MILL CREEK — She was cautious and always paid in cash, the informant told detectives.
She knew where he lived, but he had no idea where she made her home. He didn’t even know her name.
He’d simply call her the “The Formula Lady.”
In the beginning, they would meet in parking lots at night.
Money for powder. That was the deal.
The product wasn’t drugs, but it was plenty lucrative on the black market.
Police allege the man was hawking stolen baby formula and she was his fence.
By the informant’s calculation, he sold her between $35,000 and $40,000 worth in less than 18 months.
Other suppliers, detectives believe, also were dealing to the 46-year-old Mill Creek woman who, according to police and assessor’s office records, drives a black Lexus SUV and lives in a four-bedroom house in an upscale suburban neighborhood.
“It appears that she is the well-to-do neighbor next door,” Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Shari Ireton said.
The woman was arrested Nov. 22. She has not been formally charged.
The local thefts mirror a national pattern. Organized crime rings have made millions of dollars reselling stolen formula at cut rate prices. On a smaller scale, drug addicts feed their habits through baby formula theft. Typically, the thefts aren’t desperate parents trying to feed their children.
In July, sheriff’s deputies in Florida brought down a baby formula ring that sold more than $2 million in stolen product. Three women were arrested.
In 2009, a multi-agency task force in Florida squashed a ring believed responsible for stealing more than $17.5 million worth of baby formula. Twenty-one people were arrested.
In a 2005 case, a Texas state trooper pulled over the driver of a rental van and found a large stash of stolen formula inside. The man was linked to a terrorist-based theft ring that operated across the nation, wiring profits back to the Middle East, the FBI reported.
One National Retail Federation report indicates that baby formula is among the top most-shoplifted items in the United States. Organized retail crime, including formula theft, costs retailers up to $30 billion a year.
The case involving the Mill Creek woman took months to put together.
Loss prevention officers working for Albertsons contacted a sheriff’s detective in June to describe their investigation into a string of baby formula thefts.
Two suspected shoplifters, 50 and 62, said they were selling formula cans and tubs to the Mill Creek woman. Store security uncovered the identities of several people who appeared to be part of the ring. The thieves were caught on surveillance footage.
One confidential informant tried unsuccessfully to make inroads with the Mill Creek woman in August.
On Nov. 8, Mill Creek police detained two men, 31 and 39, after a report of a baby formula shoplifting theft at an Alberstons.
“Rather than just getting a low-level booster off the street, they really wanted to build a case to get to the top,” Ireton said. “That takes time. It’s not always easy.”
The younger man agreed to help detectives.
He told them that the woman was paying him $9 for a tub of 12.4 ounce baby formula that sold in the store for $29. The retailer had been paying about $27 per tub wholesale. Detectives later would learn she was selling it for $17 a tub.
Albertsons estimated that the ring was responsible for 33 baby formula thefts between June and November that totalled $9,305 in losses.
On Nov. 18, the suspect answered a Craigslist post to buy low-cost baby formula. It had been written by a Albertsons loss prevention officer. At that point, a deputy set up an undercover sale of $823 worth of baby formula. It was sold for $241 in a parking lot late at night, according to a search warrant.
Two days later, the woman was arrested for investigation of organized retail theft and trafficking in stolen property. She allegedly admitted shipping the product to buyers in New York and Vietnam.
When she was questioned about buying baby formula from people with no apparent way of obtaining such large quantities except stealing, she allegedly told the detective, “I’m wrong. I’m totally wrong.”
Other police agencies in Snohomish County also have received reports of baby formula theft.
“Baby formula is a hot item right now,” said Marysville police Cmdr. Robb Lamoureux. “It’s similar to what the energy drinks were a few years back.”
And batteries, razors and cosmetics.
“If there is something of value that can be easily shoplifted or stolen, criminals will eventually find a way to steal it and sell it,” Ireton said.
In October, a Marysville couple was arrested in a grocery store parking lot with stolen formula.
After a loss prevention officer from the grocery chain turned over surveillance video of the thefts, a Marysville detective spotted an ad on Craigslist from a woman offering to sell four cans of formula for $60. They arranged for a meeting in the Marysville parking lot where the arrests were made.
The detective could see multiple cans of formula in the backseat of the couple’s car.
The couple reportedly was responsible for a string of grocery store thefts from Marysville to Mill Creek and Everett to Monroe. Each time, it appeared their only target was baby formula.
They are accused of stealing more than $3,500 worth of baby formula from Albertsons stores, including more than $1,000 from the Marysville store alone. The woman, 29, allegedly told a detective she stole baby formula to raise rent money and pay for heroin.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, email@example.com