District mayor decries shoplifting; Montgomery police say 7-Elevin ‘flash mob’ used word of mouth, not social media.

August 19, 2011

Thou shalt not steal. Even in the age of Twitter and texting, that is set in stone and, indeed, an article of faith for many people.

Yet within the past few days, up have popped security camera images of swarms of young people ransacking the snack aisles of convenience stores in Germantown and, more recently, in Northeast in the District.

They do not deign to pay.

“Both morality and the law are quite clear: It is wrong to steal from others,” District Mayor Vincent C. Gray said via press release Friday after images of a group of shoplifters in the Shop Express in the 3900 block of Benning Road NE went viral. His release pledged to “pursue criminal charges against those involved.”

Gray’s spokeswoman, Linda Wharton Boyd, said the mayor spoke out in hopes of blunting copycat behavior coming on the heels of a similar event Aug. 13 at a Germantown 7-Eleven.

In the Shop Express incident, about 10 young women entered the store around 3:15 a.m. Thursday. Images do not make clear how many of them stole items.

The store’s manager, Muhammad Butt, said he estimated about $70 worth of stuff — mostly snacks — was taken by the women, who arrived and left on foot.

“We have shoplifters nearly ­every day, but they take one item,” Butt said Friday. “Not this grabbing by a group.”

The swarm strategy isn’t new. Clothiers in the District were hit hard in 2009 by a similar group heist tactic, and two such incidents have occurred at Dupont Circle and Georgetown clothing shops since April, District police said Friday.

In these latest cases, even the organizing tactics may not be new. Although D.C. police have not identified suspects in the latest incidents, Montgomery County police say the group that surged into the Germantown store did not organize over social media.

The participants all had been at the Montgomery County Fair. They traveled by bus to the Germantown Transit Center and, once there, made plans to rush into the store, where they stole about $450 worth of candy, snacks and drinks, according to police.

Detectives have identified 16 of what they currently believe to be 25 suspects, most of them juveniles, in that case and plan to discuss charges with prosecutors next week, said Officer Janelle Smith, a Montgomery County police spokeswoman. Among the possibilities are disorderly conduct, theft and — if any of them threatened the clerk — robbery.

Some of the suspects may have assumed that police would treat their crimes lightly, dismissing it as “kids being kids,” according to Smith. But detectives are combing through the video and trying to bring charges.

“I think this is setting the precedent of what we’re going to do,” Smith said of “flash mob” investigations. “This was the first. Hopefully it will be the last.”

At least one member of the Germantown throng may have ­realized that what the others were doing wasn’t a great idea, according to Smith: She appears to come back to the counter — and pay for an item.

Mary Pat Flaherty works on investigative and long-range stories. Her work has won numerous national awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.
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