By  on July 1, 2009

ATLANTA — A renewed spree of brazen robberies that focus on denim is causing anxiety, anger and hardship among retailers in metropolitan Atlanta.

The latest thefts — Macy’s at the Lenox Square mall was hit Friday — come after a nine-month lull in a series of heists dating to 2007, which has victimized some 70 stores, and resulted in the loss of product worth an estimated $1.5 million.

In a now familiar scenerio, police said nine thieves wearing masks smashed a Macy’s street window and stole about 80 pairs of jeans worth $10,000. The break-in, which was reported about 3:30 a.m. after a motion-sensor alarm sounded, is the first time a department store at an upscale mall has been victimized. Authorities said security video showed the suspects loading three vans with the stolen merchandise before fleeing. A Macy’s spokesman declined to comment.

Macy’s at Lenox Square is in the affluent Buckhead section across the street from Blue Genes, a premium denim boutique where $100,000 in denim and sportswear was stolen this month when thieves broke the front window and loaded the inventory into two vans. It was the eighth robbery of the store in two years. In addition, eyewear valued at$150,000 was stolen from a nearby Pearle Vision center last month using the same tactic.

A sign posted on the Blue Genes front door said it is temporarily closed and will reopen in early July in a new location. Owners Jane Sims and Jennifer and Julie Arrendale filed for bankruptcy in December. They could not be reached for comment. No arrests have been made in the June heist.

Another high-end boutique, eModa, in the Midtown section, was robbed twice over a six-day span in May. The thieves took premium denim, sportswear, shoes and jewelry worth an estimated $80,000.

The crime wave by suspected gang members has forced merchants to cope with losing their insurance or rising rates, as well as higher security costs. They also have lost peace of mind.

“It’s like the Wild, Wild West out there,” said Camille Wright, owner of Kaleidoscope in suburban Decatur, Ga., which was robbed in June 2008 by eight men who pepper-sprayed and punched two clerks in the face before escaping with $40,000 in denim. “People are just coming in and taking whatever they want and doing whatever they want.”

Five juveniles were arrested in the holdup, authorities said. They are awaiting trial.

Wright said she has been dropped by her insurance company since the theft, adding that six security cameras have done little to ease her worry.

“These guys don’t care about security cameras,” she said. “They’ll just rip them off the walls or cover their faces. As a retailer, there’s nothing you can do. You’re a sitting duck. This thing is coming at you from every angle and penalties for these crimes are nothing. Nobody’s holding anybody’s feet to the fire.”

The first theft at eModa occurred May 8 when nine robbers were caught by video surveillance cameras smashing the glass back door and stealing $50,000 worth of denim lines such as True Religion and Rock & Republic.

“It took them one minute to clear out all that merchandise,” said owner Dan Kogan. “It took police three minutes to respond after the alarm went off.”

Kogan restocked the store and had the back door reinforced with wood and steel. Six days later, a half-dozen thieves broke down the new door and took $30,000 worth of merchandise from the same lines, as well as some sportswear.

“They just broke [the door] down again, the exact same way” by smashing their bodies against it, he said. “They all had gloves on, they all had positions and they all knew exactly what they were doing. These are professional criminals and jeans are obviously a commodity to them.”

Kogan has installed iron bars on the outside of his doors but says he won’t consider a private security guard.

“In these economic times, how can [independent] boutiques afford that?” he said.

Police arrested four suspects after finding jeans with eModa sales tags at an apartment complex in southwest Atlanta. All have been released on bond.

Law enforcement authorities said the so-called Blue Jeans Bandits belong to a street gang known as 30 Deep, whose members also are being sought in the fatal shooting in January of a bartender near downtown Atlanta.

Police have made more than 20 arrests in the robberies since July 2008, but no suspects have gone to trial and most have been released, said Sgt. Archie Ezell, an Atlanta Police Department spokesman. He said 30 Deep’s organizers send out younger thieves to commit the crimes because “they know the punishments aren’t as bad for juveniles.”

The stolen goods, which were mostly resold last summer at swap meets, beauty salons and nightclubs, are now being resold to groups that are “writing big orders” with the gang before the robberies, said Ezell, adding that a $200 pair of premium jeans usually has a street value of about $70.

Property crime rose 7.6 percent in Atlanta last year, compared with a 1.6 percent decrease nationwide, according to the FBI’s 2008 Preliminary Annual Uniform Crime Report. Mayor Shirley Franklin has instituted police furloughs, cut officers’ salaries 10 percent and reduced their hours and benefits in an effort to shave $13 million from the city’s budget deficit. The City Council has approved a property tax increase, which is intended to allow furloughs to be rescinded.

Franklin and Police Chief Richard Pennington both declined to comment on the retail robbery investigation. Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard Jr. did not respond to requests for comment.

Police have reinstated the Retail Theft Task Force, which was formed last year but disbanded in January.
The task force “sounds like a p.r. move,” said Dana Spinola, the owner of Fab’rik, a Midtown Atlanta boutique that has lost $250,000 in denim inventory in five robberies over the last two years. “When [the police department] first started it last year, they had a big meeting and invited the press and the retailers” who had been robbed. “The next day I got robbed again.”

“No arrests have been made,” she said. “We’ve never heard back from police on any of the robberies at our store.”

Spinola said her security system has done little to dissuade the thieves, citing the speed with which the crimes are committed.

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