Local businesses owner and employee each plead guilty to filing false tax returns after failing to report nearly $4 million in income
ATLANTA - Robert Whitley, a/k/a Mr. Bob, and Noni Whitley, father and daughter, have each pleaded guilty to a separate criminal information charging them for their roles in operating Closeout Express and Essential Daily Discounts, which for years sold millions of dollars of stolen retail product online.
“Robert and Noni Whitley operated a well-organized criminal enterprise disguised as an apparently legitimate small business,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Kurt R. Erskine. “This is retail theft on a massive scale. We will continue to work with retailers and manufacturers to combat organized retail crime that is made easier and more lucrative by the ease by which stolen product can be sold online.”
"For more than eight years, the Whitley’s profited off of the backs of legitimate retailers by encouraging theft of their products for resale online,” said Chris Hacker, Special Agent in Charge of FBI Atlanta. “Stopping this massive theft of products not only protects the retailers, but also consumers who are affected by those retailers’ losses.”
“The investigation of this criminal enterprise required coordinated enforcement actions through the sharing of intelligence and working together operationally with the FBI. This extensive scheme went beyond petty shoplifting at retail stores and entailed the deliberate sale of stolen goods through third party marketplaces for profit,” said Tommy D. Coke, Inspector in Charge of the Atlanta Division. “Postal Inspectors are committed to protecting the U.S. Mail system and will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to aggressively investigate these types of crimes.”
According to Acting U.S. Attorney Erskine, the charges and other information presented in court: Between approximately January 2011 and November 2019, Robert Whitley and Noni Whitley operated an organized retail crime operation (“ORC”) in Atlanta through several entities, including Closeout Express and Essentials Daily Discounts. An ORC operation refers to a professional shoplifting, cargo theft, or retail crime ring, or other organized crime occurring in a retail environment. Robert Whitley was the owner and operator of Closeout Express. Noni Whitley worked with her father and helped operate and manage their ORC operation.
Closeout Express and Essential Daily Discounts operated from a warehouse and several residences in Atlanta. Robert Whitley and Noni Whitley relied on “boosters”—who are essentially professional shoplifters—to steal specific retail products or categories of items, including over-the-counter medications (e.g., Prilosec, Nexium, Rogaine, and Claritin), shaving razors, oral care products, as well as health and beauty aids. The boosters stole these products from various big box retailers, national drugstore chains, and national supermarket chains throughout metro Atlanta including CVS, Kroger, Publix, Target, and Walgreens. The boosters would typically bring the stolen product in large trash bags to Closeout Express's warehouse in southwest Atlanta. Robert and Noni Whitley paid the boosters in cash for the stolen product.
Closeout Express mainly sold the stolen retail products online at its own websites, and through various online e-commerce platforms, including the Amazon Marketplace, Walmart Marketplace, and Sears Marketplace. In exchange for a monthly fee or some percentage of the sales, Amazon, Walmart, and Sears permit third-party sellers to establish “online storefronts” to sell new or used products on a fixed-price online marketplace alongside these companies’ regular offerings. Closeout Express established “online storefronts” on each of these marketplaces to sell the stolen retail product. Across these various e-commerce platforms, Closeout Express sold millions of dollars of stolen retail product at below retail and even wholesale cost. Robert and Noni Whitley also sold hundreds of thousands of dollars of stolen product through Essential Daily Discounts’ own website.
In November 2019, federal agents executed multiple search warrants at Closeout Express’s southwest Atlanta warehouse and multiple residences connected to Robert and Noni Whitley. These locations had been used to sort, store, and process the stolen retail product (e.g., “clean” the items of identifying information or anti-theft devices.) Among other evidence of the ORC operation, agents recovered more than $1 million in stolen retail products.
While in operation, Robert Whitley and Noni Whitley sold more than $5 million in stolen retail product through Closeout Express and Essential Daily Discounts.
Robert Whitley, 70, of Atlanta, Georgia, pleaded guilty to one count of interstate transportation of stolen property. His sentencing is scheduled for July 28, 2021 at 2:00 p.m. Noni Whitley, 46, of Atlanta, Georgia, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit interstate transportation of stolen property. Her sentencing is scheduled for July 28, 2021 at 1:00 p.m. Both sentencings will be held before U.S. District Judge J. P. Boulee.
This case is being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Alex R. Sistla is prosecuting the case.
For further information please contact the U.S. Attorney’s Public Affairs Office at USAGAN.PressEmails@usdoj.gov or (404) 581-6016. The Internet address for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia is http://www.justice.gov/usao-ndga.