The Fire Department said a surveillance video showed a woman, Savanna Johnson, stealing clothing from an H & M department store in Harlem. As a diversionary tactic, fire officials say she set fire to a rack of lingerie and fled with panicked shoppers.
A Fire Unset Led to a Thief's Arrest, Officials Say
The solo shoplifter looking to make a getaway has relatively few options. Stroll nonchalantly out the front door. Make a run for it. Hide in the bathroom until closing time.
Savanna Johnson, the authorities said, favored a different approach: set fire to a rack of flimsy negligees and flee with the panicking shoppers.
This method, fire officials said, served Ms. Johnson relatively well. Twice last April, they said, she set fires in large stores in Harlem — an H & M and an Old Navy — and made off with bags of clothing. At the H & M store on West 125th Street, fire officials said, she was caught on a security videotape stuffing bras and panties into a duffel bag, firing up a lighter, and heading for the exit two minutes later as large flames flickered from the lingerie section.
On Wednesday, fire officials said, Ms. Johnson returned to the same H & M, filled a bag with bras and panties, and tried to walk out without setting fire to anything. She was caught.
Ms. Johnson, 48, a career petty criminal with 59 arrests and numerous convictions linked to her 30 aliases, confessed to the fires, fire officials said. She was arraigned yesterday on charges of attempted second-degree arson, reckless endangerment and possessing a pipe with crack residue. The arson count carries a maximum sentence of 15 years. No one was injured in the fires and there was no structural damage to the department stores, said the chief fire marshal, Louis Garcia.
"Obviously, these fires are dangerous because you have a store full of people," Chief Garcia said during a news conference at Fire Department headquarters in Brooklyn yesterday. "Imagine if someone fell down by the exit. Imagine if a child is knocked down. Or someone gets trampled."
Merchandise valued at $60,000 was ruined by smoke, flames or water in the H & M fire, said Andrew DiFusco, a fire marshal.
Jermaine Stevens, an H & M store detective, said he was monitoring a surveillance camera on Wednesday when he saw a woman stuff lingerie, later valued at $105.43, into a bag. He zoomed in for a close-up, recognized her from a flier posted at the store after the April fire, followed her and stopped her at the door. Ms. Johnson, he said, was neither surprised nor indignant.
"I told her I wanted to talk to her about stolen merchandise, and she said 'Oh, O.K.,' " Mr. Stevens recalled. "Then I said, 'Hey, I know you.' She says, 'Oh, how you doing?' "
Ms. Johnson readily confessed to setting the fires, Mr. Stevens said. "She was mellow, like, 'Yeah, I did it.' She didn't seem sorry." So mellow, he said, that she briefly fell asleep in the store's holding area.
Ms. Johnson is no stranger to security procedures in retailing. She was convicted of petty larceny three times in 2005, the Manhattan district attorney's office said. Her record also includes arrests for prostitution, burglary and criminal trespass, as well as a conviction for another shoplifting-arson episode, at a Macy's in the Bronx in 1992, Chief Garcia said.
Mr. Stevens said that when the H & M fire broke out, "It was pandemonium; people were running, screaming."
Some of the shoppers, though, were able to stay calm and do just as Ms. Johnson did, Mr. Stevens said.
"A few people ran out with merchandise," Mr. Stevens said.