Second man, a 14-time felon, is charged with ‘Puffy Coat Bandit’ thefts

Chicago — Prosecutors on Wednesday charged a second man in connection with the so-called “Puffy Coat Bandit” crime ring, which specializes in stealing phones, wallets, and purses from restaurant and bar patrons in Chicago.

Jerome Sharp, 29, was charged with felony theft for a November incident downtown.

Prosecutors said a woman’s purse was stolen from Pinstripes Bowling, 435 East Illinois, on the evening of November 25. She reported the theft to police immediately but didn’t see who took it.

A short time later, she received bank alerts about someone using her credit cards at Mythical Kicks, a smoke shop at 21 West Ontario in River North, prosecutors said.

Jerome Sharp (top) and James Wilkins are seen alongside surveillance images of two “Puffy Coat Bandit” crew members. | Cook County sheriff’s office; Del Seoul

One of the smoke shop’s employees told police that Sharp presented a credit card and ID bearing Sharp’s name to make a purchase, but his card was declined. Sharp then used three of the woman’s cards to buy merchandise totaling $2,070.56, prosecutors said.

Surveillance video from the store helped police identify Sharp, who is a 14-time convicted felon, almost entirely for theft and identity theft-related charges, prosecutors said.

Sharp has been in jail for several weeks, awaiting trial for a felony theft case and a separate felony aggravated fleeing charge. He has been unable to raise the $13,000 needed to bail out.

On Wednesday, Judge William Fahy ordered Sharp to pay another $1,000 and go on electronic monitoring for the new charge.

The previously-filed theft charge against Sharp involves a May 15, 2022, incident at a restaurant in the 2200 block of North Clybourn.

In that case, a man was having breakfast when Sharp and another man approached and asked him to make donations while Sharp placed a brown bag on the victim’s table, prosecutors said. The victim asked them to leave him alone.

Sharp allegedly picked up the bag and the victim’s wallet, then walked away. Four of the victim’s credit cards were quickly used at a Target store. That’s the same technique used by the so-called “Puffy Coat” team.

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) has called Sharp one of two “ringleaders” of the theft crew, who were nicknamed the “Puffy Coat Bandits” in social media posts about recurring thefts involving men who wore large winter coats.

Another man identified as a ringleader by Hopkins, 28-year-old James Wilkins, was charged with a series of similar thefts last week.

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 left 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 team members 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 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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