Real story behind smash-and-grab robberies in Los Angeles

On Black Friday, a man and two women walked into an upscale consignment shop on Melrose Avenue. The women started shoving pairs of shoes into their bags and walked out, alarms blaring.

In an interview, the man said that one of the alleged thieves, a young mother of two, steals and resells merchandise to pay her rent.

“That’s how people pay their rent, pay their car loans,” he said. “Going to the mall, stealing clothes, that’s how people have money.”

A series of high-profile crimes in upscale parts of Los Angeles — the so-called smash-and-grab and follow-home robbery — have gotten widespread attention in recent months. Police have deployed officers to malls and shopping corridors like Rodeo Drive and Melrose Avenue. Right-wing media have seized on the robberies as proof that crime in California is out of control.

Yet for all the attention they have received, the brazen crimes make up only a fraction of the city’s burglaries and robberies, which overall have not seen a significant increase.

Citywide, burglaries are down 8% and robberies up 5% over 2020. Far more serious is the dramatic rise in homicides: 389 this year, an increase of 12% from 2020 and 51% from 2019.

But the smash-and-grabs and follow-home robberies have managed to captured the city’s attention in ways the climbing murder rate could not, roiling the political discourse over crime, policing and how the judicial system punishes lawbreakers.

Largely absent from the conversation, however, are the people accused of committing the crimes. Culprits have appeared in pixelated surveillance footage as blurry, masked figures. Police news bulletins offer only vague descriptions of suspects — a race, an age, a height.

The Times identified several people arrested on suspicion of committing smash-and-grabs, follow-home robberies and similarly brazen heists in which people have simply grabbed merchandise off shelves in full view. Through interviews with police and some of the suspects and a review of court and probation records, The Times found that a wide range of people — from a group of Romani women from Orange County to crews of reputed gang members from South Los Angeles — have been implicated in the crimes.

In interviews, the suspects offered differing reasons for the theft: Some scratch out a living reselling what they steal. Others keep what they swipe for themselves.

“I mean, it’s the pandemic, so some people are just struggling,” said Daniel DeHughes, who was arrested on suspicion of stealing sledgehammers and crowbars from a Home Depot that police believed he and his friends were planning to use in a smash-and-grab in Beverly Hills. “They don’t have things, and they want things.”

DeHughes, 19, insisted he was innocent but declined to elaborate. Staff at the youth home where he lives in L.A.’s West Adams neighborhood told him not to talk about his case, he said.

‘How people pay their rent’

Sitting on the porch of his mother’s home in South Los Angeles, the man arrested in the theft on Melrose insisted he had no intention of stealing anything when he and two women walked into the consignment shop on Black Friday.

The 21-year-old, who spoke on the condition that his name not be published because he was concerned for his safety if people thought he was a “snitch,” said he had planned on buying a pair of sneakers at the store. But once inside, he said, the women started shoving pairs of shoes, including Yeezy sneakers, into their fake Louis Vuitton and MCM handbags. He said he watched them walk out of the store with about six pairs of shoes and heard the alarms blaring.

“I’m telling my friends, ‘Don’t walk to my car. Walk somewhere else,’” he recalled. “But they still opened my door and got in my car. I can’t put a gun to their head and tell them to get out of my car.”

He drove off with the women — and the shoes — in his Nissan Altima. He was headed down Melrose Avenue when he made eye contact with a police officer driving in the opposite direction. The officer turned the cruiser around and pulled him over — ostensibly because his windows were tinted.

Since he was on probation for a petty theft conviction, the officer was allowed to search his car. After the officer found the shoes, he and the two women were arrested on suspicion of burglary. The police said they had stolen $1,100 worth of merchandise.

One of the women, a 21-year-old with two young children, steals and resells the merchandise to pay her rent, he said. It is relatively easy to resell stolen goods through social media, he said. It can take just minutes to move an item; often, the goods are sold at close to full price.

Some commit theft to pay their rent or car loans, he said, while others steal simply because they want luxury goods that they cannot afford.

In his prior case, he said, he was stealing over-the-counter medication from CVS and reselling it. It was fast, easy money. He pleaded guilty to petty theft in 2019 and was sentenced to three years of probation.

He recently got a job at a Walmart, he said, and he is determined to keep it.

‘I’m taking this and I’m leaving’

On Nov. 28, five women entered a Lululemon store on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City and made off with $14,256 worth of merchandise, police say.

The store, which has been struck by thieves at least four times since Thanksgiving, had equipped its security tags with GPS tracking devices, said Det. Noah Stone, who investigates robberies and thefts in the Los Angeles Police Department’s North Hollywood Division.

Using the GPS trackers, police arrested the suspects in Anaheim. Romani women who live in Anaheim and Fullerton, they were traveling in two cars that were full of merchandise, some from Lululemon, some from other retailers, Stone said. Detectives are trying to determine whether the other merchandise was stolen, and if so, from where.

The women did not respond to messages left at their apartments in Orange County.

Retailers in and around North Hollywood have not experienced coordinated smash-and-grabs so much as thieves simply “taking stuff off shelves,” Stone said. He sees the perpetrators as emboldened, unfazed by possible consequences. “The days of somebody hiding behind a rack and covertly putting stuff in their backpack, it’s not as much like that anymore,” he said. “It’s more: ‘Don’t care. I’m taking this and I’m leaving.’”

Two days before the Romani women allegedly hit the Lululemon store in Studio City, it was raided by two men and two women who stole $31,720 worth of merchandise, Stone said.

