Serial thief shoplifted 12 more times after being released due to SAFE-T Act: prosecutors

CHICAGO — Charged in August with felony shoplifting while on bail for another felony shoplifting case, 43-year-old James Tolbert sat in the Cook County jail, unable to afford the $1,600 bail deposit he needed to get released on an ankle monitor.

Barely three weeks later, Illinois eliminated the cash bail system. Tolbert’s attorney filed a motion asking Judge Kenneth Wadas to remove the cash bail requirement. Wadas agreed, and Tolbert went home with an order to stay in the house from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Since then, officials now say, Tolbert has shoplifted or robbed Sunglass Hut and Ulta Beauty locations in the Loop and on the Magnificent Mile a dozen times. He’s in jail again, at least for now, awaiting trial.

His legal troubles began on July 15 when prosecutors charged him with shoplifting from Ulta Beauty, 430 North Michigan Avenue. Judge William Fahy released him on his own recognizance the next day and, according to court records, Tolbert failed to appear in court on July 21. A judge put out a warrant for his arrest.

The long arm of the law caught up with him on August 10. Prosecutors said he shoplifted from the same Ulta location. They said he walked in, grabbed a basket, went directly to the fragrances, filled the basket, and walked out.

James Tolbert (Cook County sheriff’s office)

Charged with felony retail theft and operating a continuing financial crime enterprise, Judge Susana Ortiz ordered him to pay a $600 bail deposit to be released on electronic monitoring, and the judge handling the July shoplifting case ordered him to pay another $1,000 deposit. He couldn’t raise the money.

A few weeks later, on September 18, the state eliminated cash bail. In light of the change, his lawyer, claiming Tolbert is a church-going father of five who has “worked as a licensed barber for over 30 years,” asked Judge Wadas to set him free without monetary conditions. And Tolbert went home with orders to stay in the house from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Prosecutors now say he quickly resumed his shoplifting habits.

Cook County sheriff’s deputies arrested him on February 8 at Macy’s, 111 North State, after store’s staff said they saw him place six designer sunglasses worth $2,755 in his coat and walk out the door.

Two loss prevention agents tried to stop him on State Street, the sheriff’s report said. He allegedly kicked one in the knee, causing her to fall to the pavement. The report said she couldn’t get back up and was taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital for treatment.

Her partner managed to handcuff Tolbert and restrain him until police arrived, the report continued. Prosecutors said Tolbert had metal knuckles attached to a switchblade and a credit card in another man’s name when the deputies took him into custody.

They charged him with two counts of robbery, operating a continuing financial crimes enterprise, unlawful use of a knife, aggravated battery of a merchant, and felony retail theft.

While he was detained, investigators linked him to a string of shoplifting cases that began within a month of his release. In court filings, officials said he stole from the Ulta Beauty store on October 27, November 4, and November 7.

And, the filings say, he was identified as the thief who repeatedly shoplifted from Sunglass Hut locations this year:

  • January 11 at the 900 North Michigan location
  • January 13 at the Block 37 store
  • January 16 at the Water Tower location
  • January 17 at Block 37 again
  • January 18 and 19 at the Macy’s branch
  • January 23 at Block 37
  • January 24 and 30 at Macy’s

Two sheriff’s office reports say Ulta and Sunglass Hut employees recognized Tolbert by the distinctive cross he has tattooed between his eyes.

In court on February 9, Judge Ankur Srivastava decided that Tolbert would be released with a 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew on the new charges. But he detained Tolbert for violating pretrial release in the already-pending case until the judge handling that matter reviews the new allegations. Tolbert is due in court again today.

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CWBChicago was created in 2013 by five residents of Wrigleyville and Boystown who had grown disheartened with inaccurate information that was being provided at local Community Policing (CAPS) meetings. Our coverage area has expanded since then to cover Lincoln Park, River North, The Loop, Uptown, and other North Side Areas. But our mission remains unchanged: To provide original public safety reporting with better context and greater detail than mainstream media outlets. Our editorial email address is