PHOENIX, AZ (February 25, 2011) - The Scottsdale Police Department, working with fraud investigators from eBay, Home Depot and Walmart, along with several other members of the Arizona Electronic Crimes Task Force, including the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, United States Secret Service, the Phoenix Police Department as well as the United States Postal Inspection Service, are announcing the arrest and indictment of more than 30 individuals allegedly involved in a major organized retail theft syndicate. The investigation, which began in April 2010, uncovered elaborate gift cards scams, identity theft and retail theft from the “Angel Tree” holiday toy program for kids. The case has uncovered over $1.2 Million in proceeds from these crimes.
In April 2010, Scottsdale Police Computer Fraud detectives were contacted by eBay security regarding suspicious activity on a user account linked to Scottsdale, Arizona. The account, later linked to Wayne Clifford Bahlman, involved numerous auctions of retail store credit cards through eBay.
At about the same time, investigators reported to detectives suspicious returns and shoplifting centering around one subject known to Home Depot Investigators as Wayne Clifford Bahlman.
After months of investigation, a large scale conspiracy was uncovered that appeared to be linked to Bahlman. Bahlman had a network of associates that would recruit persons to shoplift items from retail stores such as Home Depot, Lowes, and Walmart. Using stolen identities, suspects would return the items at a different location for store credit cards. The cards were then turned over to Bahlman to sell on eBay. Each person involved would be paid for their part of scheme.
During the investigation, detectives observed Mary Booker, Douglas Booker and Michael Brandenberg at a local Walmart store. The suspects under surveillance were seen picking up toys from behind the customer service counter. The toys appeared to be gifts that were purchased by unknowing Walmart patrons who obtained an Angel Tree card from inside Walmart, then bought a gift that was described on the card. The suspects piled the toys and clothes into a shopping cart wheeled the cart to their car.
These suspects were seen transporting the toys to another Walmart location and returning the toys and children’s clothing for store credit or cash. Angel Tree Foundation is a charitable foundation that allows individuals to take an “ornament” off of one of the Christmas trees at a Walmart and buy a gift that was written on the “ornament” for a child. Mary Booker had access to the Angel Tree Foundation since her sister is one of the organizers of the foundation, however, Mary Booker and the two other individuals did not have permission to take these items from Angel Tree.
Further investigation into this activity revealed that the suspects actually worked for the Angel Tree Foundation and were assigned to pick up the gifts from the stores. However, instead of dropping the toys off at the foundation, they would return the toys for profit. The gift cards and proceeds were then funneled back to Wayne Bahlman.
Earlier this month, a Grand Jury indicted Bahlman and 35 others, alleging more than 50 felony counts including participation in a criminal syndicate, organized retail theft, fraudulent schemes and artifices, trafficking in stolen property and forgery.
This investigation was conducted as a joint initiative of the newly created Arizona Electronic Crimes Task Force (AZ-ECTF). This task force is one of 31 such task forces around the nation formed by the U.S. Secret Service to combat electronic crimes that cause significant economic or community impact. The AZ-ECTF is comprised of nine state and local law enforcement member agencies as well as dozens of other partner agencies and organizations who have come together to more effectively stop electronic crime.