A father and daughter who both live in Atlanta and were arrested for allegedly operating two businesses that sold stolen items each have pleaded guilty to those crimes.
According to a news release, Robert Whitley (aka Mr. Bob), 70, and Noni Whitley, 46, each pleaded guilty to charges related to their roles in operating Closeout Express and Essential Daily Discounts, which for years sold more than $5 million worth of stolen retail products online.
Robert Whitley pleaded guilty to one count of interstate transportation of stolen property, and Noni Whitley pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit interstate transportation of stolen property. Both of their sentencing hearings will be held July 28 before U.S. District Judge J. P. Boulee.
“Robert and Noni Whitley operated a well-organized criminal enterprise disguised as an apparently legitimate small business,” Acting U.S. Attorney Kurt R. Erskine said in the release. “This is retail theft on a massive scale. We will continue to work with retailers and manufacturers to combat organized retail crime that is made easier and more lucrative by the ease by which stolen product can be sold online.”
Chris Hacker, special agent in charge of the FBI Atlanta field office, added, “For more than eight years, the Whitley’s profited off of the backs of legitimate retailers by encouraging theft of their products for resale online. Stopping this massive theft of products not only protects the retailers, but also consumers who are affected by those retailers’ losses.”
Said Tommy D. Coke, inspector in charge of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service’s Atlanta division, “The investigation of this criminal enterprise required coordinated enforcement actions through the sharing of intelligence and working together operationally with the FBI. This extensive scheme went beyond petty shoplifting at retail stores and entailed the deliberate sale of stolen goods through third party marketplaces for profit. Postal inspectors are committed to protecting the U.S. mail system and will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to aggressively investigate these types of crimes.”
According to Erskine, the charges and other information presented in court, between about January 2011 and November 2019, Robert and Noni Whitley operated an organized retail crime operation in Atlanta through several entities, including Closeout Express and Essentials Daily Discounts. This operation refers to a professional shoplifting, cargo theft or retail crime ring or other organized crime occurring in a retail environment. Robert Whitley was the owner and operator of Closeout Express. Noni Whitley worked with her father and helped operate and manage their operation.
Closeout Express and Essential Daily Discounts operated from a warehouse and several homes in Atlanta. Robert and Noni Whitley relied on “boosters” — who are essentially professional shoplifters — to steal specific retail products or categories of items, including over-the-counter medications (e.g., Prilosec, Nexium, Rogaine and Claritin), shaving razors, oral care products, as well as health and beauty aids.
The boosters stole these products from various big-box retailers, national drugstore chains and national supermarket chains throughout metro Atlanta including CVS, Kroger, Publix, Target and Walgreens. The boosters would typically bring the stolen items in large trash bags to Closeout Express’s warehouse in southwest Atlanta. Robert and Noni Whitley paid the boosters in cash for the stolen product.
Closeout Express mainly sold the stolen retail products online at its own websites and through various online e-commerce platforms, including the Amazon Marketplace, Walmart Marketplace and Sears Marketplace. In exchange for a monthly fee or some percentage of the sales, Amazon, Walmart and Sears permit third-party sellers to establish “online storefronts” to sell new or used products on a fixed-price online marketplace alongside these companies’ regular offerings.
Closeout Express established “online storefronts” on each of these marketplaces to sell the stolen goods. Across these various e-commerce platforms, Closeout Express sold millions of dollars of stolen retail product at below-retail and even wholesale cost. Robert and Noni Whitley also sold hundreds of thousands of dollars of stolen product through Essential Daily Discounts’ own website.
In November 2019, federal agents executed multiple search warrants at Closeout Express’s southwest Atlanta warehouse and multiple residences connected to Robert and Noni Whitley. These locations had been used to sort, store, and process the stolen retail product. Among other evidence of the operation, agents recovered more than $1 million in stolen retail products.