations, the various “clans” involved were identified, the leadership structure was determined, the specific fencing operations confirmed, and the movement of illicit financial gains was ascertained. With the cooperation of the eBay PROACT team, detectives identified an account that had accumulated $2.2 million in profits. Additionally, the eBay PROACT team helped detectives identify over a dozen seller profiles serving as fences for the stolen property acquired by the thieves. On eBay alone, these profiles were responsible for approximately $18 million dollars in the sale of stolen goods. Each of these profiles were managed by the same group responsible for stealing the goods and mailing them to a network of storage lockers held under fictitious names at facilities throughout the Chicagoland area. Detectives later found Amazon seller profiles held by the group that had sales of approximately $18 million dollars. The cash proceeds from these profiles were often withdrawn in intervals. However, detectives discovered over a million dollars in illicit funds that had been wired to clan members overseas.

Altogether, the investigation resulted in more than $36 million in stolen goods that had been targeted, stolen, and sold by this group. Twenty-five individuals were indicted during the investigation. Dozens of vehicles and more than $5 million in cash and assets were seized, along with millions more in stolen goods.

Detectives also stressed the importance of thinking outside the box, building relationships, and embracing the value of networking to help bring their investigations to the most successful outcomes.

“As law enforcement officers, we typically have more of a linear mindset when it comes to investigations,” surmised Edmondson. “But with this type of investigation, it’s crucial that we view what’s happening as part of a larger network. You must focus on all the various elements and the way that they interact. We must take all of that into consideration and map it out so that we can use our resources in the best and most cost-effective way.”

“The exposure to a case like this has been invaluable to my development as a detective,” acknowledged Pacyga. ”The knowledge and information that I gained as the case unfolded has had a tremendous impact on the way I approach my investigations today. This isn’t just simple retail theft. You really can’t put a price tag on what you learn and how it helps you grow. For me, it’s paid huge dividends.”

“For us, a primary message is that smaller agencies can take on these types of cases, it just has to be prioritized,” concluded Thayer. “We have to work together. We have to be persistent and patient. It can be very frustrating to think that some of these cases aren’t getting the attention that they should. This really should be an initiative and a priority of law enforcement moving forward.”

The Romani Culture

The Roma or Romani people are a distinct ethnic and cultural group who share a family of languages and a traditional way of life. The Roma culture has a rich tradition, with a strong emphasis on family. Known primarily as a nomadic culture that migrated across Europe for more than a thousand years, the specific origins of the Roma people are unclear. However, central India is often recognized as a notable point of origin as they have moved across Europe and around the world.

It’s extremely important to keep in mind that most Roma find the term “gypsy”—which is a holdover from when it was believed that their origins were in Egypt—to be offensive and derogatory. “Roma” or “Romani” is the term that most use to describe themselves today, which simply means “people” according to the Roma Support Group, an organization created to promote awareness of the Roma traditions and culture.

While the Romani traditionally live according to strict moral codes, there are those who choose to steal. In this case, it is the origins of and the justification for stealing that stand out. It is the adherence to a two-thousand-year-old legend that provides what some in the Romani culture believe is an ongoing moral justification for theft—even a divine right.

The Legend of the Fourth Nail

The legend originates with the crucifixion of Jesus. While there are different versions of the story itself, the theme remains consistent. According to legend, there was a fourth nail intended to pierce the heart of Jesus during the crucifixion. However, that nail was stolen by an individual of Romani descent, allowing Jesus to escape that specific fate. Through the act of stealing the nail meant for Jesus’s heart, the “gypsy” became a symbol of defiance and redemption—while granting their descendants what many within the culture consider a divine right to steal.

Unfortunately, for a fraction of the Romani culture, the legend still provides a means of justification—or a powerful excuse,—to commit theft and fraud as a way of life, even in the modern world. It has transcended generations and become embedded as an ethical paradox to this day.

Theft As a Way of Life

“Working these types of cases, it’s crucial to understand the targets of your investigation,” reasoned Thayer. “As we got deeper and deeper into this investigation, we learned that this group firmly believed that they actually had the divine right to steal and it’s not a sin based on their religious background. Understanding that while conducting the investigation—and even more importantly when it comes time to interview these individuals—helps build the case and gives you better focus on how the investigation might unfold.”

In this particular subgroup of Romani, they see theft as a way of life, embedded in the culture, and passed on through the generations. Methods of stealing are taught to children at a young age and are entrenched in the family dynamic.

“While interviewing different individuals and different groups involved, we repeatedly heard versions of a similar story,” said Edmondson. “Stealing the fourth nail allowed the resurrection to take place, which they believe would not have occurred otherwise. That story tells them that not only what they’re doing is non-criminal, but they’ve been blessed to do so. This idea is ingrained in this subgroup at a very young age. It’s something they deeply believe in and a tremendously important aspect of the entire culture. It really is a way of life and a tremendous challenge for anyone working these types of investigations.”

Cash and stolen product documented as stolen evidence, some on it’s way to be shipped.

Have Faith in the Process

When it comes to ORC, habitual offenders are often the norm. In this case, investigators also had to deal with suspects whose deeply held belief system includes a culture of theft that they see as their God-given right.

As this investigation clearly highlights, everyone involved in unveiling the depths of organized retail crime—whether in the suburbs of Chicago or in markets across the world—must keep an open mind and a flexible approach. Speaking with these detectives as they broke down the lessons learned and the unexpected twists and turns that were part of the case, we were able to see how the investigation unfolded from a burglary investigation into a massive criminal operation involving tens of millions of dollars, extraordinary strategic efficiency, and deeply held cultural beliefs that date back thousands of years.

Ultimately, it was more than just the investigation that evolved. Detectives detailed their experiences in professional growth. They talked about learning to see the investigation and those involved through a different lens. They reflected on the importance of developing critical relationships with different agencies, prosecutors, and private sector partners. They learned that making assumptions or thinking that one can see into the minds of those involved in these crimes can lead to mistakes. They learned that patience, persistence, planning, and process pay huge dividends.

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