The Worth Avenue Gang

Jennifer’s downfall was her fine taste in clothes. Not satisfied with shopping at Target or Marshal’s—two places she wouldn’t be caught dead in—she preferred haute couture boutiques on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach. Shopping in West Palm was out of the question. Unfortunately, she did not have the cash to support her taste in fine clothes. She organized a gang consisting of similarly-situated women who decided that the best way to obtain the objects of their desire was simply to steal them.

Jennifer’s gang was short on subtlety. Smash and grab was noisy, but effective. To be successful, the gang had to scout out the stores to make sure that they not only had the latest fall season fashions, but that they had them in the right sizes. Jennifer and her gang had no interest in fencing the stolen merchandise, they intended to wear them. Jennifer visited the targeted stores with a list of the gang member sizes in her head. Matching shoes were always a problem for these women liked and knew how to accessorize.

Jennifer’s long, dirty-blonde hair was easy to spot on the surveillance tapes. Jennifer had assumed that no one would notice her. When you buy an expensive designer dress, you want to be seen. Jennifer assumed that people would remember the dress she stole when she somehow conned her way into a Palm Beach charity event. She was happy to pose for the photographers, and the bouncers assumed that a woman wearing an expensive dress had to be someone’s wife, girlfriend or mistress. Too-deep inquiries might spoil the chances of a substantial donation. But when the photographs were published the next day in the Shiny Sheet, that is, the Palm Beach Post, the only newspaper in the country printed using special ink and white paper formulated not to smear even if you were wearing white gloves, the shop owner who had already filed the insurance claim and had the windows replaced recognized not so much Jennifer, but the stolen dress. The shop’s broken glass had already been replaced by the time the Post published, for the idea of a boarded-up shop on Worth Avenue during the Season was simply inconceivable.

The shop owner’s call to the police was law enforcement’s big break—they had been chasing Jennifer’s gang for some time. Jennifer had been casing a store when she decided to make a purchase using a stolen credit card. Jennifer ran out of the store grabbing the colorful bag containing the carefully packed dress; shouting on her way out that there must be some problem with the bank. She was last seen heading down Worth Avenue towards the Everglades Club.

The Palm Beach rich are known for being eccentric and money can make problems disappear. The shop clerk had assumed that Jennifer was the wife, mistress or girlfriend of someone on the island, perhaps someone powerful; Jennifer had left a credit card after all. The fact that the card was in someone else’s name was insignificant; the mistresses, girlfriends and wives of the wealthy often preferred this form of payment. If the card was declined—usually the partner’s own way of seeking attention—he would later discreetly visit the store and satisfy any outstanding obligation. But no one came later, and the store’s owner filed a claim with the police.

Unfortunately for Jennifer, the dress had a retail value of five thousand dollars and since she had used, or tried to use, a credit card for the purchase, this put the fraud—a word not often heard on the island— within the jurisdiction of the United States Secret Service, who in addition to protecting presidents and foreign leaders and investigating counterfeiters, also had primary federal jurisdiction over the misuse of “access devices”—in the language of the law, credit cards—making Jennifer’s crime a federal one.

Jennifer’s picture in the Post matched her picture taken by the security cameras. They only had to start surveilling charity events on the island and in a short time Jennifer was picked up by agents who stood out so much from the real party-goers that they were asked to remain outside, special agent credentials or not. Wearing the same dress twice in a row is a Palm Beach faux pas, but as Jennifer scanned her closet the night of her arrest, she was faced with that dilemma that kept the Worth Avenue shops open in the first place: she had nothing to wear.

As they put the handcuffs on her already-braceleted wrists, Jennifer loudly proclaimed that there had been a mistake, that her boyfriend had purchased the dress, that she was a regular customer of the store, that this was a mistake, an outrage, really. In the car on the ride to the Palm Beach county jail, Jennifer stopped her protests. At the jail two female officers took Jennifer into custody on the federal warrant that the Service had previously prepared. Stopping for a coffee in the waiting room on their way out, the agents were prevented from leaving by the duty officer who said that there was a problem with their prisoner, that Palm Beach sheriff’s couldn’t receive the arrestee in the jail. The agents had to wait.

