CHICAGO — Last winter, they prowled restaurants and bars, stealing customers’ phones, wallets, and purses while wearing black puffy winter coats that quickly earned them a headline-friendly nickname: the “Puffy Coat Bandits.” Lincoln Park and the Near North Side businesses were especially hard hit.
Chicago police made two arrests, including 15-time convicted felon Jerome Sharp, dubbed a “ringleader” of the operation by downtown Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd).
Sharp has now pleaded guilty to three felonies, two related to the “Puffy Coat Bandit” allegations, making him an 18-time convicted felon. He was sentenced to—brace yourself—probation in all three cases.
Last February, Block Club Chicago reported that restaurant owners believed “cops aren’t doing much about” the thieves who had been preying on their customers for months.
In fact, a wide-reaching investigation had been underway for weeks and prosecutors were in the process of securing grand jury indictments. The US Marshals Service even got involved after the thieves stole a wallet and credentials belonging to a federal judge’s law clerk, according to a source familiar with the matter.
Sharp, 30, and James Wilkins, 28, were taken into custody.
Sharp was charged with a May 15, 2022, theft at a restaurant in the 2200 block of North Clybourn. A man was having breakfast when Sharp and an accomplice asked him to donate to a charity while Sharp placed a brown bag over the victim’s wallet, which was sitting on the table, prosecutors said.
When Sharp picked up the bag, he also took the victim’s wallet. Someone used four of the victim’s credit cards at a Target store within minutes. The “Puffy Coat” team would use the same technique time after time. The victims’ credit cards were maxed out before they had time to notify their banks, often at Target stores in the South Loop and the Near North Side, according to Chicago police reports.
A break in the case
On the evening of November 25, 2022, a woman’s purse was stolen as she enjoyed herself at Pinstripes Bowling, 435 East Illinois. She reported the theft to the 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.
Investigators went to the smoke shop and spoke with an employee. He told them Sharp presented a credit card and ID bearing Sharp’s name to make a purchase, but his card was declined. Prosecutors said Sharp then used three of the woman’s cards to buy merchandise totaling $2,070.
Surveillance video from the store helped police identify Sharp, whose criminal résumé is loaded with felony convictions, nearly all for theft and identity theft-related charges, prosecutors said.
A plea deal
Sharp resolved his latest legal problems by pleading guilty to felony theft for taking the man’s wallet in Lincoln Park. Judge Lauren Edidin sentenced him to two years of probation, according to court records.
He pleaded guilty to identity theft for using another victim’s credit card. Judge Ursula Walowski sentenced him to two years of probation for that, too.
And he pleaded guilty to aggravated fleeing from police in an unrelated matter. Again, Edidin sentenced him to two years of probation.
His previous felony convictions include:
- three thefts in 2012 (probation terminated unsatisfactorily)
- theft in 2014 (three-year prison sentence)
- theft in 2016 (three-year prison sentence)
- nine theft and ID thefts in 2020 (concurrent two-year prison sentences)
- aggravated DUI in 2020, a case that also included stolen car allegations (one-year prison sentence)
Wilkins, the other man accused of being in the “Puffy Coat Bandit” crew, continues to fight the allegations in court.