An undercover police task force, born in Middletown, has busted a more than $1 million shoplifting ring that targeted discount retail stores along the Interstate 75 corridor such as Walmart, Meijer, CVS and Family Dollar.
Fifty-seven men and women were arrested on a total of 116 theft and other assorted felony and misdemeanor charges after a six-week investigation by police departments in Middletown, Troy, Urbana, Moraine, West Chester Twp., Colerain Twp. and Miamisburg and sheriff’s and prosecutor’s offices in Warren, Clinton and Fayette counties.
Authorities found evidence that bands of shoplifters — called “boosters” — stole everything from mascara to plasma televisions from local retailers for resale at area flea markets, pawn shops and on the Internet.
Police said they executed 16 search warrants and seized 24 vehicles and approximately $300,000 in stolen merchandise, including about $250,000 from vendors at the Caesar Creek Flea Market in Wilmington. Stolen items ranged from toiletries such as shampoo, body spray, detergent and cologne to high-end electronics, DVDs, computer games and vacuum cleaners.
The thieves most often victimized Walmart stores in Middletown and Franklin, but police said the shoplifting operation spanned across four counties and 13 cities, townships and villages. Of those arrested during the operation, 32 suspects were from Middletown; six from Franklin; six from Cincinnati; three from Dayton; two from Trenton; two from South Lebanon; one each from Germantown, Springboro, Lebanon, Monroe and West Carrollton; and one from the state of Virginia, arrest reports show.
Organized retail theft is common, police and retail experts said, and tough to stop even though retailers spend some $12 billion a year combating it.
According to the National Retail Federation, organized retail crime is estimated to cost retailers across the country $30 billion a year. Eight in 10 retailers say organized retail crime has increased over the last three years, according to the federation’s 2013 survey.
It’s also costly to consumers because it results in unavailability of products that consumers want and may well result in a price increase when the retailer is able to get the items back in stock, federation officials say. Officials say there may also be a public health risk in buying things, such as personal hygiene products, that have been stolen and resold.
Middletown police Officer Tom Lawson, one of five officers from the department who worked with the task force, said he thought he had seen everything in his 23-year career, but this operation opened his eyes “to a different breed of thieves.”
“These people are not your average shoplifter, or even a poor mother with children who is trying to feed her kids because her junkie husband spent all the money,” Lawson said. “This is all they do.”
In fact, nearly 60 percent of those arrested could be described as individuals who make their living or supplement their income by stealing or fencing stolen items, said Middletown police Sgt. Steve Ream, who supervised the task force.
Since 2002, the number of theft offenses in Middletown has remained steady between 2,500 and 3,000, according to the city’s records department. There were 2,792 theft offenses last year, and in the first six months of this year, there have been 1,420, according to police records.
RISE IN HEROIN USE SPURS TASK FORCE
A five-person task force was launched this spring after Middletown police noticed a trend in thefts from retail stores in the city’s east end. Police believed the thefts were connected to the rise in drug addictions in the city, particularly heroin use.
As it turned out, 90 percent of those arrested for theft during the operation were addicted to heroin, Lawson said.
“Everything they do every day is based on heroin,” he said.
Lawson said he spoke with a female suspect who said she funded her addiction through the thefts and couldn’t remember the last time she wasn’t high on heroin. She stole enough merchandise every day — $200 worth — to feed her addiction, Lawson said.
“That was her life,” he said. “Get up, steal, get high, go to bed, repeat.”
According to police, before they ever set foot in a store, the thieves already have a buyer lined up who will give them, for example, $100 for $10,000 worth of assorted cosmetics. The thieves would then go to various retail stores with “shopping lists” from the fences who would sell — at a slightly marked up price — the stolen items at flea markets, pawn shops or online.
The thieves would work in teams of three, four, six or eight people, and some teams even had names such as “The Dayton Gang” or “The Pawn Shop Gang,” police said. The teams would surround an area of the store, such as the electronics department, and several team members would distract the cashier, while one of two others would be responsible for stealing items, police said.
The thieves would sometimes conceal items in an empty purse or shopping bag, then walk out of the store and into a waiting get-away car. Police said some of the criminals were so brazen, at times, they might run out of a store with a shopping cart loaded with items.
Lawson said during one theft attempt, he watched a suspect pull his vehicle up to a store’s retail entrance/exit and leave the passenger door open for an easier getaway. When the driver spotted a marked Middletown police cruiser in the lot, he closed the passenger door and pulled up to the grocery entrance/exit, he said. A few minutes later, his accomplice raced through the store and jumped into the getaway vehicle.
