Much like two women allegedly tried to do in order to brazenly rob a Walgreens in San Francisco earlier this month, a woman is suspected of coughing in security guards' faces in order to evade capture and rob a Target store in Vallejo. An alleged associate was recently arrested and the second suspect has now turned herself in.
The trend of thieves using coronavirus paranoia to commit crimes continues in the Bay Area, and of course Vallejo had to get in on it. But would-be thieves should think twice about this strategy for trying to get away with petty crimes — prosecutors are invoking a 74-year-old federal law to call the act of threatening to transmit a virus an act of extortion and disruption of commerce.
The latest case involves Vallejo women Julie Santos, 4o, and Kadeem Reese, 30. The pair are suspected of committing a string of robberies, with Santos suspected of using coughing as a deterrent from arrest during the commitment of one robbery at a Target store on March 27. Allegedly, Santos entered the store and began concealing items from shelves on her person. She then walked past cash registers and was confronted by security personnel in the parking lot. As KPIX reports, she then began coughing on them, and the security guards backed up and she escaped in a waiting vehicle.
Reese is reportedly suspected in a string of 12 robberies at gas stations and convenience stores in March. She was arrested on April 3, and authorities discovered she had an association with Santos, per KPIX — though it's unclear if Reese is suspected of being the getaway driver in the above case, or what robberies the two might have committed together.
Vallejo police posted Santos' photo to Twitter in the hope of the public ID-ing her, and she reportedly turned herself in this week.
She walked past @Target cash registers while hiding items she stole, then purposely coughed in the faces of uniformed & plainclothes loss prevention officers who confronted her, per @CityofVallejo PD, hoping for an ID pic.twitter.com/17ubANutpQ— Henry K. Lee (@henrykleeKTVU) April 14, 2020
The case was echoed on April 6 in San Francisco, as KPIX reported, when 36-year-old Carmelita Barela and 32-year-old Rosetta Shabazz allegedly entered a Walgreens in Civic Center carrying empty bags. While allegedly placing merchandise in their bags, the two women allegedly stated "We have COVID" and loudly coughed in the direction of a manager. They were asked to leave, but they reportedly made off with $92 in merchandise first.
The pair were arrested and charged in federal court last week, using the Hobbs Act to liken their actions to mobsters who use the threat of violence — or in this case a virus — to get someone to allow them to steal.
"It's coercion by fear or the threat of a biological weapon or virus," says John Bennett, special agent in charge of the FBI in San Francisco, speaking to FOX 11 in Los Angeles. "While this is a unique way of using [the Hobbs Act], it's very effective," he says, particularly in order to deter other criminals in the name of protecting front-line workers. Barela and Shabazz are currently facing the possibility of 20 years in jail for their $92 haul, if convicted.
"The people who are in the grocery store or the pharmacies, they deserve the ability to be safe so we can all go in there and get out food and our prescriptions filled," Bennett says.