Grocery stores go undercover to bust liquor thieves

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by CHRIS INGALLS / KING 5 News

KREM.com

Posted on October 9, 2013 at 6:45 AM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 9 at 11:31 AM

A grocery store’s security camera captured clear images of a man in a green shirt placing several bottles of liquor in a suitcase placed in a shopping cart. The man pushed the cart out of the store, unloaded the suitcase and then returned to the liquor shelves to fill it up all over again.

The thief probably thought he got away with boosting bottles of top-shelf spirits -- and that’s just the way store security wants it.

The man was being watched by a surveillance team hired by grocery store chains to target crime rings that steal liquor and other merchandise in bulk from stores in the Pacific Northwest.

"This is a cat-and-mouse game. It can take a little bit of time,” said Rick Whidden, the head of Safeway’s loss prevention units in Washington and Oregon.

His team has been working behind the scenes to combat liquor theft in Washington since voters passed a 2011 ballot initiative to allow grocery stores and other retailers to sell booze.

Whidden and his team monitored the green-shirted man on the videotape and a half-dozen of his suspected cohorts to determine who they are selling the stolen booze to.

“Simply arresting the boosters doesn’t solve the problem,” said Whidden. “We have to find the people that are buying the merchandise.”

In this case, Whidden’s team partnered with QFC’s investigators to track the liquor thieves. They followed and photographed the shoplifters hoping the trail leads them to the leaders of the crime ring -- the people who are buying the booze and re-selling it.

"I think we’ve got eight guys out here today surveying multiple locations,” said Whidden as he sat in this car one day in September listening to radio chatter among investigators.

Washington’s Organized Retail Theft law is seven years old. It allows for harsher penalties than a simple shoplifting case. But police and prosecutors have to prove that a person or several people are engaging in a pattern of retail thefts.

Safeway, QFC and other grocery chains created their organized retail crime investigation units to help gather evidence for those cases. In less than three years they’ve busted 116 rings in the Pacific Northwest, helping poice indict more than 200 organized crime suspects for stealing items like baby formula, detergent and teeth whitening strips.

"They’re run pretty much like a drug operation," Whidden said of the crime rings.

So the grocery stores have responded by running their investigations much like a drug sting. They watch and wait patiently and work with local law enforcement to develop a case.

In the case of the man in the green shirt, Safeway and QFC investigators were led to a surprising place. Working with a King Co. Sheriff’s deputy, they learned that the liquor thefts were being orchestrated by a West Seattle business owner.  They believe the man was paying about a half dozen drug addicts to steal the liquor from grocery stores all over King County.

Last month, the King County Sheriff’s Office made its move by executing a search warrant at the suspect’s West Seattle restaurant. Puerto Vallarta has been in business for 22 years and neighboring business owners were incredulous when they saw deputies carrying cases of liquor out of the California Ave. business.

“He’s an upstanding guy,” said Jack Miller, who owns the Husky Deli next door. “I hope he’s OK."

No one has been charged in connection with this particular liquor theft case, so no names are being released. The King County Prosecutor’s office is reviewing the evidence now.

Puerto Vallarta’s owner told KING 5 he did not purchase any stolen liquor, and can prove it. But he declined further comment on the advice of his lawyer.

It’s a lot of work tracking down liquor thieves and some may wonder why grocery stores don’t just lock their liquor up or keep bottles in a separate, more secure part of the store where workers can watch more closely.

“It’s a delicate balance,” said Whidden. “You can remove it from the shelf and turn your customers away. You put too much product on the shelf and you’re exposing yourself to theft.”

Whidden said stores have also found that if they secure one product, the crime rings simply move to another aisle of the grocery store to target other items easy to resell at a profit, like razor blades, baby formula and laundry detergent.

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