By Lukas I. Alpert
Call it a 5 million–finger discount.
A father-daughter duo from Atlanta has been sentenced to more than five years in prison for deploying an army of professional shoplifters to steal millions of dollars of merchandise from retailers such as CVS and Target and then selling the goods online.
Robert Whitley, 70, and his daughter, Noni Whitley, 47, were accused of running the scheme for nearly a decade and organizing the theft of $6.1 million in merchandise before being busted in 2019, prosecutors said.
The pair pleaded guilty in April to interstate transportation of stolen property. Prosecutors at the time described the Whitleys’ operation as a “well-organized criminal enterprise disguised as an apparently legitimate small business.”
“This is retail theft on a massive scale,” said Kurt Erskine, the acting U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia.
Robert Whitley was sentenced to five years and 10 months in prison and Noni Whitely was sentenced to five years. They were also ordered to pay $4.35 million in restitution.
Messages left with attorneys for the Whitleys weren’t immediately returned.
Prosecutors say Robert Whitley — who also went by Mr. Bob — and his daughter would give shoplifters lists of items they were looking for, like razor blades, toothpaste, cosmetics and over-the-counter drugs such as Prilosec, Rogaine and Claritin.
The shoplifters would steal the products from big retail chains including CVS /zigman2/quotes/209664499/composite CVS -1.22% , Walgreens /zigman2/quotes/203410933/composite WBA -1.54% , Target /zigman2/quotes/207799045/composite TGT -0.88% , Kroger /zigman2/quotes/206215053/composite KR +1.41% and Publix, and return with garbage bags full of boosted items to an Atlanta warehouse run by the Whitleys, who would pay for them in cash, according to court filings. Representatives for CVS, Walgreens, Target, Kroger and Publix did not respond immediately to requests for comment.
The Whitleys would then remove all price tags and anti-theft devices from the stolen goods, and sell them at steeply discounted prices through third-party e-commerce platforms including Amazon /zigman2/quotes/210331248/composite AMZN -2.12% Marketplace, Walmart /zigman2/quotes/207374728/composite WMT -1.12% Marketplace and Sears /zigman2/quotes/202095319/delayed SHLDQ +80.00% Marketplace, as well as on their own websites, Closeout Express and Essentials Daily Discount.
An e-commerce bonanza
From 2011 through 2018, prosecutors say the Whitleys sold 140,000 items through their account on Amazon Marketplace, taking in $3.4 million. On Walmart Marketplace, the pair made 29,000 sales between 2017 and 2019 for $750,000. And on Sears Marketplace, they made 1,800 sales for around $50,000.
Messages left with representatives for Amazon, Walmart and Sears weren’t immediately returned.
When investigators shut the Whitleys’ business down in late 2019, they found more than $1 million worth of stolen merchandise in their warehouse.
In court filings, Robert Whitley’s attorney said his client was a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who had a long-time heroin addiction. He got sober in 1984 and spent years counseling others to help them find sobriety, the attorney said. While Whitley didn’t deny dealing in stolen goods, his primary aim was to help other people with heroin addiction, a problem that many of the shoplifters he dealt with had, his attorney said.
Noni Whitley’s attorney argued in court filings that his client had a difficult upbringing due to both her parents’ drug addictions, but had maintained “blind loyalty to her father,” which led her to work alongside him in the criminal enterprise.
Investigators say the thefts not only impacted big companies, but hurt small businesses that lost customers who unknowingly bought low-priced, stolen goods online from the Whitleys instead.
“The Whitleys are now paying the price for inflicting financial harm to legitimate small businesses and consumers affected by those businesses losses,” said Chris Hacker, special agent in charge at the FBI’s field office in Atlanta.