WOODBURY — A bust that began with a man caught toting a mattress out of a JC Penney store opened a Pandora’s Box of stolen loot that two of Washington County’s most tenured prosecutors said was the largest such retail crime ring they’ve seen.
The case, which authorities said turned up nearly $1 million worth of stolen merchandise, led to rare racketeering charges against two east metro men this week. Washington County prosecutors on Tuesday charged 54-year-old Landfall resident Randal D. Simmons and 45-year-old St. Paul resident Brian J. Bowling with felony racketeering.
“I’ve yet to to see something this well done,” Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said of the Woodbury police-led sting, citing his 30-plus years as a prosecutor.
Prosecutors, joined by Woodbury police at a Thursday news conference at the Woodbury Public Safety Building, allege Bowling — and others — did the stealing and got paid by Simmons, who sold the merchandise on Ebay.
Simmons appeared Wednesday in Washington County District Court, where he was held on $500,000 unconditional bail or $400,000 with conditions.
Bowling had yet to make his initial court appearance.
According to criminal complaints filed in the case, Bowling was arrested June 21 at the Woodbury JC Penney store after he was caught stealing a $1,400 inflatable mattress out of the store. Police interviewed him and learned he was planning to sell the mattress to his fence, Simmons, the complaint states.
Woodbury’s street crimes unit then launched an extensive investigation where Bowling, Simmons and others were followed and recorded. Woodbury police officer Adam Sack, who focuses on retail crimes, said he and three other officers spent hundreds of hours investigating the case.
Investigators and prosecutors must now comb through hundreds of hours of surveillance video and thousands of photos, Washington County prosecutor Marc Berris said. Where the cache of evidence leads the case will take time, he said.
“I don’t think anybody ever suspected just how significant this is,” Berris said.
Following the initial arrest, Woodbury police learned others were involved in what prosecutors called a “criminal enterprise.” Investigators later concluded that between June 8 and mid-August, Bowling had stolen more than $20,000 worth of merchandise.
Simmons was seen peeling off cash that he handed to Bowling during an exchange of stolen merchandise in Shoreview, the charging document states.
As the investigation unfurled, police linked Bowling and others to subsequent thefts around the metro and at businesses large and small, Woodbury police said.
Woodbury Police detective Sgt. Neil Bauer said Bowling was known “by every retailer in the metro area.” Stealing and fencing the goods, Bauer said, was “their full-time job.”
Wisconsin court records show Bowling has an active theft case in St. Croix County stemming from an April 2018 Hudson grocery store incident.
Police tracked Simmons’ activity to garages at apartment buildings in Roseville, along with a storage unit in Little Canada. There, Bauer said, police uncovered a stash of loot like they’d never seen before.
Slides shown at Thursday’s news conference displayed high-end bicycles, tools, golf clubs, boxes of Crest whitening strips, bins of cosmetics and a stack of chainsaws recovered from the units.
“We had no idea the scale,” he said, adding the value of the property was estimated at nearly $1 million. “You name it, we found it in these storage units.”
The criminal complaint also details how police discovered Ebay accounts Simmons allegedly used to sell the goods to unsuspecting customers online.
Prosecutors said the value of the merchandise allowed them to file the rare racketeering charge, which must exceed $35,000. Orput suggested at the news conference that the ongoing investigation could yield more.
“The problem is, this could be bigger,” he said, noting that the suspects’ bank accounts have been frozen by Woodbury police.
Retail theft affects everyone from big box stores to the consumer, he added.
“Every one of us who buys, pays more because of that," he said. "This is a really egregious example of why we get stuck paying more for products because there are thieves out there that will steal anything that’s not nailed down.”
Orput said the suspects sold items at about relatively modest discount so buyers wouldn’t suspect they were stolen. Something worth $200 might be sold for $150, he said.
“Typically when you’re buying stolen goods, it's a dime on the dollar,“ he said. “So it seems legitimate. It just seemed discounted. Actually a smart thing. The problem is they couldn’t move these products fast enough. If it wasn’t nailed down it was stolen. Everything from contraceptives to camping tents.”
The suspects usually were in and out of a store in under three minutes, Bauer said. Their methods involved brazenness rather than stealth.
One small business in Woodbury lost thousands of dollars in merchandise in four separate thefts.
“There were groups of females that came in,” Bauer said. “They were very organized. They came in in groups. They’d have somebody waiting outside. They would come in with big empty purses, fill them up and and they would leave. “
One of the biggest thefts occurred July 6, when $5,600 worth of jeans were stolen from Nordstrom in Minnetonka, Bauer said. Video surveillance footage showed Bowling walking into the store and leaving with a stack of blue jeans. The theft took less than a than a minute, according to the complaint.
Others suspected in the crime ring could also face charges, prosecutors said.
“We’re going to leave no crook left uncharged,” Orput said.
RiverTown Multimedia reporter William Loeffler contributed to this report