ORLANDO, Fla. (WOFL FOX 35) - Orlando Police and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have arrested 12 people, charged with racketeering and conspiracy to engage in racketeering as part of "OPERATION CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?" Investigators say the suspects, who range in age from 17 to 24, have been stealing cellphones. They have warrants for four more individuals.
"These are not just kids stealing cellphones. This is organized street crimes. Instances these kids have driving 3-4 hours in a stolen car or in a rental car with a switched tag to commit these crimes," said Detective Sharon Ring, with OPD's Gang Unit.
Detective Ring says all 16 suspects are either known gang members or associates, and they have been stealing iPhones and Samsung Galaxies from cell phone stores across the state.
"This case involves some burglaries where they break in, they go to the back where they steal boxes of phones. Also, it involves groups of like three to seven males that will go into the store during business hours while people are shopping, pretend to look around or one will ask the clerk questions to distract them, while the others grab display phones."
In two cases, investigators say the suspects pulled guns. Detective Ring says the young men are working as part of two separate organized crime rings.
"In the beginning, we kind of believe it was like a competition from what we understand from the investigation. So far, one of the gentlemen buying phones would put out a list of what they're looking for, and then the two groups would go out, and I don't want to say race, but hit, as many stores as the could, because the first ones bringing in the phones were the ones getting paid," said Detective Ring.
Investigators released pictures that the suspects put on their social media pages, posing with guns and flashing gang signs. "I'm not going to answer the question of whether or not they're dealing in stolen weapons. ATF, along with OPD have investigated dozens and dozens of shootings, armed robberies armed carjackings and other violent crimes," said Detective Joseph Lenczyk, an ATF agent.
Investigators say these guys are stealing cars to pull of their heists and have been involved in high speed chases. Among these 16 suspects in this operation are charged with 247 crimes, and there's already 76 convictions for those crimes among them. Investigators tell FOX 35 that "OPERATION CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?" is far from over and that they expect to make more arrests.