Police say theft ring hit a dozen KC-area stores

Police say they are close to breaking up a ring of big-box store thieves that has struck a dozen major retailers across the Kansas City area and beyond.

One woman has been charged in Cass County, Mo., in connection with the thefts, and police said Tuesday that they are zeroing in on some members of a Missouri family with a network of friends who are suspects in the theft ring.

The operation, believed to be centered in Belton, Mo., extended to major retailers as far north as St. Joseph and as far east as Columbia and Jefferson City, said Overland Park police Detective Andrew Kearney.

Kearney said the suspects lifted merchandise worth tens of thousands of dollars from an array of retailers including Target, Wal-Mart, Kmart, Sears, JCPenney and Macy's.

Police have as many as two dozen similar groups on their radar, people who are attracted to a crime that can yield more than bank robbery with less risk of a long prison sentence.

"This is the new wave," Kearney said. "The trend we're seeing is people with a criminal history ... are switching over to a lot of this stuff and leaving behind a lot of the violent criminal activity because this is lucrative."

The investigation started near Thanksgiving when security at Target notified Overland Park police about thefts.

According to court documents filed in Cass County, Belton police obtained a search warrant for a house after they were contacted by Overland Park detectives.

There they said they found a large amount of stolen property including video games, electronics and clothing.

Officers arrested a woman at the home after identifying her from surveillance photos at some of the victimized stores. At the time of the search she was wearing the same shirt pictured in some of the surveillance photos, according to court documents.

Cass County prosecutors subsequently charged Jennifer Dawn Austin, 31, with a felony count of receiving stolen property. Austin is scheduled to be arraigned on the charge this morning, according to court records.

She was also wanted on a probation violation for an identity theft conviction in Johnson County.

According to the court documents filed in Austin's case, the thieves would operate in pairs. One would keep a sales clerk occupied while the other walked out with the expensive items.

The method is "good enough that it's going to be pretty difficult for the retailers to stop it," Kearney said.

Kearney expects more arrests to be made in the next couple of weeks. Police said they don't believe the suspects will flee because they are heavily connected to the area.

"There are a few innocent members of the family that are uninvolved who are working," Kearney said. "The ones who are highly involved, this is their job — committing crime and thefts in order to get by."

Kearney said this group is typical of what police are starting to see more frequently.

"We have tons of these groups that are almost carbon copies of this one," he said.

A spokeswoman from Target declined to comment on the investigation Tuesday. But Overland Park police said the store has recordings showing the suspects and their vehicles.