ATLANTA — Street gangs targeting premium denim have stolen merchandise valued at more than $1 million during increasingly brazen robberies and break-ins of over 50 stores in the Atlanta area, police said.
Specialty retailers are locking denim in safes, hiring security guards and dropping some well-known denim lines because of the crime wave by what police have dubbed the "Blue Jean Bandits." Some merchants said they might close because of the added costs and emotional strain.
The stolen goods are resold through an underground network that reaches from street vendors to nightclubs, beauty salons and the Internet, said Detective Rick Anderson of the Atlanta Police Department Retail Theft Task Force. The most popular labels are True Religion, Rock & Republic and Red Monkey, all retailing at about $200 and being resold for an average of $70. The thefts began a year ago as after-hours "smash-and-grabs" in which gang members broke windows to take armloads of denim from folded stacks. They have escalated to daytime holdups in which the thieves are sometimes armed with guns and pepper spray. There have been 28 robberies and break-ins this year.
"It started with a 30-member gang called '30D,' but now there are multiple gangs with names like 'The Young Crew' and 'The Hit Squad' that are recruiting young kids to do these break-ins, we think sometimes as initiation," Anderson said. "They consider themselves modern-day Robin Hoods, taking from the rich and selling to the poor. It's harder to convict someone caught with a pair of jeans than someone caught with crack cocaine."
A total of 17 suspects have been arrested and more are being sought.
The thefts have been a nightmarish addition to the woes of independent retailers struggling with a weak economy and rising costs. The strains caused by fearful employees and the extra burdens of insurance, security and replacing stolen goods are taking a serious toll.
In six robberies over the last eight months, Blue Genes Inc., a seven-year-old boutique in Atlanta's Buckhead section, lost $140,000 in men's and women's denim, including Citizens of Humanity, True Religion and others.
Co-owner Jennifer Arrendale has spent $110,000 on guards and had to put $10,000 down to get a new insurance policy with premiums running $2,650 a month — triple what she paid on her canceled policy."This has worn us down, financially, and mentally," she said. Farshad Arshid, owner of Standard, a men's and women's contemporary boutique in Atlanta's Midtown, was robbed at gunpoint during daylight hours in November after losing $20,000 worth of denim in a break-in in June 2007.
Though no one was hurt in either incident, the armed robbery unnerved employees so much that Arshid sent them home for two weeks and worked the store alone, accompanied by a security guard.
"It's not like we're selling something like jewelry or liquor, that should require such security," he said. "This shouldn't be considered a high-risk business."
Karin Keeling, owner of Market, a six-year-old specialty store in Buckhead that has been targeted twice in the last year, said she may be forced to shut down.
"One more break-in, and I'll have to close," she said. "I've spent $20,000 on extra security, gates, panic buttons, etc. I've done all I can do. My store looks like Fort Knox."
Kaleidoscope, a denim boutique in Decatur, a few miles east of downtown Atlanta, was robbed June 4 by eight men, who pepper-sprayed and punched two clerks in the face and took $30,000 worth of men's denim, including Hudson, Joe's Jeans and William Rast.
"My [store clerks] are nervous about coming in," said owner Camille Wright. "The robbery has ruined the psyche of the people who work here."
Dana Spinola, owner of Fab'rik, a Midtown Atlanta boutique, that has been burglarized three times in the last year — twice in the same week in October — lost $40,000 in denim inventory. Insurance covered one loss, she said. She has had security glass installed, hired security guards and puts jeans in a safe at night.
She said the criminals are well organized. "They come in with cell phones to scout out lines," she said. "We've learned to recognize them."
Bill Hallman, owner of two namesake Atlanta stores and a third called Kintaro, had goods stolen in two break-ins in June 2007 and last month at different stores. Sixty pairs of Evisu jeans were taken, along with T-shirts and other merchandise."At the time of the first robbery, we were phasing out the embellished denim and brands, such as Evisu and Blue Tatoo that would be popular street or mainstream lines," he said. "Since then, we've replaced them with lines such as Nudie, Ksubi, Cheap Monday, that are lesser known."
Hallman said the break-ins, combined with a 15 percent drop in sales this year, have been "a kick in the pants."
For some merchants, such as Standard's Arshid, frustration is turning into anger.
"I'm in a highly-visible location in the middle of Peachtree Street," he said. "We can't address this ourselves. The city needs to fix the problem."
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