One Friday night in March, a suspicious though not unexpected group of three men and three women strutted into the Gap store at the Westlake Promenade, attitude crackling off them like static electricity. Some headed to the counter, where they commanded the clerks' attention, fussing and unloading clothes from fat shopping bags already brimming with trendy merchandise. Others disappeared into the racks of spring fashions.
Gap employees braced themselves. They knew these people. Their routine was always the same. Whenever they shopped, they were loud and disruptive. They always returned more than they bought. On a usual night, employees would have done what they always did when they suspected the group was ripping them off: smile and say -- though the irony nearly killed them -- "May I help you?"
The ringleaders were Darlene Burnett Delraye, 47, and Sherry West, 26, the mother of Delraye's grandchildren. Other family members took turns accompanying them. One former manager of a metro area store says they typically bilked her out of $1,000 to $2,000 a week.
But losing money didn't bother the manager as much as the torment of waiting on them. She says her staff endured behavior ranging from verbally abusive to physically threatening. The extended Burnett family addressed clerks by their first names and contested the store's return policies with senior managers. If a clerk questioned a receipt or refused to provide a return for any reason, family members would scream at her, threaten to file a discrimination suit, or get her fired for being racist.
Once, the former manager saw a woman from the crew swipe a pair of babyGap jeans. With none-too-subtle intimidation, the woman's companion pulled out a packaging knife and started cleaning her nails with it.
"While I'm talking to them, I'm shaking," recalls the former manager, who asked to remain anonymous because she still fears the family. "I'm going cold inside . . . Verbal assault is just as bad as physical assault, and having to go through an ordeal like that for 45 minutes makes you feel like you're being held hostage."
Most times the manager didn't dare call police. Gap markets its diversity policy along with its merchandise, and the supervisor worried about the appearance of a white woman accusing black people of theft. Unless she saw them steal with her own eyes -- which is Gap policy -- she let them go, because she didn't want to risk a discrimination complaint.
But Westlake managers weren't so reluctant. For over a year, they had been calling the police on the group. Westlake cops once removed Sherry West and Alphonso Burnett, the father of her children, from the store for creating a disturbance, but there wasn't enough evidence to charge them with theft. On other occasions, employees went home crying from the stress of it all. The parents of high-school-age workers often complained to managers, demanding they take action.
Just before 7 p.m. on Friday, March 10, Westlake employees finally had enough.
A few days earlier, one of the crew brazenly informed workers they would be back Friday. So that evening, when Westlake patrolman Mark Krumheuer stopped by the Gap at the beginning of his off-duty shift as a Promenade security guard, employees told him they were expecting some unwanted "customers." A half-hour later, the Burnetts arrived laden with shopping bags. Gap employee Brenda Wittman called the police.
Krumheuer stood outside and watched the scheme unfold: While some members of the family kept clerks busy with returns that totaled several hundred dollars, Roderic Burnett, Delraye's 25-year-old nephew, stole some shirts and hid them in his bag. Another officer arrived and witnessed Roderic place still more shirts in his bag.
That's when police entered the store. Chaos ensued.
When questioned, Roderic said the bag with the stolen merchandise wasn't his. Delraye's son, Leonard Burnett, 19, claimed it instead. Then Delraye entered the fray when Leonard tried to pass her a pouch full of receipts.
"They started with the 'You're only doing this because we're black,'" Westlake Detective Tim Tolero says. "Because of the commotion, they were all separated and taken outside the store and questioned . . . There was minor resisting, pulling away from the officers, and there were threats about how [Cleveland Mayor] Mike White was going to fire us all."
Throughout the parking lot interrogation, the group, which included Delraye's 27-year-old son Alphonso and her 23-year-old daughter Amber, admitted to nothing. All but West gave fictitious names. They told police they arrived by bus, but they didn't know which number. When car keys were found on Delraye, she refused to say which car was hers. Officers arrested the whole family.
Police found nearly $3,000 worth of Gap merchandise on the Burnetts, plus $1,521 in cash and hundreds of receipts from Gap stores in four states. After scouring the Promenade parking lot, Tolero found Delraye's dusky blue '93 Lincoln. Later in the evening, another officer found a '94 Pontiac that turned out to be West's. Both cars were in the process of being repossessed. But there was another reason the family didn't want the police to find them.
Stuffed inside the two trunks were piles of jeans, shirts, and other clothes. The loot was packed in Gap's trademark blue bags. There were also bags full of clothes from other chains, including Eddie Bauer and Banana Republic. The value of Gap merchandise possessed by the Burnetts totaled nearly $10,000.
