New details of ‘Puffy Coat Bandits’ emerge as prosecutors formally charge ‘ringleader’

Chicago — New details were revealed about the unfortunately-named “Puffy Coat Bandit” restaurant theft crew as prosecutors charged a man identified as a group leader with four counts of felony theft from persons.

The theft team has been targeting restaurant and bar patrons across downtown Chicago and the North Side for months, using distraction and slick moves to steal phones, wallets, and purses. They’ve struck so frequently that some hospitality workers nicknamed the thieves the “Puffy Coat Bandits” after the large winter coats they often wear.

James Wilkins in a 2019 mugshot and images of “Puffy Coat Bandit” suspects in action. | Chicago Police Department; Del Seoul

Last month, Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) tweeted that charges were filed against two suspected “ringleaders” of the theft crew, one day after Block Club Chicago reported that restaurant owners believed “cops aren’t doing much about” the crimes.

In fact, a wide-reaching investigation had been underway for weeks. The US Marshals Service even got involved after the thieves stole a wallet and credentials belonging to a court official, believed to be a federal judge’s law clerk, a source said.

On Thursday, one of the “ringleaders” named by Hopkins appeared in felony bond court. James Wilkins, 28, has been in custody since February 9 on other charges and was on bail for similar crimes when he allegedly committed the latest wave of thefts.

Prosecutor Lorraine Scaduto accused Wilkins of participating in four thefts during January, all recorded by cameras.

Around 2:45 p.m. on January 6, he approached a victim inside a cafe at 313 West Wolf Point Plaza and placed a flyer over the victim’s wallet, which was on the table, Scaduto said. Wilkins simultaneously picked up the flyer and wallet and walked out of the restaurant.

That evening, he sat beside a woman talking with her husband at the bar inside The Diver, 601 North Wells, and took the woman’s backpack, which contained a laptop, a wallet, and other items worth $2,400, Scaduto said.

The next day, just after 3 p.m., he allegedly walked up behind a woman at Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba!, 2024 North Halsted, and took her purse.

And on January 20, a woman was seated at the bar at Morton’s, 65 East Wacker, when Wilkins grabbed her purse from the floor, took her wallet, and fled, Scaduto continued.

Wilkins has been in jail since February 10, when police arrested him for an outstanding warrant. Other members of the team have continued to commit thefts even while Wilkins was in custody.

He was on bond for charges related to similar crimes on the University of Chicago campus one year ago.

On March 2, 2022, Wilkins and an accomplice used the flyer trick to steal a wallet and phone from two people who were dining in the school’s cafeteria, Scaduto said. Wilkins was recorded on security video as he tried to use one of the victim’s credit cards at a Target store a few minutes later.

He and an accomplice returned to the school less than five hours later and allegedly tried to steal a victim’s wallet in a dining hall.

A U of C police officer followed Wilkins to a car and made a note of the license plate, which is registered to Wilkins, according to Scaduto.

Judge David Navarro set Wilkins’ bail at $10,000 last March, and Wilkins went home by posting 10% of that amount the next day. Charges in those cases, burglary and illegal possession of a credit card, are still pending in court.

After hearing about the new allegations, Judge David Kelly ordered Wilkins to pay another $3,000 bail to be released on the January cases. He also held Wilkins without bail for violating bond in the pending matters.

Scaduto said Wilkins had been sent to the Illinois Department of Corrections four times: for identity theft in 2019, robbery in 2017, theft in 2015, and residential burglary in 2012.

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