A Baltimore man was sentenced to more than nine years in prison yesterday for leading a band of thieves who stole expensive men's suits from Marshalls department stores and later returned them for cash, bilking the stores out of $274,000.

Clifton Ervin McLean, 55, recruited the thieves who carried out the scam, which victimized 70 Marshalls stores in Virginia, Maryland and four other states, prosecutors said. Hardest hit were the 22 Marshalls locations in Virginia, 10 of which are in Northern Virginia. In all, the Virginia stores lost about $100,000.

Members of the Baltimore-based ring would buy a suit, sometimes costing $799, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. They would then scan the receipts into a computer and print them several times while conspirators stole additional expensive Marshalls suits. The suits would then be returned for cash, using the phony receipts.

Experts have said the case spotlights the growing national problem of organized retail crime. Thieves nationwide are using return schemes similar to the Marshalls scam, experts said, while stores are fighting back by working with law enforcement and focusing more on security.

McLean pleaded guilty in June to one count of wire fraud. He was sentenced yesterday to 110 months in prison by U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee.

The other person identified by prosecutors as a ringleader of the scam, Peggy Ann Clark, 35, of Baltimore, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit interstate transportation of stolen property and was sentenced to two years in prison. In all, nine people were charged. Six of the other seven have pleaded guilty and were sentenced to up to two years in prison. The ninth defendant is a fugitive.

U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty called McLean's punishment "a strong sentence for a serious crime. This defendant was the ringleader of a large-scale theft operation.''

Mark Bodner, an attorney for McLean, said his client pleaded guilty because "he felt he was guilty and didn't want to put the government through the difficulty of a trial.'' Bodner declined to comment further.

A fraud investigator at Marshalls uncovered the scheme, which court documents said was intricate and involved different people playing different roles. Some made legitimate purchases, while others were "boosters" who stole suits. Others were the "refunders."

The conspirators would hit numerous Marshalls stores in different states on the same day, according to court documents. The other states targeted were Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and New York.