Westlake police threw the family in jail. And, for a while, malls from Michigan to New York were safer for it. But only for a while.
Compared with the hip, mass-marketed image of Gap, the Burnetts are a surprisingly unglamorous bunch. They rarely wear Gap clothing. And when they come into a store, according to one former manager, they typically "smell to high heaven of pot." They may not possess the romantic overtones of the Mafia, but they nonetheless meet the very definition of an organized crime family, say prosecutors. Even now, after a jury has convicted all but one, they maintain their collective innocence. Bound by blood and crime, the family of shoplifters has yet to break rank.
During their trial, Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Terese Tiburzio presented evidence that the Burnetts had been traveling the four-state area of Ohio, New York, Michigan, and Pennsylvania stealing from Gap stores. West, Tiburzio believes, has been doing it for up to seven years. Gap employees knew her as Tracey Davis, the name she often signed on return slips.
"This is a very complex scheme," Tiburzio says. "These are really very bright people who could make some real contributions to society, if they would just work in a legitimate way."
According to the prosecutor, the scam worked like this: The Burnetts bought clothing and always made sure to get a conventional receipt as well as a gift receipt. Having two receipts for one purchase enabled them to return the purchase for cash, shoplift similar items, then return the shoplifted items for further receipts. The goal was to simply accumulate receipts, which would eventually be altered to enable the group to make exchanges for cash. Another tactic involved intimidating and confusing clerks, who would also provide cash returns, even though they were supposed to provide merchandise credits.
Shoplifting was not an experiment or an addiction for the family. It was a trade seemingly passed down from Delraye, whose first theft conviction dates back to 1974, according to court documents. Like her, three of her children use aliases and have lied to the authorities. Like her, not one has reported any recent, legitimate form of income.
Delraye wasn't convicted along with her children. In September, she skipped bond before the trial and remained on the lam for three months. North Olmsted police arrested her on Christmas Eve, fittingly enough, at Great Northern Mall while making returns at KB Toys.
If you believe the charges pending against Delraye, she might be viewed as a contemporary Ma Barker -- not violent like the woman who supposedly masterminded her sons' exploits in the 1930s -- but just as instrumental in her children's criminal development. Three of Delraye's four children have run afoul of the law. But instead of robbing banks, the family plied its trade on the greatest consumer frontier of all -- the suburban shopping center.
In a telephone interview from the Cuyahoga County Jail, Delraye talks at a rapid clip, alternately effusive and accusatory. She dismisses allegations that she's a professional thief. She's a nurse's assistant, she says, though she can't remember where she went to school or provide names of former employers. And she steadfastly professes her innocence.
When she gets released, the Gap should watch out.
"I'm going to shop," Delraye promises. "And I'm going to sue them."
After the Christmas Eve arrest, she was transported to the county jail, where each of her children -- save the oldest son -- spent the holidays. There may be a chance for a plea bargain. But Delraye will likely turn it down, just as her children turned down their own opportunities to settle.
According to the court, Delraye's last reported address is a blocky gray duplex on West 47th Street, where unfinished wood pillars hold up the roof over the porch. The current resident says she doesn't know where Delraye moved. That's not surprising. Delraye is hard to keep track of. She's been in and out of jail for the past 27 years, mostly on theft charges.
Although she denies being the ringleader of the Gap gang, she is an admitted thief. She's been stealing since the age of 10 or 11, she says, when she used to swipe roses and tulips for her mother "because they always made her smile." Her father made decent money working in a steel mill, but growing up in Cleveland as one of nine children was rough, and "I didn't want my mother to want for nothing."
Delraye claims a rape at 12 left her fearful she could never have children of her own, and if she did, she would not want them to want for anything either. Throughout the '70s and '80s, she says, she stole because she needed money to raise them.
"No man never gave me nothing. When I went to jail and left my kids to several people, it tore me up, and it tore my kids up . . . [When I got out,] I saw my kids picking up aluminum, wearing dirty clothes, looking all raggedy . . . All I ever wanted was for my kids to go to school. I told them, 'Don't do what I did.'"
Unfortunately, Delraye seems to have led by example. Though she tried to hide her stealing from them, she says, her children saw her do it anyway. Delraye denies she ever told them to shoplift, particularly from the Westlake Gap on March 10.
