RIVER NORTH — They’re smooth, swift and unforgettable in their puffy coats.
A three-man crew of pickpockets and purse-snatchers has worked their way through the Near North Side bar and restaurant scene for months, stealing from unsuspecting patrons. Restaurant owners said they’re amazed the crew hasn’t been caught.
The thieves are known to wear black puffer coats. Online, they’ve been dubbed the “Puffy Coat Bandits.”
Shalyn Welch, a veteran server at Gemini, 2075 N. Lincoln Ave., said three men in identical “puffy and shiny” Moncler jackets stopped by the bar Saturday.
“I immediately knew who they were,” Welch said. “They had the coats.”
Welch thought it was “only a matter of time” before the Puffy Coat Bandits paid her restaurant a visit, as service workers have posted about “the saga with them” in a Facebook group for service industry workers since at least November, she said.
At least a dozen posts on the Chicago Service Industry page have detailed encounters with the Puffy Coat Bandits.
The three “burly guys,” all about 6 feet or taller and likely in their 30s, came through Gemini’s side door and made a beeline to the bar, Welch said. One man played lookout while the other two talked, and one slipped a hand “very nonchalantly” into a customer’s coat pocket, Welch said.
Welch spotted him and moved the jacket in the nick of time, she said.
“The guy laughed, and then they just left,” Welch said. “They’re famously known around the neighborhoods for being pickpockets. … I don’t understand why this hasn’t been resolved yet.”
Welch said restaurant managers called police, who didn’t show up.
“Cops don’t take this kind of stuff seriously,” Welch said. “The general situation is people are calling police, but they’re not going to come running for petty theft.”
A police spokesperson did not directly answer questions about if there’s been a trend with puffy-coated thieves.
“If detectives observe a pattern, they will create a Community Alert, which our office will disseminate at that time,” the police spokesperson said in a statement. “If anyone has any information, they are asked to contact the police or submit a tip anonymously online at CPDTIP.com.”
Irene Jeon, owner of Korean restaurant Del Seoul, 2568 N. Clark St., said the Puffy Coat Bandits have hit her spot twice: Jan. 7 and Super Bowl Sunday.
“Petty criminals are just so brazen these days. But they don’t usually strike twice. These guys are on a real ‘f— it’ mentality,” Jeon said. “They know they’re not going to do hard time for it.”
At peak Saturday service Jan. 7, the jacket-clad men walked up to a table closest to the door, with one man “shoving papers in a patron’s face, pretending he was fundraising,” Jeon said. Another took the customer’s wallet off the table and the trio left, Jeon said.
“They’re not aggressive, and they’re kind of just smooth talkers,” Jeon said. “They’re good at distracting people. It happens so fast.”
Sam Sanchez, a restaurant owner and board member for the Illinois Restaurant Association, said pickpockets “are a tale as old as money itself.” But this particular crew is now notorious in River North, Sanchez said.
Sanchez thinks his staff and security cameras spotted them Sept. 23 at Moe’s Cantina, 155 W. Kinzie St., and Aug. 2 and Sept. 28 at Mom’s Place, 650 N. Dearborn St. But it was too warm for them to be wearing the trademark puffy coats and be sure, Sanchez said.
The men follow a pattern, Sanchez said: They stand behind a big group of people sitting at the bar, peel purses off stools, swipe a wallet or two from the bar and walk out. One time a man scooped a backpack off the floor and left, Sanchez said.
“They’re not afraid, and they don’t care. They’re smooth,” Sanchez said. “They won’t come back once they notice we’re onto them. But there’s thousands of restaurants in Chicago.”
Sanchez said police already have their hands full with crime around Downtown and River North.
“I know cops are trying to catch them, but their resources are limited right now,” Sanchez said. “Businesses have to be proactive in spotting them. But, then again, at what point do we stop them?”
Kevin Vaughan, the chairman of the Restaurant Association, said pickpocketing has been a stubborn problem, particularly for places Downtown. Even Vaughan got his wallet stolen at an Old Town restaurant last year, he said.
Groups of people “milling around a restaurant without intention is a red flag,” Vaughan said. He’s been following the Puffy Coat Bandits on the service industry Facebook page.
“It’s hard to tell if this is happening more or just being reported more because of social media,” Vaughan said. “But it’s amazing these guys keep getting away with it.”
Jeon said Del Seoul is a counter-service restaurant and she can’t justify the costs of adding security staff.
The Puffy Coats are on the loose and there’s “only so much we can do,” Jeon said.
“The cops have bigger fish to fry,” Jeon said. “It’s not really a priority for them.”
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