RIVER NORTH — A man accused of being the leader of the “Puffy Coat Bandits,” a pickpocketing crew targeting diners at North Side bars and restaurants, has been charged with two counts of felony theft, authorities said.
James Wilkins, 27, was indicted by a grand jury Saturday, according to to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. He is charged with two counts of unlawful use of a credit card after being arrested Feb. 9, a police spokesperson said.
Another alleged member of Wilkins’ crew, Jerome Sharp, 29, was arrested Dec. 16 and charged with a felony count of theft for stealing a wallet off a victim’s table in a Lincoln Park restaurant, the police spokesperson said.
The trio of pickpockets and purse-snatchers have been hitting Near North Side bars and restaurants for months, stealing from unsuspecting patrons.
The thieves, known to wear shiny black puffer coats, have been dubbed the “Puffy Coat Bandits” by restaurant workers. Restaurant staffers said they were amazed how long they’ve been stealing from diners without getting caught.
Police and detectives have been “on to these guys for weeks” and welcomed the help of the U.S. Marshals, who got involved when a high-profile victim’s badge and court credentials were stolen, Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) said.
Though two of the men are being held in Cook County Jail, other thefts have been reported since Wilkins and Sharp have been in custody.
Hopkins said an investigation into other members of the crew is ongoing.
Hopkins said he was briefed by police about the case Friday and was told the black-coated thieves were “impressive,” like “something out of Ocean’s Eleven,” he said.
“These are highly skilled pickpockets,” Hopkins said. “They were getting wallets and sometimes it would be hours until the victims had realized they’d been robbed.”
Restaurant owners and service workers said the Puffy Coat Bandits “nonchalantly” swiped wallets and purses using classic tactics, like approaching behind large groups of people sitting at bars or creating distractions, like pretending to fundraise at people’s dining tables.
The thieves would then take the stolen cards and “max them out” as quickly as possible at Downtown big box stores like Target, Hopkins said.
The Puffy Coat Bandits also set up fraudulent bank accounts using victims’ stolen information, and were profiting off their identities in other ways, too, Hopkins said.
“There has been a very aggressive investigation to catch these guys,” Hopkins said.
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