Her version of that night: She was headed to Strongsville to turn herself in on a warrant. She was riding in a two-car caravan with three of her children, West, and her nephew. They were going to drop her off at the police station, then drive to Chicago, where they would participate in a hair show. (West said in court that she has a license to practice cosmetology, but the Ohio State Board of Cosmetology has no record of it.) The group stopped at the Westlake Gap along the way so Alphonso could buy a coat. As Delraye waited in line to return a pair of pants, someone called police. Delraye says her family was falsely accused of shoplifting, and police mistreated Leonard and West.
From there, they were brought to the Westlake jail, where "they called us nigger" and beat her children, she says. Then the "prejudiced" judge set their bonds too high, their attorney turned against them, and a jury wrongfully convicted her children of receiving stolen property.
"They never brought anybody in and said that stuff was stolen," she maintains. "They sentenced my kids on receipts."
Her son Leonard, the only other defendant who would comment for this story, talks much more methodically than his mother, but he emphasizes the same victimization theme. Leonard claims he had receipts for everything in his bag, but the police wouldn't give him a chance to prove it.
"I was wondering why they locked the doors like we was inside there robbing the place with guns and machine guns and had artillery, you know," he said in a voicemail message. "We was treated like animals in the Westlake jail . . . My lawyer wasn't representing us. He wasn't even communicating with us about the case. And it is rude not to communicate with your client after the case, because for the simple fact we were paying them money."
Defense Attorney Anthony Gedos has no response to his client's harsh critique. But he notes that it would take a sizable fee for him to represent the family again. "On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd say [my clients] were right up there toward being unusually difficult and unreasonable."
The only defendant without a criminal record, Leonard was the sole witness on behalf of the defense. He says he felt "like a hero" on the stand, because he got to tell the truth about family members: They were innocent. Even at the sentencing, Leonard was steadfast in the wake of Judge Peggy Foley Jones's aggressive questioning.
At one point, frustrated by Leonard's reluctance to speak plainly, Jones charged, "The reason you talk this way and the reason you talk the way you did on the stand is because you are a con artist, like your mother and everybody else in your family, and I've had it up to here . . ."
"I don't understand why you called me a con artist," Leonard interrupted. He explained that he just likes to be creative with his words. Later he said he was embarrassed by the whole incident.
"I don't appreciate the fact that we went down for something we bought," he says. "We are completely innocent of those charges."
Yet the jury believed the Burnetts had been scamming the Gap for some time. What it took to stop them doesn't seem like much -- victims willing to report them and a half-hour of police surveillance. But to an extent, the Gap's own policies assisted the scheme. The chain prides itself on its racial diversity and zero tolerance of discrimination. That, coupled with a shoplifting policy geared toward protecting the chain from lawsuits, made the company an easy target for shoplifters with a propensity to play the race card, a former manager says.
The retailer was such an inviting victim, one juror says, that the Burnetts "had no plan for what to do if they got caught."
But they were caught. Twice.
Detective Lieutenant Gene Leahy of the Cheektowaga Police Department usually doesn't respond to shoplifting calls. The one that came on May 22 was classified as a robbery in progress.
But when officers arrived at the Gap store in the Walden Galleria, a sprawling mall in suburban Buffalo, they realized they were dealing with a "gypsy scam" -- a method of theft organized by a large group of people, some of whom distract store employees while the others shoplift.
Leahy walked up to one of the older women and asked to see some identification. She said her name was Serethia Burnett, and she didn't have any ID. So he asked to see receipts for the clothes she had in her bag.
"She said, 'If you want receipts for the merchandise, you go look in the bag for them yourself,'" he recalls. He opted instead to get her identification, which she claimed was in her car. The two wandered around the parking lot looking unsuccessfully for the vehicle. Another officer saw a car with Ohio plates. When he ran a check, Leahy discovered the car belonged to Darlene Burnett (Delraye's maiden name). Serethia was her alias. For the second time in two months, Delraye had misidentified herself to a police officer. Leahy placed her under arrest for obstructing governmental administration.
The officers soon found that Delraye, West, Amber, Roderic, and Alphonso were out on bond for the Westlake incident, and that family members had been involved in disturbances at New York malls in Amherst, Henrietta, and Irondequoit, a suburb of Rochester.
West had two young children with her; authorities placed them in protective custody. Other than that, Leahy says, the Cheektowaga and Westlake police reports were almost identical. Only the dollar amounts had changed.
The police found $10,000 in cash on the group and hundreds of receipts. A mall security camera caught the same scam Patrolman Krumheuer had observed in Westlake, Leahy says. One person placed some clothes in a bag while others created a disturbance at the counter. When the Cheektowaga police got search warrants for the two cars, the officers found a map with certain cities marked and a how-to newspaper article on what to do if you're caught shoplifting, as well as Gap merchandise. The amount of clothing found in the cars and in bags the group carried was valued at $17,000.
