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Toy thieves from Northbrook get federal prison time

Toy thieves from Northbrook get federal prison time | File photo

A Northbrook couple will serve federal prison time for their decade-long, cross-country shoplifting spree stealing Furbys, Legos and American Girl dolls.

U.S. District Judge Andrea Wood sentenced Branko Bogdanov, 60, to four years in prison Monday afternoon. Two hours later, the judge also sentenced Bogdanov’s wife, 55-year-old Lela, to three years in prison.

The ethnic Romani immigrants from the former Yugoslavia apologized to the judge for their scheme, which may have netted them as much as $9.5 million, prosecutors say. But the judge wondered aloud if the Bogdanovs were simply sorry they got caught. Their 37-year-old daughter, Julia, is already serving a 15-month prison sentence for her role in the caper.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Havey said the taxes on the tony Bogdanov home in Northbrook — shared by 12 members of the family who are preparing to lose it — hover around $29,000 a year. He said Branko Bogdanov appeared to have no legitimate source of income to pay for it.

U.S. District Judge Andrea Wood sentenced Branko Bogdanov, 60, to four years in prison Monday afternoon. | File photo
U.S. District Judge Andrea Wood sentenced Branko Bogdanov, 60, to four years in prison Monday afternoon. | File photo

But Branko Bogdanov later told the judge, “if I was wrong, I admit. I accept it. But I didn’t make my living from stealing.”

The three Bogdanovs were arrested in March 2014 by the U.S. Secret Service, which teamed up with investigators from Toys “R” Us, eBay and Barnes & Noble to nab them. Authorities said they found $74,698 in merchandise in the family’s home.

The federal case against the trio was built around the cooperation of an informant who told prosecutors he acted as the Bogdanovs’ fence.

Branko Bogdanov, also known as Franko Kalath, had a “decades-long, unbroken pattern of crime” dating back to the 1970s, Havey said. He wrote in a memo that Branko Bogdanov has seven prior convictions “in almost every part of the country, from the Midwest to the South, from East to West.” His wife’s criminal history dates back to her teenage years.

Their latest scheme took them through Louisiana, Tennessee, Maryland, Florida, Oklahoma and Texas. They grabbed Legos, Furbys and baby items and tucked them into a blue lining under a skirt Lela Bogdanov would wear. For example, when the Bogdanovs left a Toys “R” Us in New Orleans, investigators said they watched as a gust of wind blew up her dress — revealing a box hidden in the lining underneath.

Murdoch Walker, Branko Bogdanov’s defense attorney, told the judge his client was simply trying to do what “he needed to do for his family.” Branko Bogdanov has already served 33 months of the 48-month sentence handed down by the judge.

But Lela Bogdanov’s attorney, Michael Goode, said his client cannot read or write, doesn’t know exactly how old she is and relies completely on the kindness of family and strangers. Prosecutors have acknowledged they don’t even know her real name. She also goes by Maca Moa, but prosecutors say her true legal name “could be” Lela Konstantinov.

“I have a client who is two feet out of the stone age, living in Chicago,” Goode said.

The defense attorney said Lela Bogdanov’s parents “gave” her to her husband. They married when she was about 14. Goode said she simply did what he told her to do.

“This is life,” Lela Bogdanov told the judge shortly before she was sentenced. “My life, no good. My husband in the jail. My daughter in jail.”