One couple was caught stealing $10,000 worth of merchandise from Toys-R-Us at the Dayton Mall in Miami Twp., authorities said. Another man was indicted for stealing $1,600 worth of Blu-Ray movies from Walmart. He allegedly hid the movies in his wheelchair, though he wasn’t a person with disabilities, according to police.
The thieves would also sometimes bring back stolen merchandise with no receipt and get a gift card in exchange, police said. The suspects would turn around and sell the gift cards to a fence for up to 50 percent of its value or trade it for drugs, police said.
“Everybody is looking for a deal,” Lawson said.
As the police investigation grew, so did the number of agencies involved in the task force.
13 AGENCIES FORM TASK FORCE
In June, the task force followed suspects into Clinton and Fayette counties, where a search warrant was executed in Jeffersonville and a handful of vendors were served with grand jury indictments at Caesar Creek Flea Market for their alleged involvement in the retail store thefts and drug trafficking.
In Jeffersonville, five people were charged with engaging in a pattern of corrupt activities, a second-degree felony, through Fayette County Common Pleas Court.
Fayette County Chief Deputy David Bivens said the suspects are connected to the flea market arrests and are tied to drug usage. Stolen items and drugs were found in a residence.
Five vendors at Caesar Creek were arrested and charged with receiving stolen property, said Col. Brian Prickett of the Clinton County Sheriff’s Office.
Officials with Caesar Creek Flea Market did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
“Retail theft is a nationwide issue,” said Prickett, who added it’s tied to drug use. While the vendors were not buying the drugs, “we received information that items stolen out of retail stores had ended up at the flea market for sale,” he said.
When Franklin Police Chief Russ Whitman got the call about organizing a task force to combat retail theft, he was all for lending the use of an officer.
He said with the proliferation of heroin, large scale shoplifting has increased in Franklin, especially in the stores near I-75, including Walmart.
“Anytime you can partner up with other agencies, especially when we are all chasing the same thieves, it is well worth it,” Whitman said.
The chief added he believes the efforts and arrests did slow down the organized theft rings.
“But it will never stop,” Whitman said.
Middletown police Chief David VanArsdale said the task force “exceeded” his expectations because several organized theft rings were indicted. He also was impressed that the indictments extended to surrounding counties and included assistance from 13 law enforcement agencies. It was a team effort, he said.
Ream, of Middletown police, echoed that sentiment.
“We don’t care who gets the credit as long as the bad guys are in jail,” he said.
CHIEF: THIEVES ‘ATTACKING’ MIDDLETOWN BUSINESSES
VanArsdale said the retail theft task force cost $39,450 and came in about $5,000 under budget. The project was funded through the department’s mandatory drug fund, which is money generated through drug cases and court restitution, he said.
Members of the task force worked undercover and monitored potential shoplifters, mostly in East End businesses, Ream said. He said the retail centers create the highest call volumes per address in the city. Because the businesses are located near the interstate, he said they’re frequent targets for shoplifters. The department has seen a common theme that criminals will travel long distances to Middletown to steal, and most of the thieves are not Middletown residents, he said.
Thieves sometimes stole from the Walmart in Franklin, then drove two exits south, and stole from the Walmart in Middletown, according to Ream.
One of the goals of the task force, Ream said, was to improve communication among all the police agencies and for them to share information more effectively. Ream said he hopes to create a fax machine database to disseminate photos and suspect information to all the retailers in the city.
He said it’s important that the businesses know the police department is concerned about the high rate of thefts. He worries that if the thefts continue, it may deter other businesses from potentially opening in the city.
“We are watching,” said Ream, who added police are continuing to monitor thefts. “We are coming after you because you are attacking our businesses. We won’t take it anymore.”
He said the message is clear: “We are open for business and we will protect them.”
Rick Pearce, president of the Chamber of Commerce — Serving Middletown, Monroe and Trenton, congratulated the police department for understanding that a problem exists and taking steps to curtail the thefts. He said reducing shoplifting is vital to the success of the businesses community.
Lawson said several retailers, because of the high crime rate, have closed in Trotwood, a suburb of Dayton. He doesn’t want that to happen in Middletown.
“Once they’re gone,” he said, “it’s hard to get them back.”
Ream said several of the thieves were “amazed” that the Middletown police department tracked them down outside city limits.
“They thought they were free when they got on the interstate,” Ream said. “That wasn’t that case.”
Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell said seeking high bonds for repeat offenders so they can’t bond out, along with seeking indictments on higher charges, including engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity are “creative” ways to crack down on career criminals.
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