Organized retail theft ring goes to court

TEMECULA, Calif. -- Another member of an eight-person crew that allegedly stole and resold expensive women's clothing and lingerie pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges of burglary and receiving stolen property.

The crew is accused of swiping about $60,000 worth of merchandise a week over the past year. Justin McRoberts, 23, of Yucaipa, pleaded not guilty to 10 counts of burglary and two counts of receiving stolen property. He was ordered back to court May 30 for a felony settlement conference. The alleged crew ringleader, Jose "Ben" Perez, 47, of South Gate, who allegedly handled the logistics of the heists, and four of the alleged shoplifters all pleaded not guilty Wednesday to the same counts. Appearing in court with Perez on Wednesday were Carolyn Margaret Arnold, 21; Geneva Anne Collins, 23; Tabitha Ann Lowe, 25; and Aaron Thomas Pryor, 22.

A preliminary hearing was tentatively set for May 6 for all six defendants.

All of the suspects in custody -- except for Perez, who has a no-bail immigration hold and has been deported back to Mexico at least once in the past -- are being held in lieu of $150,000 bail.

According to police, Perez has an extensive criminal record.

A husband-and-wife team who allegedly made lists of clothing to steal, then bought the merchandise stolen by other members of the ring and resold it at discount prices around the region were also arrested but posted bail and were expected to appear in court at a later date.

The ring was a highly organized crew that worked to spirit expensive clothing, makeup and lingerie out of high-end stores at malls in San Diego, Riverside, Orange, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties, according to Temecula police Lt. Scot Collins.

Each member of the crew played a part -- ranging from stuffing shopping bags that were taken to the stores, to distracting employees so others could escape with stolen goods without being detected, police said.

Information on the crew first came to light April 12, when security personnel at a Macy's store at The Promenade in Temecula called about some shoplifters, Collins said.

The shoplifters were arrested and questioned and it quickly became clear they were part of a much bigger operation, having taken only about $600 in merchandise that day, said sheriff's Detective Philip Rice.

"We knew we had a bigger crew," Rice said.

Police ticketed the suspects for shoplifting, let them go and organized a surveillance team with detectives, Collins said.

The team tailed crew members for about a week, watching them steal clothing from stores such as Victoria's Secret and Abercrombie & Fitch, then take the merchandise to the Downey home of Rene Leonides Denis, 54, and his wife, Maria, 48, Collins said.

On Saturday, law enforcement officers moved in on the property, finding tens of thousands of dollars in merchandise crammed into a truck and a building, Collins said.

Leather outfits, expensive dresses, coat dresses, blazers, sweaters and trousers, all of them ladies' and children's clothing, were packed into racks and piled ankle deep on the floor, police said.

Police also found a credit card machine and lists of stolen items -- with prices listed -- and lists of items that needed to be stolen, said Rice.

"They only stole high-end stuff," said Temecula police Sgt. Robert Epps.

Once stolen, the clothes would be sold out of a truck by the Denises, who would circulate handbills that read, "Rene's Clothes Event" and "Name Brands at Great Prices."

According to Rice, Rene Denis has a vendor's license and is allowed to sell items from his truck.

Denis and his wife were arrested on suspicion of receiving stolen property. Rene Denis was also booked on suspicion of conspiracy to commit a felony.

The stolen clothing will be returned to their various stores eventually, police said.

Police displayed many of the stolen items for the media yesterday, hanging from racks and spilling out of boxes in an empty storefront.

A toddler's paisley velvet dress, with a black bow on the back and a soft leather dress with a blazer, were some of the myriad items on display.

Riverside County sheriff's Investigator Jerry Franchville displayed a houndstooth women's blazer, valued at $2,370, that had been stolen from a store.

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