A loud buzzer signaled the opening of the thick metal door that separated the free from the restrained. Jennifer was marched through the door, still in handcuffs and accompanied by the same two female Palm Beach sheriff’s deputies, who informed the federal special agents that they couldn’t take Jennifer.

“Why not?” one of the federal special agents asked. “We only take female federal prisoners,” one of the deputies answered.

The federal special agents looked at Jennifer, realizing finally that she had been born a man.

On the long drive to MCC-Miami, the federal special agents read Jennifer the Miranda warnings. “Cooperating with us will go a long way with the judge,” they told her. Jennifer was frightened and responded in haste, hoping that this would somehow convince the agents to let her go. Just after passing through the Golden Glades interchange, Jennifer gave up the other members of her crew—why should she get in trouble for couture worn by others?

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I represented a member of Jennifer’s crew who predictably claimed his innocence and blamed everything on Jennifer. “She never even got me the right size,” he moaned, ignoring for the moment that this complaint was inconsistent with protests of innocence. He was also jealous of Jennifer, who had made many new friends in the institution and despite the vulgarity of the standard-issue brown prison uniform, had made it somewhat fashionable by tying shirttails into a bow in order to show off a bare midriff. The guards didn’t know what to do with her. The prosecutors didn’t know what to do with Jennifer and her crew either. It was difficult to predict how a district judge would rule in such an out of the ordinary case; a case that at its heart was merely aggravated shoplifting and an effort to get attention. A trial, they realized, would only give Jennifer what she wanted: a chance to glam up and even more attention.

The Shiny Sheet was following the case closely and the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel was devoting its cheaper newsprint to the story. Roxanne Pulitzer’s sensational divorce trial had turned the Palm Beach county courthouse into a media circus; no one wanted a repeat. Turning Jennifer into a public figure was not the goal of a federal criminal trial; complicating the case, despite the obvious lack of a defense, were the rumors about the identity of Jennifer’s boyfriend, who, it was claimed, had the bad taste to dump her just as the Palm Beach Season was starting. No one knew how the rumors started or even if there was a boyfriend, but the rumors grew anyway in the retelling with detail upon detail. Jennifer’s boyfriend had supposedly thrown her out with just the clothes on her back; he was cheating on her and wanted a new girlfriend; he was already living with another woman. Sure, the boutiques had been harmed but the real victim was Jennifer.

Jennifer might well find jurors sympathetic to her cause. Shoplifting is not uncommon among even the finest families on the island which, truth be told, had seen much worse. Since the trial was to be held in the division of the federal court in Palm Beach county, there would be jurors who understood the horror of being snubbed and not having appropriate clothing for an event. Acquittal was unlikely but nevertheless a real possibility.

The prosecutors solved this stubborn problem with a group plea. Jennifer and her crew would plead guilty; there would be a small fine and restitution would be ordered. Since Jennifer did not have any cash to pay a fine, the return of the lightly-worn outfits would satisfy that requirement. There would be a two year period of supervised release during which Jennifer was prohibited from returning to any of the stores she robbed.

This latter requirement proved to be a problem, for Palm Beach is forgiving and loves nothing more than the smoke of scandal and especially where no one is hurt. A year later, after getting the Probation Office’s permission to travel to Aspen for the winter, Jennifer was back on the island. One of the stores wanted to hire her to promote their fall line and technically this would be a probation violation. At least until her notoriety started to fade, Jennifer even started to receive legitimate invitations from charity pre-events once the sponsors realized her presence attracted donors who wanted to see what all the commotion was about. 

My client was happy to get probation and the opportunity to get out of town. For him that was enough.