$140,000 swindle of stores alleged

Ten people, including four former company security employees, are charged with defrauding Nordstrom of $140,000 by stealing clothes and using phony receipts to return the goods for refunds.

The group is accused of stealing clothing from Nordstrom stores in the Seattle area, then returning them in Washington, Oregon, California, Virginia and Maryland. Typically, they would get credit-card refunds when they returned the merchandise, police say.

"We had law enforcement in five states working on this," said John Bailey, a Nordstrom's spokesman. "It was a very complex investigation."

The King County prosecutor has charged Steven A. Thomas, a former "loss-prevention employee" at the Bellevue Square store, with 32 counts of first-degree theft and 15 counts of second-degree theft.

Also charged with theft were three other former security employees at the Bellevue store, Levi Singleton, Vei Hang Hoang and Joanna Reznick; Larissa Anderson, an employee at the downtown Seattle store; and Richard Rye, Hilaree Cole, Philip Takahara, Mathew S. Leong and John Young Chae.

All but one are to be arraigned in King County Superior Court on Tuesday.

The investigation began Feb. 7, 1998, when a cashmere sweater was returned to an Arlington, Va., store with a fraudulent receipt, Bellevue Police documents say. Company investigators discovered that the salesperson credited with the sale had not sold the sweater.

The company says it found a pattern of similar phony receipts for women's designer clothes and men's suits.

In all, Nordstrom investigators discovered 26 credit-card accounts and documents showing returns of more than $140,000.

Thomas, according to police documents, received credits on 12 credit-card accounts.

"He is considered the ringleader," said Dan Donahoe, a spokesman for the King County prosecutor. Police allege Thomas and his girlfriend, Joanna Reznick, recruited some of the others.

One defendant, Hilaree Cole, was instructed to dress up as a rich person and go to some of the priciest departments to make returns, police say.

They allege that she began returning items in 1997 in Port-land and Vancouver, Wash., then accompanied Thomas and Reznick to California to return a suitcase full of clothing. Police say Thomas told her she would get 20 percent of the take.

Nordstrom officials told police that as security workers, the company's former employees had the ability to circumvent any anti-theft systems and had access to any merchandise sent to the Bellevue store.