Police Sting Alleged Cab Driver Theft Ring In Operation Yellow Jacket

By Jonah Spangenthal-Lee July 22, 2010

It might be tough to hail a cab in downtown Seattle this evening.

Earlier today, Seattle police were out in force rounding up 15 cab drivers who, according to SPD, are part of a major "open air market" for stolen goods in the heart of downtown.

Police say a cab stand and pay parking lot at the corner of 6th and Stewart—across the street from the Westin Hotel, and about three blocks from the Seattle Police Department's West Precinct—has become a hot spot for thieves to fence--or resell--stolen perfume, iPods and handbags taken in shoplifts, car prowls, and burglaries of homes and businesses in downtown Seattle.

The cab drivers were “engaged in stealing and…fencing” stolen property, Assistant Police Chief Jim Pugel told this morning as Operation Yellowjacket was getting under way.

According to Pugel, a six-month investigation into the cab stand—which learned of three months ago—led police to 22 cab drivers, who were paying nine to fifteen cents on the dollar for stolen items—provided by store owners or recovered by police in other arrests and operations—including perfume, clothing, shoes, candles, radios, GPS units, iPods and iPhones.

Detectives began investigating the cab stand again in January after years of complaints from neighbors and nearby businesses, and for months detectives from SPD’s Major Crimes Task Force watched over the cab stand from nearby rooftops, as alleged thieves walked up to cabs carrying bags of stolen goods, and walked away with cash in hand.

Police say big department stores were hit hard by shoplifters, who would sometimes run out of stores and hop into waiting cabs. SPD says thieves ripped off $200,000 worth of Coach and Louis Vutton handbags from one large retailer, but also targeted smaller shops, like a downtown candle store. “That’s a small business owner that’s trying to weather [the tough] economy,” Pugel says. “That’s not playing fair.”

After months of watching cabbies and alleged thieves buying and selling—openly destroying anti-theft devices on the street, as shown in the video obtained from Seattle police—undercover detectives moved in on the stolen goods market.

Major Crimes Task Force detectives hauling shopping bags filled with supposedly stolen items began walking up and down 6th and Stewart until they were hailed by a cabbie, police say.

Detectives would then get into cabs and sell their “stolen” goods to drivers who, according to police, were not only willing to buy stolen items from detectives, but also placed orders for other items they wanted. Police say one cab driver even told an undercover detective “I'll take everything you can get." Another cab driver, police say, paid an undercover detective with cocaine.

All told, Seattle police say detectives made more than 40 sales of supposedly stolen merchandise to 22 cab drivers working for the Yellow Cab, Orange Cab, STITA, FarWest, and Transmedic cab companies, along with three I-Park parking attendants, who worked next to the cab stand.

At around 10am this morning, SPD’s Operation Yellow Jacket came to a close. About 30 officers from SPD’s Major Crimes Task Force, Anti-Crime Teams, and traffic units spread out across the downtown core carrying “target lists,” looking for the 22 cabbies targeted in the sting.

Police set up a command post near the waterfront, as plainclothes officers hailed the cab drivers targeted in the operation and directed them to a command post on the waterfront. When they arrived, police moved in and arrested them.

Around noon, as police took mugshots and “debriefed” the seven or so cab drivers they had in custody, Major Crimes Task Force Sergeant Ed Striedinger rolled past the cab stand at 6th and Stewart—referred to by police as “The Island”—slowing as he passed rows of taxis to check his target list. “We sold a number of boxes of athletic shoes to one cab driver,” Streidinger says. “Lo and behold, they showed up in a local pawn shop. According to Streidinger, the pawn shop paid $700 for 10 pairs of Nike “knock-offs.”

“This became a pretty open air bazaar type situation,” he said. “Cabs weren’t handling many fares.” Just then, two men, who look like tourists, get into a waiting cab at 6th and Stewart. “This is pretty rare,” Sgt. Streidinger chuckles, “a cab taking a fare [here].”

Police say most of the cab drivers arrested in Operation Yellow Jacket could be charged with misdemeanors or gross misdemeanors, although the department may pursue at least one charge for drug dealing, and one case of trafficking in stolen property.

SPD says the 22 drivers targeted in the operation are only a fraction of the 2,500 licensed cab drivers in Seattle, and police say they have no reason to believe the theft ring is connected to the cab companies.

As of 4:30pm, police had arrested 15 of the 22 cab drivers targeted in Operation Yellow Jacket.

All photos by Seattle's best news photographer, Cliff Despeaux

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