One head of what investigators believe to be a national hydra of retail theft organizations fell this week with the announcement of state and federal charges against a northeastern Oklahoma matriarch and her associates, who are accused of depriving retailers in a five-state area of more than $10 million.
Two Sand Springs businesses are named in a federal indictment as being used in the scheme.
State and federal charging documents identify Linda Ann Been, also known as Linda Gann, as the ringleader who allegedly cultivated and directed more than 20 "boosters," or organized shoplifters — including at least one juvenile — to steal large quantities of over-the-counter medication from stores in Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and Colorado for online resale.
RICO — or Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations — charges normally levied against mob bosses have been filed against Been and 24 others in a 125-count state court case, and 23 people — many of whom are also charged in Tulsa County — have been named in a 214-count federal indictment alleging crimes including conspiracy, wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
"These are serious crimes, and we will prosecute these defendants to the fullest extent of the law," Oklahoma Attorney General John O'Connor said at a news conference Thursday. "The defendants' criminal conduct spanned numerous years and involved dozens of people. Make no mistake, this was a criminal enterprise."
O'Connor joined federal, state and local law enforcement leaders in announcing the "Operation Booster Buster" takedown. The group lauded the efforts of countless detectives and agents who contributed to the investigation and emphasized the gravity of retail theft.
"To some, retail theft is considered a harmless crime, but whether boosting products for resale, smashing-and-grabbing or employee fraud, retail theft threatens employee safety, it erodes consumer confidence and ultimately leads to higher prices," U.S. Attorney Clint Johnson said.
"All too often, organized retail crime also leads to other illicit activity, such as drug and human trafficking."
Targeted drugs ran the gamut, including Allegra, Prevagen, Zantac, Rogaine, Zyrtec, Viviscal, Mucinex, Claritin, Culturelle, Flonase, Nasacort and vitamin products — as well as cosmetic items and teeth whitening strips, Johnson said. Authorities don't believe the stolen medications were being used to create illicit substances.
Been is accused of running the "fencing" organization with her boyfriend, Billy Don Osborne, and son, Curtis Gann Jr., along with Osborne's daughter, Jessica Lynn Smith, and business-partner, Corey Ray Fields, and Fields' wife, Amanda Kay Johnson.
A fence is a person or organization that purchases or receives stolen good for resale from boosters — hired thieves.
Receiving direction from higher fencing operations still under investigation, Been is alleged to have passed down marching orders of exactly what products boosters were to steal and the price she was willing to pay for their successful lift.
"Generally, the fences would pay half the retail price for any given item. Been would then provide the boosters with a list of items to steal, payment details, advice on how to steal the merchandise and which stores to target," Johnson said. "Been would usually pay boosters half the amount that she expected for the items that were stolen."
Many of Been's alleged boosters reportedly told investigators they used the proceeds to support their drug addiction, for which some were committing thefts daily.
Osborne and Fields' business, C&B Welding and Fabrication, 411 S. Lincoln Ave., Building J, in Sand Springs, functioned as a main storage and shipping point for stolen merchandise, and Johnson's business, Suburban Revival Boutique, 302 N. McKinley Ave. in Sand Springs, was used to store and prepare stolen items for resale, the indictment alleges.
Retail chains hit in Oklahoma towns such as Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Norman, Edmond, Moore, Owasso, Claremore and Jenks included Akin's Natural Foods, CVS, Costco, GNC, Reasor's, Sam's Club, Sprouts, Target, Walgreens and Walmart.
The investigation began in 2019 after Hector Leal, an organized crime investigator with CVS Health, noticed a trend of bulk-thefts of specific items from Tulsa-area stores, an affidavit states. Using open-source records and sales on eBay, Leal linked Been and her son, Gann Jr., to several boosters and contacted the Tulsa Police Department.
TPD Detective Kayla Johnson, already investigating what appeared to be an aggressive shoplifting case involving Been, began connecting previous cases involving Been's boosters and called on the Oklahoma Attorney General's Office for assistance.
"As the investigation developed, TPD and OAG investigators determined that several theft crimes … in surrounding states were linked to (Been's retail theft organization)," the affidavit states. "A federal investigation with Homeland Security Investigations and the U.S. Attorney's Office was initiated."
Two years later, law enforcement officers have arrested 25 of 29 defendants charged in the case, and IRS agents have traced more than $4.5 million in illegal proceeds obtained throughout the alleged operation.
"Illegal money generated and laundered was eventually used to purchase vehicles, an RV, a boat, $70,000 in real property, a $27,000 Harley-Davidson motorcycle, as well as pay for their everyday living expenses," said Christopher Altemus Jr., special agent in charge of IRS-Criminal Investigation.
Further, more than $800,000 was withdrawn in cash to pay boosters, Altemus said.
"These criminals often believe their actions only harm large companies and have a complete disregard of the negative effect on everyday consumers," Altemus said. "As we all know, the last thing we need right now is higher consumer prices due to criminal activity."
Many leaders present called on state legislators to act, saying criminal statues "don't have enough teeth" to adequately combat such crimes, as Tulsa Police Chief Wendell Franklin put it.
"This has led to a culture of brazen, … in-your-face theft," Franklin said, lamenting the effects constant larcenies have on area businesses. "These type of criminal organizations are going to continue to appear; they're going to continue to grow; and they're going to flourish.
"In the end, we all pay the price."
Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado agreed with Franklin, saying beyond increased prices and damage to small businesses, organized retail theft is liable to lead to violent crime, including robberies and homicides.
Chris Miller, special agent in charge of the Homeland Security Investigations Dallas Field Office, called Operation Booster Buster a "sterling" example of what collaboration among law enforcement agencies can achieve.
In a message to those still operating in a retail theft organization, however, Miller took a different tone.
"We will not relent," he said. "No matter where they operate, we will ensure those responsible for organizing these types of criminal enterprises are brought to justice."