Police found nothing in the cars to validate the defendants' cover story -- that they were roving hairdressers who used the clothes to dress models for style shows.
"My wife takes more hair products with her on vacation," Leahy says.
The detective had witnessed gypsy scams in his 26 years of policing, but never a group "so out of control."
"All of them were yelling and screaming. People were in awe. We've never had people act this way."
The Burnetts were placed in the county jail, where they eventually calmed down. Back in Ohio, tranquillity had not come so easily. At the small Westlake jail, the threat of withholding the 9 p.m. bedtime snack is usually enough to subdue an unruly inmate. But not for the Burnetts, who were the worst-behaved inmates in recent memory, Westlake Captain Guy Turner says. Jail logs show members of the family yelled for hours after their arrests, covered the monitors in the cells with toilet tissue, and threw their food.
"Oh boy, I'll never forget that jail," Delraye says. "It's a torture chamber."
Amber was the least restrained, urinating on the floor, faking a miscarriage, and kicking her cell window so hard it cracked. When the officers asked her to take off her chunky-heeled shoes, she refused. When four officers tried to remove them, she kicked Detective Tolero in the shoulder. He added assaulting a police officer to her charges.
Cheektowaga jailers found the defendants far more mild-mannered. Some made bail. Others stayed in custody for months. They have yet to be tried there on misdemeanor charges, which carry a penalty of up to a year's imprisonment. The next time Leahy saw the defendants, it was at their trial in Cleveland. He had come to testify against them in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas.
When he walked in, Leahy recalls, "their faces dropped."
As the defendants rolled their eyes at witnesses, conferred loudly among themselves, and barked orders to their lawyer, some jurors wondered whether the Burnetts had mistaken their November trial for a Jerry Springer episode.
"It was bizarre," one juror says. "It was scary."
Seats behind the defendants were filled with supporters whose chatter often disrupted the proceedings. One spectator approached a juror as she waited at a bus stop, thanked her for a question she had asked the judge, and told her the prosecution's witnesses were lying. According to prosecutor Tiburzio, the juror was told that she and the defendants were all from the same "hood," and they should stick together. The incident could have resulted in a mistrial.
Defense attorney Gedos admits he couldn't control his clients' supporters or keep the defendants from disturbing the proceedings. Alphonso, also known as Horace, made various claims during the trial, including that a juror flipped him off and that sheriff's deputies used racially charged language. At one point, he accused a deputy of telling him to "get your black ass on the elevator." When Judge Jones informed him that these were serious allegations, he withdrew them.
The family's diversions didn't sidetrack the prosecution. Tiburzio succeeded in convincing the jury that the Burnetts are a bona fide organized crime family, with branches that police believe are still active.
By examining the group's receipts and comparing them with merchandise, police discovered that the group traveled to different stores, sometimes several in a day. Tiburzio says it was a matriarchal group that took directions from West and Delraye. In a date planner, Delraye actually kept "shopping lists" of what would be stolen and by whom. (Jurors say one notation stood out on the list: Apply for welfare.)
Witnesses described how Delraye would use receipts she had altered with acetone to erase marks made by the clerks, and how the Burnetts would bully clerks into giving them cash. On the stand, Westlake Gap manager Barb Reilly, a 20-year employee, admitted that she was so intimidated by the Burnetts that she had given them cash for an altered receipt just to get them out of her store, Tiburzio says.
The Burnetts' scam isn't unusual, according to Richard C. Hollinger, an associate professor at the University of Florida and author of the 2000 National Retail Security Survey. Shoplifting rings target retail stores with brand names like Gap, because the name is instantly recognizable and the merchandise is easily fenced and resold in flea markets or overseas. Shoplifters cost retailers $9.7 billion a year. And they attract groups much more sophisticated than the Burnetts, including the Russian Mafia and high-tech scammers who create counterfeit store receipts.
Still, retailers aren't apprehending or prosecuting nearly as many shoplifters as they used to.
"Most retailers don't like the negative publicity," Hollinger says. "Retailers are very concerned about the bottom line, and they're willing to lose a lot of merchandise when the trade-off might be that one of their personnel is shot or killed or injured, or that they are sued for some sort of defamation of character or named in some major lawsuit."
