Two Long Island men were part of a 12-person organized theft ring that used special vests and alarm-disabling equipment to steal more than $12 million worth of high-end electronics from multiple stores for years, state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said Wednesday.
The enterprise is considered by investigators to be one of the largest retail theft rings ever uncovered in the country.
“This major retail theft operation targeted stores in 28 states making off with millions of dollars in merchandise stuffed under their clothes,” Schneiderman said.
“Operation Sticky Fingers,” the 10-month investigation by the attorney general’s organized crime task force, assisted by the New York State Police, led to a 41-count indictment unveiled on Wednesday. The indictment charged the 12 with enterprise corruption, money laundering, criminal possession of stolen property and conspiracy, officials said.
If convicted, they each could face as much as 8 1/3 to 25 years in prison, officials said.
The two Long Island men were Roger Ringhiser, 53, from Long Beach, who oversaw theft operations at the stores and was known as “Captain Rog,” and Kevin Cerrato, 22, of Elmont, who was tasked with walking out of the store with the merchandise, officials said. Attorneys for Ringhiser and Cerrato were not available for comment Wednesday.
The enterprise hit stores across the country, including many on Long Island, officials said, naming Best Buy in Riverhead and Staples in both Patchogue and Riverhead as among them.
Investigators confiscated more than 5,300 stolen electronics along with ink cartridges and personal electronics from the upper Manhattan home of the head of the theft ring, Richard Rimbaugh, officials said.
His apartment was stuffed wall-to-wall with electronics, leaving room for nothing other than Rimbaugh’s bed, officials said.
Most members of the ring were rounded up early Tuesday morning, just as the nor’easter was in full swing, officials said. Investigators seized more than $7.7 million from their homes, financial institutions and Amazon and PayPal accounts, officials said.
Since 2012, the theft ring was responsible for selling more than $12 million worth of stolen goods online, officials said.
“The extraordinary thing about this ring is that it was run with an almost militarylike precision by the ring’s two leaders,” Schneiderman said, in reference to Rimbaugh and who officials said was his right-hand man, George Athanasatos.
Investigators said Rimbaugh, also known as “General” to the members of the theft ring, would identify which items they were to steal, which included Bose headphones, Nikon point-and-shoot cameras, personal finance software, graphing calculators and even high-end flea collars from pet stores, officials said.
Rimbaugh would then resell the stolen merchandise on Amazon and eBay though his illegitimate business, known as American Media Soft, which was based inside his apartment, officials said. Crew members would then come to the home, where he would pay them for the thefts, officials said.
Prosecutors said the crews carried out the thefts daily, then shipped the stolen merchandise to Rimbaugh’s apartment. As a search warrant was being executed, five packages of stolen merchandise arrived at his home, officials said.
Investigators said they tracked packages of stolen goods that were sent to Rimbauch and had numerous surveillance videos of the crews shoplifting in several stores all over the 28 states they hit.
Athanasatos, also known to the members as the “Field Marshal,” ran the day-to-day operation, telling the crews what stores to hit and remotely managing each event on a weekly basis, officials said. Investigators found a large map at his home, adorned with push pins that represented which stores his crews had stolen from, officials said.
Athanasatos would give the crews coded maps to determine which locations, usually a Staples, Office Depot or Best Buy store, the group would go hit, weeding out shops that had too much security or were not crowded enough, officials said.
The crews would always include at least three people: a “sergeant,” who would leave the store with the stolen goods, a “lieutenant,” to distract security, and the “captain,” who would oversee the operation from inside the store, officials said.
The crew carried what they called “kryptonite” devices that would deactivate exit security alarms, officials said. They also carried shortwave radios that they would tune to the frequency the store’s security was using to better avoid them.
The crews even rigged specially made vests with deep pockets — known as “bazookas” — so that the merchandise wouldn’t be detected, officials said.
Crews would send the merchandise back to Rimbaugh and await further instructions, which usually meant hitting another store in another state, officials said.
Athanasatos would keep records of airfare and travel, issuing credit cards to the crews to cover their expenses for flights, car rentals and hotels, officials said.
“This was a long-term criminal enterprise and they were willing to invest in whatever they had to continue the crime wave that they perpetrated on retailers,” Schneiderman said.
The four theft crews became so adept that they could steal $45,000 worth of merchandise on a single mission, officials said.
Athanasatos’ attorney, Joe Mure, said his client pleaded not guilty.
“He denies the allegations,” he said.
Rimbaugh’s attorney, Barry Slotnick, also said his client pleaded not guilty.
“We received a copy of the indictment and we believe that he has no liability that would convict him beyond a reasonable doubt,” Slotnick said.
The investigation also uncovered an alleged welfare fraud scam run by Athanasatos and Anna Candanedo, 32, of Elmont, officials said.
Athanasatos filed false documents with the Nassau County Department of Social Services in order for Candanedo to receive the benefits, officials said. Both Athanasatos and Candanedo, who were listed on a separate indictment, were charged with forgery, falsifying business records, larceny, welfare fraud, and conspiracy to commit those crimes, officials said. If convicted, both could serve up to 21 years in prison, officials said.
Candanedo’s attorney, Mitchell Barnett, said he had not yet spoken to his client and could not comment.
Athanasatos’ attorney did not comment on the separate indictment.
How prosecutors say the scheme worked:
- “The General” would determine what popular items he wanted to sell.
- “The Field Marshall” would select the store each crew would steal from.
- Crews were usually three members — a captain, sergeant and lieutenant.
- The “captain” took the electronics off the shelf.
- The “sergeant” put the merchandise in his vest.
- The “lieutenant” distracted store security.
- The stolen goods were then shipped to Rimbaugh to sell online.
- Crew members would be paid 40 to 50 percent of the retail price.
- Crew members would file expense reports for hotels and cars in cities where they stole, then move on to the next assignment.
Indicted in connection with “Operation Sticky Fingers” are:
- Richard Rimbaugh, aka “The General,” 64, Fence of the Enterprise, New York
- George Athanasatos, aka “The Field Marshall,” 62, Manager, Brooklyn
George Rapatsouleas, aka “Skipper,” 31, Captain, Brooklyn
Krissylee Harris, aka “Princess,” 35, Lieutenant, Brooklyn
Nusret Srdanovic, aka “Monte,” 23, Sergeant, Brooklyn
- Roger Ringhiser, aka “Captain Rog,” 53, Captain, Long Beach
Frank Albergo, 59, Lieutenant, Oviedo, Fla.
Kevin Cerrato, 22, Sergeant, Elmont
Gregory Anastasiou, aka “Captain Frank,” 38, Captain, East Stroudsburg, Penn.
Joseph Pooler, 41, Sergeant, Stroudsburg, Penn.
Robert Scarano, aka “Reno,” 56, Captain, Las Vegas
Giovanna Bonello, 28, Lieutenant, Staten Island