Santee Alley fakes are seized in raid

Times Staff Writers

With the holiday shopping season in full swing, more than 140 law enforcement officers descended on Santee Alley in what officials described as their largest raid ever on the quirky downtown shopping district famous for selling cheap knockoffs.

Police and prosecutors on Friday said officers seized more than 50,000 items, including pirated CDs and DVDs as well as near-perfect reproductions of designer merchandise. The street value of the goods seized by officials with the Los Angeles Anti-Piracy Task Force was estimated at more than $8 million.

The raid rattled the marketplace, which has long operated with a wink and a nod and, in recent years, has generated national headlines for its cheap prices and designer looks.


“It sends a strong message going into the holiday shopping season that this kind of activity is not going to be tolerated,” said LAPD Capt. Jodi Wakefield. “If they are going to be doing it, we are going to be arresting them.”

But some shoppers in the alley said they felt sympathy for merchants.

“It’s a Catch-22,” said Ron Brown, 39. “It’s trademarked merchandise. It kind of hurts the manufacturer. [But] especially this time of year, you kind of feel bad -- people are just trying to make money, survive and feed their families. People are out there trying to make a living. Unfortunately it’s illegal.”

Officers with the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department cordoned off a blocklong section of 11th Street on either side of Santee Alley for the better part of Thursday evening, even setting up a tent to process the 26 people arrested in the sweep.

Aided by investigators for design companies, the officers examined merchandise such as watches, purses and perfume. They found copycats that carried designer labels, including Prada, Rolex, Fendi and Gucci, officials said.

Councilwoman Wendy Gruel said whether shoppers are naive or knowingly seek out knockoffs, they should be aware that what they are doing is tantamount to stealing.

“If you said to someone, ‘You are buying stolen goods,’ I think they would think, ‘I’m doing something wrong,’ ” Gruel said. “People think this is a victimless crime. But it’s stealing. It impacts businesses and jobs and costs the city and the county.”


City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo said Friday that his office believes some of the sales of counterfeit goods are going to fund street gang activities.

Authorities said dealing in counterfeit merchandise is lucrative for gang members and is an especially attractive means to make money because it does not carry the same dangers and penalties as other illegal activities such as drug dealing. Officials also have found that some gangs charge “rent” to merchants operating on the streets.

Kent Smith, executive director of the L.A. Fashion District, said in some cases, store owners in the alley “sublease” the space in front of their stores to illegal vendors who sell counterfeit items. Some business owners have complained about gangs extorting merchants so they can peddle counterfeit merchandise outside the storefronts.

“It’s a significant problem,” Smith said. “Tenants have been threatened.”

Santee Alley got its start in the 1970s, when the wholesalers along Maple and Santee streets started selling products out of the back of their showrooms on weekends. They were so successful that the back alley became their front door.

As downtown L.A. has seen a surge in luxury lofts and trendy clubs, the alley has generated more media attention -- and shoppers.

Blanca Maldonado, visiting from Ecuador, stays away from knockoffs, in spite of bargain-basement prices.


“It hurts the people that make” the original products, said Maldonado, 57. “It affects them the most.”

Others agreed.

“I’m a librarian by trade, so I know about copyright laws,” said Becky McIntosh, 60, of Idaho, wandering the fashion district after returning from a Southern California cruise. “I can’t in good conscience do it -- I know it’s taking away the profit of the original designers.”

But shopper Jackie Williams, 41, a part-time nurse from Corona, toted a few handbags she had just picked up and saw the issue in simpler terms.

“If people choose to buy the real Coach, they can go to Nordstrom,” she said. “For me,” she said of Santee deals, “it’s something I like.”