San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin announced Monday that two indictments have been filed and five arrest warrants written in a two-year sting operation targeting organized retail theft in the city. And at the center of it, prosecutors say, was a humble seeming, occasionally well reviewed camera repair shop and second-hand store in the Tenderloin.
Camera Heaven at 746 Larkin Street, in the Little Saigon sub-neighborhood of the Tenderloin, has four stars on Yelp and can claim to have earned a few fans among camera geeks going back a decade and a half. But according to the DA's Office, via its investigation dubbed Operation Focus Lens, the shop was a front for reselling stolen clothing items pilfered from retail stores around San Francisco. And one of the arrest warrants is for an individual who resides in Vietnam.
In total, $2 million worth of allegedly stolen goods have been recovered to date.
This week's announcement comes at the end of a year when DA Boudin has repeatedly stressed that he wanted to prosecute those behind the fencing operations that make retail theft profitable — less so the low-level thieves themselves, though the pressure is on to deter crime at all levels, and Boudin has talked tough about several individuals arrested in the flash-mob robberies of Union Square stores several weeks ago.
"My office is committed to combatting organized retail theft by targeting the source: the fencers who are profiting from the reselling of stolen goods. I am proud of our office’s leadership in uncovering this global operation," said Boudin in a statement accompanying the announcement. "I am also thankful to the many law enforcement agencies who partnered with us and helped us successfully recover stolen goods and identify individuals responsible for driving organized retail thefts in San Francisco."
Operation Focus Lens grew out of an earlier effort, Operation Wrecking Ball, that was targeting the resellers of stolen goods at 7th and Market Streets. Investigators with the DA's Office, led by District Attorney’s Office Lieutenant Alex Nocon, were investigating thefts at the Macy's in Union Square in December 2019. That led them and the SFPD to arrest Rodolfo Castillo, an individual they say was observed stealing $7,500 in merchandise from the store, including an entire rack of clothing and a shipping box full of shoes.
Castillo led investigators to Camera Heaven, and its owners, David Tran and Yanxia Xie, to whom Castillo was allegedly selling some of his ill-gotten goods. Tran and Xie were allegedly sending goods by mail to one Nate Pham in Vietnam, and a warrant is out for Pham's arrest.
"Postal Inspectors worked closely with the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office and our partners in law enforcement to arrest and prosecute those individuals responsible for theft and fraud schemes committed against businesses," said SF Division Inspector in Charge of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Rafael Nunez, in a statement.
Operation Focus Lens also, earlier, led to separate indictments of the owners of Fashion Exchange, a vintage clothing and consignment store with locations on Polk Street and in the Richmond District. In August, the DA's Office charged Fashion Exchange owners Deanna Klinkovich and Floriya Pavlichenko with possession of stolen property, and their case is currently pending.
There are still three outstanding arrest warrants in the case for multiple charges of organized retail theft, grand theft, possession of stolen property, and money laundering.
The multi-agency operation relied on help from the SFPD, the California Highway Patrol Retail Crime Task Force, the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, and Homeland Security Investigations.
Kevin Domby, a lieutenant with CHP, added in a statement that "Organized retail crime needs an organized, collaborative response" like the one used here. And, Domby said, "The vast amount of recovered stolen property and now arrests from Operation Focus Lens, an operation that began in 2019 ensures those directing and benefiting the most from these crimes will now be held to answer."
Photo via Google Streetview