Cops round up suspects in brazen Union Square thefts

San Francisco prosecutors Monday announced that charges have been filed against 16 people in connection with an organized retail theft operation linked to burglaries and robberies in more than half a dozen cities.

The 16 defendants, who face charges including robbery, grand theft, commercial burglary and conspiracy, are linked to dozens of thefts in Union Square and other parts of San Francisco dating back to April of 2015 worth more than $225,000, District Attorney George Gascon said today.

Local authorities are also providing information to help prosecute another 10 people allegedly connected with the ring for crimes in other jurisdictions including San Jose, Houston, Dallas, Honolulu, Seattle and Los Angeles, Gascon said.

Prosecutors allege the defendants all took part in a series of thefts that have evolved from simple snatch-and-grab operations, in which a large group would enter a store and take as much as they could before fleeing, to more violent store takeover-style robberies involving the use of pepper spray or knives.

Many of the crimes have targeted retailers in the Union Square area, but other parts of The City have not been immune. Prosecutors today said members of the group have also traveled around the country conducting similar raids in other cities as well.

Police last year referred to suspects in similar crimes as the “Rainbow Girls” or “Rainbow Crew,” due to the rainbow-colored outfits and hairstyles of some of the participating women. Officials at that time said the group, or perhaps several groups, had been operating in The City for several years.

Lt. Valerie Matthews, head of investigations for Central Station, said that some of the individuals linked to crimes in other cities are allegedly responsible for as much as $1 million to $2 million in losses.

The crimes, Matthews said, are not just simple shoplifting:

“A lot of times it can be violent, it can be scary for employees, and the loss is just tremendous.”

The indictment announced today was the result of a collaborative effort by the District Attorney’s Office’s Crime Strategies Unit, which works to analyze and identify links between individual crimes, and police.

Connecting the crimes helps prosecutors pursue more serious charges and increase the likely sentences attached to any convictions.

Gascon said:

“We have the analytic capacity to look at these cases and connect them as we did, not only with many other cases in San Francisco but also with cases in other jurisdictions.”

In addition, the effort was aided by the network of more than 300 high-definition surveillance video cameras installed by the Union Square Business Improvement District since 2012.

Wes Taylor, general manager for the Chancellor Hotel and a member of the business improvement district, said:

“If we don’t have the actual incident on camera we have the path of travel and other ways of identifying people who come and go in the district. ..  If you commit a crime in Union Square, you will be identified and you will be caught,” Taylor said.