Not Stealing Beauty
Dana Point cops charged an innocent pregnant woman with burglary and theft of a $100 jar of anti-aging cream
At any given time, how close are you to being arrested, charged and faced with possible incarceration for the first time in your life? About one misguided witness and one lazy police officer away.
Sound farfetched? Not if you ask Rancho Santa Margarita’s Alyssa L. Georgie. The 33-year-old landscape-architect office manager, wife and mom had never been in trouble. But after the events of July 1, she stood accused of commercial burglary and theft.
Georgie was absolutely, demonstrably innocent. But that pesky fact didn’t dissuade the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) and local prosecutors from filing two criminal charges against her. For months—in the midst of the pregnancy of her second child—she had to fret about the predicament and spend money on a defense lawyer.
Georgie says she felt like she was living in a nightmare that began on that summer day. Taking an early lunch break from work, she drove to a Planet Beauty in Dana Point to buy some Mario Badescu enzymatic skin cleanser. When Georgie entered the store at precisely 11:20 a.m., she heard a buzzer, disregarded it and walked to a store shelf, but she didn’t find the product she wanted. Because sales clerks were busy helping other customers, she left two minutes later. As Georgie passed the store’s two anti-theft sensor posts at the front door, a buzzer sounded again. A clerk followed her outside but didn’t say anything. Georgie, who was four months pregnant, drove away in her SUV.
What Georgie didn’t know at the time was that the clerk, 25-year-old Jordan Woodworth, suspected her of shoplifting and recorded her vehicle’s license-plate number. The next day, Woodworth told the OCSD, which has jurisdiction in Dana Point, that Georgie had stolen a 1.7-ounce, $100 jar of Dr. Brandt’s anti-aging facial cream. To support her contention, the clerk told deputy Paul Martin that video-surveillance cameras captured the customer opening a product box, removing a small jar, placing it under her skirt’s waistband and putting an “empty box back on the shelf” before “running” out the door “without paying,” according to a sheriff’s report obtained by the Weekly.
Eight days later, an OCSD employee working with Martin called Georgie. She confirmed she’d been in the store but denied shoplifting and suggested her AT&T cell phone might have triggered the alarm. She added that in the past, she suspected her phone had sounded alarms in other stores such as Home Depot.
But Woodworth inexplicably assured Martin, “Her phone didn’t activate the alarm.” Just as inexplicably, the deputy accepted the assertion as truth.
“[Georgie] hid facial cream in her skirt,” Martin concluded in his crime report, which was approved as thorough by Sergeant John Carpenter. “The stolen item caused the store’s alarm to activate.”
Her motive? “Personal gain,” he speculated.
It looked like an airtight theft case. Martin sent his report and the surveillance video to the DA’s office so charges could be filed. But the video—the sole piece of real evidence in the case, given that Woodworth didn’t see any shoplifting with her own eyes—exonerated Georgie.
I’ve reviewed the footage. It doesn’t show Georgie taking any product from a box. It doesn’t show her hiding any product under her black skirt. It doesn’t show her putting an empty box back on the shelf. It doesn’t show her acting suspiciously. It doesn’t show her running from the store.
Indeed, Martin’s own description of what he saw on the video can be said about every shopper in the store: The camera showed a woman “browsing along a wall-mounted display shelf” and “looking at several items.”
“At one point, [Georgie] turns away from the display shelf; her arms appear to be near her waist,” the deputy recounted. “She then walks up the aisle, puts on a pair of sunglasses and walks out of the camera’s view.”
By Martin’s own description of the evidence, Georgie was guilty of shopping. But, amazingly, the video wasn’t what got the Orange County district attorney’s office to drop the charges three months into the ordeal. Relying on the word of the deputy that a crime had been committed, prosecutors apparently hadn’t even looked at the tape before filing charges. What undermined the government’s case was the work of Georgie’s Tustin-based defense lawyer, Brian N. Gurwitz, a former OC prosecutor.
Believing the veracity of his client but also that something had set off the store’s alarm, Gurwitz conducted his own investigation. He entered the shop on Street of the Golden Lantern with Georgie’s cell phone. The alarm remained silent. Gurwitz next walked in with his client’s keys. Nothing happened. Finally, he took in her wallet. The alarm sounded.
A Planet Beauty clerk—not Woodworth—approached and asked the lawyer if he had a Coach wallet. Gurwitz affirmed that he did. The clerk cheerfully advised him that magnetic security strips inside that brand of wallet activate the store’s anti-theft alarm “all the time.” Deep in the purse, they found a small plastic sensor. Gurwitz exited the store, got rid of everything but the sensor, re-entered and set off the alarm again.
Mystery solved. Prosecutors shortly thereafter dismissed the case. A miscarriage of justice was averted.
“For a person who did not commit these crimes and who has never had any contact with the criminal-justice system, it is no exaggeration to say that a baseless accusation can be a life-altering nightmare,” said Gurwitz. “This is the case here, where a sloppy investigation by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department led to the filing of criminal charges. There was an utter lack of probable cause that my client did anything wrong.”
An OCSD spokesman said Martin wasn’t available for comment because he no longer worked at the department and had moved out of state. Woodworth, who now works at Planet Beauty’s Laguna Niguel location, declined to answer any questions about the incident.
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To wipe the bum charges from Georgie’s public record, Gurwitz asked Superior Court Judge Craig E. Robison for a formal declaration of factual innocence. Orange County judges are often reluctant to grant that move because it points a spotlight on less-than-stellar law-enforcement work. It wasn’t clear whether Robison would agree. But on Dec. 3, deputy DA Richard Zimmer made a classy move. He appeared in court to say he didn’t oppose Gurwitz’s motion. Robison shrugged his shoulders and said he’d sign the order.
Outside Robison’s Newport Beach courtroom, a relieved Georgie—in the ninth month of her pregnancy—happily huddled with her husband, Paul, and Gurwitz. She shook her head in disbelief. “It was all so stupid,” she told me. “It was all so unnecessary.”
Paul, who’d purchased the Coach wallet as a gift two years earlier, said, “All she did was go to a store to buy something, and the next thing we knew, our lives got turned upside-down. It certainly has been a learning experience.”