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Granny gang busted for stolen goods

By Alison Soltau
Of The Examiner Staff
Published on Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Clutching canes and breathing respirators while sitting at a table in Hallidie Plaza, they could be any group of seniors relaxing amid the holiday shopping frenzy.

But this is a senior citizen's club with a twist -- police have identified some 14 elderly women and men who are virtual granny gangsters, fencing stolen goods brought to them by a network of shoplifters.

The 14, many between 75 to 80 years old, were detained in a San Francisco police burglary and fencing raid on Dec. 10 after several weeks of police video surveillance at Hallidie Plaza.

On a grainy police video shot in November, a dapperly dressed old man in suit and tie, carrying a cane can be seen sitting with a fedora-clad elderly man and two kindly-looking old women dressed demurely in scarves, surveying the plaza.

In scene after scene, what appear to be younger, professional shoplifters walk up to the table, present the elders with a bag or an item of clothing, then walk away. A second associate strolls up to the group a few moments later and the elderly men and women surreptitiously pass him bills of money.

Insp. Bob Rogers of the Burglary detail said experienced shoplifters were stealing from stores such as the Gap, Old Navy and Nordstroms and on-selling the clothing, jewelry, leather and toiletries to the older people.

"The elderly women will go into the stores and say, 'I lost my receipt, look I have not used this item and the price tag is still on it' or, 'It was a gift and I want to return it,'" said Lt. Tom Buckley of the Burglary Detail. "Being elderly and because it is the Christmas rush, people believe them. They get money for the item or in the worst case scenario, a store credit."

Frustrated Union Square retailers asked police to investigate a rise in shoplifting leading to the sting and the discovery that older than usual perpetrators are part of the scam, police said.

"It's not the greatest crime of the century but merchants and residents were asking for our help to make them aware that this is not acceptable," Buckley said.

It was not clear how the seniors struck up a working relationship with the shoplifters, but police intend to find out more about them by speaking to ethnic community leaders.

An undercover cop presented supposedly shoplifted clothes to one old woman with the security tags still attached.

"She said, 'You can't use this, [retailers] won't take things with tags in the refund scam. You must be new at this'," said Rogers, who lead the investigation.

The detained seniors were ushered down to the Powell Street BART police station and questioned.

None had criminal records and they did not seem to be poor or in need of extra money, Buckley said. They appeared genuinely apologetic, he added.

Police had the power to charge the seniors as felons but decided against it because of their age and the relatively small value of the stolen goods recovered.They decided instead to issue a stern warning that if caught again, they would be booked for two offenses. Cops will now concentrate on the network of younger shoplifters offering the goods to the elderly people.

Police speculate that some of the older immigrant offenders are accustomed to trading in flea markets in their homeland and might have rationalized it as such rather than as receiving stolen goods and then went one step further into illegal activity by returning the goods to the stores.

More used to busting hardened serial criminals, the posse of wayward seniors posed challenges for police, Rogers said.

"We didn't have our guns out. We were not entirely thrilled to be there talking to them when one man had to turn up his oxygen machine and get more air because he was so stressed," Rogers said. "He kept saying, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry', and apologizing. They all promised they wouldn't do it again."

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