The four suspects, thought to be part of a statewide crime ring, are suspected in a theft committed just a day earlier at a Sunglass Hut in Monterey, according to Stone. “That tells you how far they’re willing to travel,” he said.

‘Give me everything!’

In the early morning hours of Nov. 10, Terrence Jenkins, a former BET television host, left a restaurant and drove with a friend to his house in Sherman Oaks.

As Jenkins arrived home, he saw four people walking up the driveway, holding guns. “Get out of the car!” one yelled, according to records reviewed by The Times.

LAPD detectives who investigate serial robberies first noticed a trend early in 2021. People were being marked as targets in expensive restaurants, bars and nightclubs and robbed once they got home. Police dubbed it the follow-home robbery.

“I imagine there were some” in the past, said Det. Freddy Arroyo, who is assigned to the LAPD’s Robbery-Homicide Division, “but it became so prevalent that we really noticed it this year.”

In November, the LAPD formed a task force, anchored by Robbery-Homicide and supplemented with detectives from other units, to investigate the robberies. The catalyst, Arroyo said, was when two men robbed an Israeli family at a sidewalk cafe on Melrose Avenue. While that incident in September was not a follow-home robbery, the suspects showed a similar method of picking out victims for their watches, jewelry or other expensive items, Arroyo said.

The stickup was one of four the pair committed in a span of three hours, part of a spree that detectives called the “VW Bandit Series” after the Volkswagen Jetta they used as a getaway car, according to a search warrant reviewed by The Times.

Detectives are investigating 150 follow-home robberies and similar crimes committed this year, Arroyo said. Where the crimes have occurred is telling: Ninety of the 150 were committed in the LAPD’s West Bureau, which encompasses Hollywood, Fairfax and the Westside. Thirty-four were reported in Central Bureau, 22 in Valley Bureau and four in South Bureau.

Hollywood Division, which is part of West Bureau, has recorded 626 robberies this year, a 42% increase over 2020. Forty have been classified as follow-home robberies. Despite the increase, Hollywood Division has seen far fewer robberies than some other LAPD patrol areas. 77th Street Division in South Los Angeles has recorded 942 robberies this year. Only two are being investigated as follow-home robberies.

Most of the suspects in follow-home robberies are members of gangs from South Los Angeles or the Inland Empire, Arroyo said. The detective declined to name specific gangs, but a reputed member of the Bounty Hunter Bloods in Watts has been charged in a series of follow-home robberies, according a probation report reviewed by The Times.

Tyrique Shawndell Wise, 20, is a “well-known member” of the Bounty Hunters, a gang based in the Nickerson Gardens housing projects, a deputy probation officer wrote in the report.

Wise was first arrested at 13 and convicted of carrying a gun and ammunition as a minor, the report says. He was convicted at 15 of stealing a car and sent to a California Youth Authority facility in Stockton for 84 months, the report says. He was discharged on Nov. 17, 2020.

Standing in the doorway of her home in Watts, Wise’s mother, Tyhisha Griggs, said the police have long assumed that her son is a gang member. When he was 11, a police officer stopped him while he was riding a dirt bike in the neighborhood and asked if he was a member of the Bounty Hunters, she said. “That’s been with him ever since.”

Her son could not help growing up in a neighborhood or having relatives associated with the gang, she said. “If it’s a family member, it’s what it is — but some of us are honest, working people,” said Griggs, a school bus driver.

Authorities say Wise was part of a group that committed the first in what would be a string of robberies at 11:30 p.m. on a Friday in May. A couple had driven home from a restaurant. As they waited for their garage door to open, two cars pulled up behind them, blocking their exit. At gunpoint, the couple handed over a Rolex, a Chanel wallet and a Louis Vuitton purse, according to the probation report.

At 3 p.m. the next day, the report says, Wise and two companions pointed guns at a man standing on a sidewalk and shouted: “Give me all your s—. Give me everything!” They made off with a gold necklace valued at $80,000 and $12,000 in cash, according to the report.

Detectives believe some of the robbery crews are using spotters — either employees or customers at restaurants and nightclubs — who will tip them to a patron wearing an expensive watch or driving a luxury car, Arroyo said.

Over the next six months, Wise and the others in his group, whom police have also described in probation records as gang members robbed another six people and tried to rob three more, prosecutors charge. In all, they took more than $500,000 worth of watches, jewelry, cash and other property, a detective told the probation officer who wrote the report.

Arroyo said he and other investigators do not know how the stolen items are being sold. They can search whether a suspect has sold anything to a pawn shop, but “these Rolexes and high-end watches are not being pawned — not legally, at least,” he said.

Jenkins, authorities say, was Wise’s final target. When the former television host saw men approaching his car with guns, he reversed out of his driveway and took off, the probation report says.

Wise and his companions gave chase, according to the report. Someone in their car fired shots at Jenkins, but neither he nor his friend was hit, the document says.

At 2 that morning, LAPD officers in a marked patrol car tried to pull over Wise. He led them on a pursuit, driving “erratically” and at “high rates of speed,” the report says.

Eight hours later, Wise was arrested at a Best Western on Centinela Avenue in Inglewood. Detectives searched his room and a silver 2018 Mercedes-Benz sedan he’d been driving, seizing an 18-inch chain necklace and a black XD-9 Springfield handgun that had been reported stolen in San Bernardino, among other items, according to a search warrant return.

Wise has pleaded not guilty to 17 counts of robbery, attempted robbery, assault, shooting into an occupied car, evading the police, possessing a gun with juvenile priors, and the attempted murders of Jenkins and his friend.

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