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 MargaritaNs 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 didnNt dissuade the Orange County SheriffNs 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 didnNt find the product she wanted. Because sales clerks were busy helping other customers, she left two minutes later. As Georgie passed the storeNs two anti-theft sensor posts at the front door, a buzzer sounded again. A clerk followed her outside but didnNt say anything. Georgie, who was four months pregnant, drove away in her SUV.
What Georgie didnNt know at the time was that the clerk, 25-year-old Jordan Woodworth, suspected her of shoplifting and recorded her vehicleNs 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. BrandtNs 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 skirtNs waistband and putting an “empty box back on the shelf” before “running” out the door “without paying,” according to a sheriffNs report obtained by the Weekly.
Eight days later, an OCSD employee working with Martin called Georgie. She confirmed sheNd 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 didnNt 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 storeNs 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 DANs office so charges could be filed. But the video—the sole piece of real evidence in the case, given that Woodworth didnNt see any shoplifting with her own eyes—exonerated Georgie.
INve reviewed the footage. It doesnNt show Georgie taking any product from a box. It doesnNt show her hiding any product under her black skirt. It doesnNt show her putting an empty box back on the shelf. It doesnNt show her acting suspiciously. It doesnNt show her running from the store.
Indeed, MartinNs 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 cameraNs view.”
By MartinNs own description of the evidence, Georgie was guilty of shopping. But, amazingly, the video wasnNt what got the Orange County district attorneyNs 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 hadnNt even looked at the tape before filing charges. What undermined the governmentNs case was the work of GeorgieNs 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 storeNs alarm, Gurwitz conducted his own investigation. He entered the shop on Street of the Golden Lantern with GeorgieNs cell phone. The alarm remained silent. Gurwitz next walked in with his clientNs keys. Nothing happened. Finally, he took in her wallet. The alarm sounded.
A Planet Beauty clerk—not WoodwortH N Mdash;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 storeNs 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 SheriffNs 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 wasnNt available for comment because he no longer worked at the department and had moved out of state. Woodworth, who now works at Planet BeautyNs Laguna Niguel location, declined to answer any questions about the incident.
To wipe the bum charges from GeorgieNs 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 wasnNt clear whether Robison would agree. But on Dec. 3, deputy DA Richard Zimmer made a classy move. He appeared in court to say he didnNt oppose GurwitzNs motion. Robison shrugged his shoulders and said heNd sign the order.
Outside RobisonNs 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, whoNd 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.”
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; won inclusion in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting for his coverage of a white supremacist’s senseless murder of a beloved Vietnamese refugee; launched multi-year probes that resulted in the FBI arrests and convictions of the top three ranking members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department; and gained praise from New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.