Dressed in monochrome black and gray head to toe, they stormed through the doors of the Nordstrom at the Westfield Topanga mall Saturday afternoon.
More than 30 masked robbers, men and women, flowed into the Canoga Park store, immediately heading for the top-dollar purses, clothes racks and jewels.
The sound of glass display cases thrown to the ground sounded like gunshots, said a Nordstrom employee who had a clear line of sight of the robbery. She told customers to run to a back room in case the robbery turned violent.
The thieves snatched designer items, undeterred by the chains and cables binding the wares. Shelving was yanked apart. Some dragged display cabinets still attached to high-priced accessories toward the store doors.
“It was awful to watch,” said the employee, who was not authorized to comment about the robbery.
Overall crime rates in Los Angeles are down from last year, and a recent surge in smash-and-grab robberies makes up little of the overall problem of retail thefts. Still, the audacious daytime incidents over the last few weeks have cast a long shadow, leaving people who shop and work at malls unsettled.
The brazen Nordstrom robbery was captured on video and quickly became national news — and more fodder in the debate over how to respond to retail crime that is roiling big cities including L.A., San Francisco and New York.
“What can stores do to be safer?”
— Ani Chittle, 77, a Topanga mall regular
In recent weeks, organized mobs hit stores across the L.A. region, including Nike, Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent. A Ksubi store on La Brea Avenue was targeted Tuesday evening.
“What can stores do to be safer?” said Ani Chittle, 77, a Westfield Topanga mall regular who was drinking coffee outside the Nordstrom on Monday with her husband. “We are not overreacting to the robberies and I’m not so scared that I have changed my habits to visit here.”
The LAPD responded to the robbery by beefing up patrols. But officials said they are concerned about the message the brazen mobs send about safety.
“The most disheartening thing here is that this is what we’ve come to here in L.A.,” said LAPD Cmdr. Gisselle Espinoza. “We are interviewing people and trying to find leads and strategies to find out who these people are.”
Sophisticated networks are sometimes organized on social media and messaging apps, targeting luxury retailers and then reselling items through websites.
The thieves coordinate to steal merchandise such as perfume, cosmetics, toiletries and power tools, using an army of cohorts to deliver their stolen merchandise to warehouses.
Although Plexiglas cases and steel cables deter the professional shoplifting crews, the mobs aren’t beyond using sheer force and even violence to get what they want.
LAPD Assistant Chief Dominic Choi told the city’s civil Police Commission on Tuesday that the Nordstrom thieves made off with more than $100,000 of merchandise within minutes. A shopper who uploaded a video of the chaos captured pillaged clothing racks, broken display counters and ringing clothing sensor tag alarms.
“They were wearing ski masks and fled with high-end handbags, clothing and other easily resellable items,” Choi said. “We are unsure if the other flash mobs are related but we are working on any connections.”
Five days earlier, the loss was even greater at the Yves Saint Laurent in Glendale. Thirty bandits grabbed about $300,000 of merchandise. Rick Caruso, whose company owns the Americana at Brand shopping center, offered a $50,000 reward leading to the arrests of the suspects.
Glendale police have strong leads on the suspects in that brazen crime, according to law enforcement sources not authorized to discuss those efforts.
Aram Kaloustian grabbed a cup of coffee Tuesday morning at the Americana, a few hundred feet from the Yves Saint Laurent store where workers repaired the entrance to the shop that thieves ransacked last week.
Kaloustian, 53, has lived in Glendale for more than 30 years and feels it’s one of the safest cities in the region. The robbery will not deter him from visiting the outdoor mall, he said.
“I feel safer at the Americana than anywhere else,” Kaloustian said. “There is such a presence of security and these thieves cannot do more than grab and run with the products that they want to steal.”
The Westfield Topanga attack has underscored how such high-profile crimes have become political issues. In San Francisco, retail thefts have roiled the city. Some top retailers, including Nordstrom and Whole Foods, have closed stores in parts of the city that have struggled to recover from the pandemic.
Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass called the robbery “absolutely unacceptable…. Those who committed these acts and acts like it in neighboring areas must be held accountable.”
Caruso, who narrowly lost a bid to be Los Angeles mayor, said the state’s politicians and prosecutors need to “have some backbone” and realize that decriminalizing lesser crimes and adopting so-called zero bail policies allow repeat offenders to get out quickly and commit new crimes.
“This isn’t a situation where you have a couple of knuckleheads going into a store stealing and running out. This is organized crime,” he said. “They’re well-prepared and serial criminals. They do it over and over again. When they get arrested, they know they’re getting out.”
Mob thefts first drew headlines a few years ago after a series of incidents in high-end malls across California as well as in San Francisco’s Union Square.
Faced with criticism that the state was too lenient toward shoplifters, Gov. Gavin Newsom and Atty. Gen Rob Bonta went on the offensive, directing the California Highway Patrol and other entities to target retail thieves.
Under California law, “organized retail theft” can be prosecuted as a felony if an individual works with at least one other person to steal with the intent to sell.
The surge in such high-profile crimes renewed debate over justice reform measures, such as zero bail policies for most misdemeanor crimes, including shoplifting.
Law enforcement officials including LAPD Chief Michel Moore have criticized zero bail policies, saying they allow for repeat offenders and make it more difficult to punish criminals.
Critics often also blame a rise in property crimes on Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón’s policies that limit the prosecution of low-level misdemeanors. The number of misdemeanors prosecuted in Los Angeles has plummeted during Gascón’s administration.
LAPD crime statistics show that the number of burglaries so far in 2023 has climbed to 8,567 compared with 7,579 in the same period of 2021, about 13% higher than 2021 but 4% lower than last year. Similarly, robberies are up 4% over 2021 but down 14% from last year. Overall, crime has decreased from last year, by 2%, but is still significantly above 2021 levels by 12%. Violent crime is trending down for a second year, with a nearly 9% drop in 2023, according to LAPD statistics.
But criminologists often warn that it’s unlikely a prosecutor’s policies would affect crime rates so directly in just a few years.
Gascón said scenes at the malls in Canoga Park and Glendale are not shoplifting but brazen organized retail theft.
“This seems to be organized crime to me and for that reason, we have assigned our organized crime unit to work on these cases since last year,” he said.
By Monday, more security guards than usual patrolled the Westfield Topanga mall, said Courtney Blair, 23, who regularly visits the mall. The overall feeling is that the mall intends to deter any copycats, but Blair is concerned that the increase in security will only be temporary.
“If the increase in security goes away, after the attention on the robbery dies down, then the sense of safety will also go away,” Blair said. “If that happens, then the mall will lose my physical patronage. I’ll still buy things online.”
Times staff writer James Queally contributed to this report.