Yet Tolero wonders how much it will take for the Gap to adopt tighter security. He became the go-to detective for Gap workers across the Cleveland area. They paged him with Delraye sightings and other information pertaining to the case. One disturbing report came from the Gap store at Great Northern, where a clerk who refused to conduct a return was grabbed and threatened. Tolero worried that the group, which had never been physical in the past, may be resorting to violence.
"The Gap needs to take a firm stance," Tolero says. "As long as they continually allow themselves to be victimized and stolen from, it will continue to happen."
Reports of thefts from Gap stores frequently appear on police blotters across the country. But Gap corporate spokesman Jamey Edgerton says the company seems like a frequent target only because it has more than 3,000 stores. He insists that Gap Inc., the parent company of Gap, Old Navy, and Banana Republic, always prosecutes shoplifters and cooperates fully with authorities. But sources close to the Burnett case say Gap corporate representatives barely supported the Westlake store employees, and they prohibited at least one area worker from testifying. Employees from several Gap stores declined comment for this story, saying superiors instructed them not to talk to the media.
"No, we did cooperate," Edgerton insists. "Everybody said the police were really efficient and really swift, and we participated on every level. So I'm not sure where that's coming from."
But jurors say the Gap's exceedingly customer-friendly return policies, as well as its lax security, shocked them. Juror Michael Malek says he was stunned to learn Gap loses so much to theft annually.
"How can a retail store accept that without taking better security measures?" he wonders. "What would it take for a company that large, with that many expensive clothes, to do anything about it?"
It will take more than the Burnett episode. Edgerton declined to discuss specifics of the chain's shoplifting strategy, but he did say nothing had changed because of the Burnetts.
It wasn't difficult to convict the group, two jurors say. In one particularly effective maneuver, the prosecution showed exactly what $10,000 in Gap clothing looks like -- by blanketing much of the courtroom floor with bags of stolen merchandise. In contrast, the defendants' case was weak. They failed to produce any documentation to support their claims that they were hairdressers on their way to a style show.
At the January 5 sentencing, sheriff's deputies brought the defendants out one by one. Handcuffed and wearing drab inmate garb, the Burnetts looked defeated. The embattled Gedos asked the judge to be lenient. He said West and Amber may have kleptomania, and the other three were not primary actors.
Jones thanked Gedos for his pleas. But she wasn't looking for excuses. She was looking for remorse. Instead, she endured two hours of denial.
Sherry West and Amber Burnett sobbed, accused the Westlake police of brutality, and begged for probation.
"I understand I was convicted by a jury," said West, who pleaded guilty to forgery in 1997. "But that doesn't mean that I'm guilty." Jones gave her 15 months for receiving stolen property and a concurrent sentence of 11 months for possession of criminal tools.
Amber, her window-breaking shoes replaced by jail-issued sandals, informed Jones that she had to carry so many receipts because "If you go into a store, any store, you have to have a receipt." Noting Amber's guilty plea for drug possession in 1999, Jones sentenced her to four concurrent one-year terms.
Roderic Burnett, who has a 1996 conviction for drug abuse, told Jones he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He said he planned to start attending church, assuring her, "I'm really not a bad person. I have a heart." Jones was unmoved. She issued three concurrent sentences of 11 months for receiving stolen property, possession of criminal tools, and falsification.
Alphonso Burnett, who has prior convictions for both drug abuse and possession, tried to explain away his 22 aliases and six Social Security numbers. He told Jones the police mixed them up with those of his cousins. She gave him two concurrent 15-month sentences for receiving stolen property and possession of criminal tools, as well as a consecutive six-month sentence for falsification.
Leonard Burnett talked about wanting to complete school and go to work. Because he had no previous criminal record, Jones sentenced him to two years probation with this caveat:
"I'm going to watch you like a hawk, because I don't believe one word you said to me today. I don't believe a word anybody in your family said, because you're all a bunch of con artists, and you've really got a rough go ahead of you, because your mother's in jail and your brother and sister are going to jail. And you have a legacy now, because these are your role models. And they stink as role models. I hope you take this opportunity I give you to get your act together . . . One violation, one positive urine, or if you miss one meeting I give you, I will lock you up like I'm locking up everybody else in your family."
Not surprisingly, the sobering tirade failed to win an acknowledgment of guilt. But it may have had some effect. Leonard later said he plans to follow the judge's instructions, attend GED classes, and get a job. His real dream, though, is to join the Barbizon Agency and become a model.
Maybe one day the youngest Burnett will find himself towering over Cleveland's Shoreway in a skyscraper-sized advertisement, modeling Gap clothes instead of stealing them.