Organized 'crash-and-grab' burglaries using vehicles plague Chicago

Thieves in Chicago and beyond are using motor vehicles in a series of crash-and-grab burglaries

The burglars decided against subtlety.

Using a white Dodge Grand Caravan, they jumped the curb and crashed through the front of a Neiman Marcus store at 4 a.m., grabbing high-end handbags and other items.

The Dec. 10 burglary on Chicago's upscale Magnificent Mile is part of a rash of burglaries in the last few months that has thieves in several states abandoning the silent cunning of a cat burglar for the brute force of a motor vehicle and a gas pedal.

The Chicago area has seen nearly a dozen such burglaries since the fall.

Cook County Assistant State's Atty. David Williams, executive director of the Cook County Regional Organized Crime Task Force, says he believes the "crash-and-grab" burglaries in the region are the work of organized groups, including thieves and gangs that operate across state lines.

"They have to steal a car, get a group together, pick a target, decide what to steal and then they have to sell it," Williams said. "It is more than a crime of opportunity."

Investigators are still trying to determine whether some of the burglaries are connected, he said.

Crash-and-grabs, also known as "ram raids," have occurred across the country.

Late last month, burglars smashed through the storefronts of two Cincinnati clothing stores. In the St. Louis area, thieves drove vehicles into jewelry stores as well as beauty supply stores that sell pricey and popular hair extensions.

Gun stores in Indianapolis and a string of businesses around Jacksonville, Fla., also have been hit recently in similar style.

As department stores and smaller boutiques tally their losses from a spate of brazen crash-and-grab burglaries, experts on crime and retailers are wondering why the tactic has suddenly become so common across the Chicago region.

Retail and security consultants acknowledge that there may be no way to stop these brazen crimes.

"This is not a new phenomenon," said Richard Hollinger, a professor of criminology at the University of Florida who specializes in retail crime. "But this is kind of remarkable. It's a new wrinkle to the holiday season. It's a blast from the past."

Thomas Brignall, an associate professor of sociology at Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill., said that the bold, aggressive style of the burglaries reflects a disillusionment and general lack of concern for others.

"It's a shock-and-awe tactic," Brignall said.

There is no easy way to barricade a storefront to prevent a crash-and-grab.

Stores still want to showcase their merchandise in windows, and they need many large entrances to accommodate crowds of shoppers. That is especially true for businesses that rely on foot traffic along high-profile boulevards.

The crash-and-grab burglars have been striking in the middle of the night, when store security staffing is low or absent and street traffic is minimal. Many of the crimes appear to have been highly organized, with clearly defined roles among crews, who clear stores of merchandise in minutes and before security alarms can alert guards or police.

Crews of six to 12 burglars scout the location before they arrive, so when they crash through the door they can find and quickly grab as much as they can, often before leaving in other vehicles, police and experts said.

A day before the Neiman Marcus burglary, thieves drove a Dodge Caravan through the front doors of a Chicago pawnshop at 3:55 a.m, crashing into display cases, and leaving behind a trail of wreckage. The minivan finally stopped several feet inside the store with glass and other debris piled on its roof.

The burglars fled on foot with electronics merchandise, said Chicago Police Officer Anna Pacheco. The minivan was reported stolen later in the day, she said.

In one November burglary, thieves rammed a red pick-up truck through the brick wall of a clothing store at 4:21 a.m. and made off with an unknown amount of merchandise. The truck left a square hole in the side of the building.

Burglars who struck a Louis Vuitton store in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook were captured on surveillance video. One burglar is seen bludgeoning a ceiling-high glass window several times, making a small hole and easing the way for a Toyota Camry that smashed the window completely.

Police estimated that tens of thousands of dollars worth of luxury handbags were stolen.

Things may have quieted down recently, Williams said. He is not aware of any new crash-and-grab burglaries in the Chicago area since burglars drove through the front door of Neiman Marcus.

Nobody has been charged in that case, said Chicago Police spokesman Thomas Sweeney.

poconnell@tribpub.com

kthayer@tribpub.com

javier.panzar@latimes.com

Twitter: @pmocwriter, @knthayer, @jpanzar

Tribune writers O'Connell and Thayer reported from Chicago, and Times staff writer Panzar reported from Los Angeles.

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