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Pickpocketing’s a dying art, but cops say crew of 60-somethings still preyed on L riders

The police are taking pickpockets seriously, building felony cases. ‘For 60-year-old guys, they move pretty well,’ the police mass-transit unit boss says of the crew. ‘It’s like they’re hunting.’

Chicago police say a CTA video shows a pickpocketing team stealing a man’s wallet on Sept. 8 on the Washington Street L stop in the Loop. Police identified the man in the white sweatshirt as Edward Miller, who is charged with felony theft in a series of pickpocketing cases. The man with his head blurred is the victim.
Chicago police say a CTA video shows a pickpocketing team stealing a man’s wallet on Sept. 8 on the Washington Street L stop in the Loop. Police identified the man in the white sweatshirt as Edward Miller, who is charged with felony theft in a series of pickpocketing cases. The man with his head blurred is the victim.
Chicago Police Department

The operation was called Three Blind Mice, and the Chicago police launched it earlier this year to target a three-man crew of pickpockets working subways and L platforms.

Pickpocketing’s a dying art, experts say. The three men the cops were after — all in their 60s — had rap sheets dating to the 1970s.

Police say they caught the crew on CTA surveillance cameras stalking victims. Sometimes, they used stolen credit cards to buy Ventra passes they could sell at a discount, police say, and would also use what they took to treat themselves at McDonald’s.

The Blue Line L station at the Thompson Center was their favorite hunting ground. That’s where the police say they arrested Randy Leavell, 63, Donald Wells, 60, and Edward Miller, 60, in an undercover sting in July.

Suspected in at least 14 thefts on CTA property between Jan. 1 and July 14, they were charged with felonies and released on bail. And then Leavell and Miller were arrested again earlier this month in connection with seven more thefts on CTA property between July 14 and Sept. 8.

Cmdr. Matt Cline, head of the Chicago Police Department’s mass-transit unit, says he’s added seven detectives who work with tactical officers and CTA security. The CTA team is run by Kevin Ryan. He and Cline were supervisors in the police organized crime bureau, investigating gangs and drug trafficking. Cline says they’re bringing that expertise to fighting transit crime.

In the past, pickpockets might have been charged with a misdemeanor or ordinance violation instead of a felony, but now, Cline says, “We decided to do something more substantial.”

He says Leavell, Wells and Miller have worked on pickpocketing crews for years, targeting women and elderly people, figuring they’re less apt to fight back.

In 2015, Wells was sentenced to 4½ years in prison for targeting a couple in their 90s. He told the husband he had a bug on his pants and brushed the man’s trousers while lifting his wallet at Union Station. Wells also was accused of trying to twist a ring off the hand of the man’s wife.

Donald Wells.
Donald Wells.
Chicago Police Department

On Sept. 8, a CTA surveillance video caught Leavell and Miller in the act on the Washington/Wabash L platform, according to the police, who say it was like a well-practiced sports play. Leavell and another man approach a Purple Line train as Miller comes up the stairs to the platform. Leavell and the other man step inside, blocking their target as he enters, and then, according to the police, Miller comes up from behind, right arm cradling a jacket, pocketing the man’s wallet with his left hand.

“For 60-year-old guys, they move pretty well,” Cline says. “It’s like they’re hunting.”

Leavell and Miller also are charged with a theft that targeted a lawyer who flew in to O’Hare Airport early this year and took the Blue Line downtown, where he lives. The man, agreeing to an interview on the condition his name not be used, says he keeps his expensive Ferragamo wallet in his briefcase but needed to look at something in the wallet and put it in his back pocket.

“I did not protect myself,” he says.

He walked toward the Blue Line platform at the Thompson Center and went up the escalator with his luggage and briefcase. “I looked like a tourist, not a Chicagoan,” he says.

At the top of the escalator, a man pretended to fall, causing people to bump into each other. That’s when the lawyer’s wallet was stolen, with his attorney’s credentials, pilot’s license and credit cards.

“It was a hassle,” he says, even though he reported the credit cards stolen right away. “And I lost a $900 wallet.”

Randy Leavell.
Randy Leavell.
Chicago Police Department

The anti-pickpocketing effort is part of a broader effort to make downtown safe after a wave of looting and to restore confidence in a CTA system whose ridership has plummeted amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Serious crime is up downtown, with 10 shootings in the Loop and South Loop in the first nine months of this year vs. none in that period last year. In the Gold Coast, there were 15 shootings this year vs. two last year. Gun arrests are up, too, probably because of an increased presence of cops. Burglaries are up more than 150%.

The lawyer whose wallet was stolen says he now carries a gun. “I am more inclined to exercise my right to carry a concealed weapon,” says the man, who has a state permit.

Jay Albanese, a professor of criminology at Virginia Commonwealth University, calls pickpocketing a dying art.
Jay Albanese, a professor of criminology at Virginia Commonwealth University, calls pickpocketing a dying art.
Provided

Despite the downtown cases, pickpocketing happens less and less, says Jay Albanese, a Virginia Commonwealth University criminology professor. With fewer people carrying cash, and credit cards easily canceled, Albanese says thieves gravitate to lower-risk, higher-reward fraud.

“Good pickpocketing,” he says, “is almost an art form that has died out.”