Viral flash-mob theft video leads to charges

August 26, 2011

For some teenagers, the idea of joining a “flash mob” theft no doubt has its appeal: Rush into a store with a couple dozen buddies, overwhelm the clerk, help yourself to munchies and leave.

But as a recent round-up of flash-mob suspects in Montgomery County shows, there’s a decent chance the trend could fade quickly.

“One of the lessons here is you are not anonymous. You’re on camera,” Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy said Friday, after officials announced that in-store security images have allowed them to identify 17 suspects who rushed into a Germantown 7-Eleven on Aug. 13 at 1:47 a.m.

“These kids basically thought they could walk in there, create havoc and remain anonymous,” said Capt. Luther Reynolds, commander of Montgomery’s Germantown police district.

The suspects will be charged with any or all of three offenses: theft, conspiracy to commit theft and disorderly conduct, police said.

Of the 17, 14 are juveniles. Police said they will release the names of the adult suspects — ages 18, 19 and 20 — once they have been legally served. Police will not identify the juveniles because such records are confidential.

Detectives are looking to identify another seven caught on camera. “We intend to identify the rest,” Reynolds said.

The striking surveillance footage, posted on news sites and YouTube, went viral, and people all over the world watched the group darting up and down aisles, taking over the store. Montgomery police Chief J. Thomas Manger appeared on CNN to discuss the case.

Closer to home, detectives took advantage of the security video, breaking it down into still images. They showed these to an officer who works in area schools and to principals. Names started pouring in.

Detectives also are firming up what the case is not about: Texting and social media.

That’s been the case in some flash mobs: Young people used the technology to assemble. In the 7-Eleven job, the youths rode a bus from the county fair to the Germantown area and started talking to one another. Someone came up with the idea to hit the 7-Eleven.

Among the group were a few juveniles who had been arrested before, but most hadn’t been, officials said. “There was a pack mentality that took over,” Manger said.

“Most of these kids are good kids who didn’t think this through,” added Reynolds.

Rather than celebrate the video by posting it on their Facebook pages, he said, many were embarrassed that the video spread so far.

At least one person shown on the video, a young woman, came in with the group but made a point to pay the clerk for her purchase. She was cleared of wrongdoing, officials said.

The cases against the juveniles will be handled by the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services. If the parents of the youths show that they they are stepping in — imposing discipline themselves, for example — that could go a long way in sparing their kids of any kind of detention, officials said.

And there is an indication that may happen.

Reynolds said that after the teenagers were identified and notified, most came into the police station with a parent or parents, admitted what they did and said they regretted it.

Post staff writer Dan Morse covers courts and crime in Montgomery County, Md.
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