After a man, at center right, was spotted leaving with a possibly stolen item at Lowe’s, Monroe Police officer Scott Kornish, center left, talks with Sgt. Paul Ryan on Wednesday, June 13, 2018, in Monroe. Two suspects were detained and not taken to jail, but the car was impounded. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

After a man, at center right, was spotted leaving with a possibly stolen item at Lowe’s, Monroe Police officer Scott Kornish, center left, talks with Sgt. Paul Ryan on Wednesday, June 13, 2018, in Monroe. Two suspects were detained and not taken to jail, but the car was impounded. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Elaborate shoplifting schemes often feed thieves’ drug habit

Monroe police task force aims to curb drug violence and store losses by targeting theft rings.

MONROE — Something’s off about this gunmetal blue Ford Expedition, with its back end sagging like it’s weighted down. Two people have been parked inside for too long, too many open spaces from the front door of Lowe’s. A guy bolts out of the passenger side and crosses the parking lot to the store, carrying something. He’s wearing a dark thin jacket, a blue-and-green Seahawks cap and sunglasses.

Sunglasses?

On a day like today?

It’s raining so hard Monroe police have to squint though the streaked windshields of their unmarked cars. Three officers have been watching the Ford for the past half-hour. Their laptops tell them this guy was caught up in a shoplifting case months ago in Redmond. He emerges from a different door, retreating to the Ford at a brisk pace.

Officers in uniform surround the Ford. The guy gets out. In one pocket, police find a shopping bag. Old receipts are tucked behind a front seat, by a zippered case stuffed with orange-capped syringes. Thieves often pluck the receipts from garbage cans, police say. Whatever’s listed on them goes in a ledger of things to steal from a shelf, return and convert into drug money. On this guy’s list, the drywall gun he tried to return was No. 3. He’d written the value in pencil, $52.98.

A black market has turned shoplifting and retail fraud into a $46.8 billion industry in the United States, according to the National Retail Federation’s latest annual survey. Here in Monroe, like many towns, much of that economy is feeding drug addictions.

“I can’t recall one (of these arrests) that didn’t have drugs,” officer Scott Kornish says. “It’s all drugs. Every one that I’ve dealt with.”

Monroe’s ProAct Team of two police officers and a sergeant is tasked with catching prolific criminals who traffic in drugs and stolen goods. The officers can respond to 911 calls, too, but their main job, as the name suggests, is to proactively patrol for crime. That means shifts cruising through parking lots of Lowe’s, Walmart and Fred Meyer; checking license plates for drivers with warrants; and coasting by drug houses to keep tabs on dealers.

Kornish, a former high school resource officer, first tested to join the team in December 2012, around the time the city, the county and the nation saw an alarming upswing in illicit opioid abuse and deaths. Heroin addicts struggle to find or keep a job. They find two ways to make cash: selling drugs or stealing. So if you’re looking for drug offenders, you look for who is ripping off retail stores. It’s like fishing, Kornish says. You have to cast out where the fish are.

Monroe police officer Nathan Erdmann searches a suspect as Scott Kornish looks into a vehicle Wednesday, June 13, 2018, after the man was seen walking from a store with a possibly stolen item in the parking lot at Lowe’s. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Monroe police officer Nathan Erdmann searches a suspect as Scott Kornish looks into a vehicle Wednesday, June 13, 2018, after the man was seen walking from a store with a possibly stolen item in the parking lot at Lowe’s. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

To catch a thief

Officers are on a first-name basis with retail security in Monroe. They’ve held meetings in a break room at Lowe’s to swap stories and intel. Police and loss prevention often check sites like Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace for brazen examples of stolen property for sale.

“Hey!” Sgt. Paul Ryan begins. “Do you know who’s selling Milwaukee?”

He’d seen ads on OfferUp for power tools that might as well have screamed, “We are stolen!” Sometimes it’s the photos. Security tags are cut sloppily. Batteries, generators or circular saws are pictured in the trunk of a car. Or the same shrink-wrapped item is listed for sale in Everett, Lynnwood and Arlington.

Most people don’t keep six new Makita drills at home. But if they were legit purchases, why sell them to strangers at a steep discount? Why not return them for full price?

The guy in sunglasses had been pushing items on OfferUp. One ad shows a “Universal Pet Gate for Car,” in a beat-up box in a parking lot, leaning against the back panel of a white car. Retail price $64.99. Sold, less than half-price.

Another shows a new rotary tool for buffing and sanding. “50 bucks at Fred Meyer only asking 20 unopened.” Sold.

Six rust-proof wind chimes. “New and Unopened from Fred Meyer at $44.99.” Sold for $15.

Some thieves are more creative. Since their last meeting with police, loss prevention at a retail store has identified two more suspects. They pull up security footage on a video screen, to show to the ProAct officers.

One thief walks the hardware aisles in bright reflective gear, like he’s dressed up as a contractor for Halloween.

Another suspect has been swapping bar codes. He slapped a $99 pressure washer sticker on a $600 mitre saw. Once he slipped it past a cashier, he carried it to a rental car, showing some foresight in covering his tracks. But he hadn’t considered whether the saw would fit in a tiny Dodge Dart. It didn’t. He drove off with the trunk half-open.

Many thieves aren’t identified until later, when an inventory check reveals a few small, but valuable items are missing — Nicorette gum, electric toothbrushes, razors, baby formula. Loss prevention pulls up the footage later on. Each year internal thefts nationwide cost stores almost as much as shoplifting, and dishonest employees stole $1,100 more per incident on average in 2017, according to the National Retail Federation survey.

Some organized thieves are hard to miss, if you know what to look for. Kornish gives an example. The first telltale sign is a car backed into a parking spot, with temporary tags or no license plates at all. Three people jump out.

“One guy goes in this door,” Kornish says. “One guy walks around the corner and goes in another door. Another person goes in another door. Do you do that when you’re shopping with your family or friends? No, everyone goes in the same door.”

Days before this meeting, the Walmart in Monroe was hit by a wave of shoplifters. One went for the Legos. Two others loaded up on goods around the store.

“We just separated,” Ryan says. “We all took one of them.”

Security has their own playbook to counter these schemes. Everett grocers, like QFC and Fred Meyer, have closed exits to funnel shoppers through fewer sliding doors, watched by cameras, mirrors and eyeballs.

A heroin kit holds a half-full needle and other drug paraphernalia, as Monroe police officers search a car in the department’s impound area on Thursday, June 14, 2018. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

A heroin kit holds a half-full needle and other drug paraphernalia, as Monroe police officers search a car in the department’s impound area on Thursday, June 14, 2018. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

The bottom line

A big question, one that has been debated and studied for many years, is whether police ticketing low-level, nonviolent drug addicts has an overall positive effect on public health and safety. Those on the ProAct Team believe their work serves a greater good.

“Is this having a dent on violent crime? I absolutely think it is,” Ryan says. Most violent crimes have something to do with drugs, he says.

Monroe police don’t take a one-pronged approach to drug abuse. Last year, a social worker was hired to reach out to people who don’t have stable housing, many of whom live with mental illness, addictions or both. She visits tent camps with a Monroe police officer — members of the ProAct Team, lately — offering the basics for people to get clean and off the street. Officers tell shoplifters about the program. The locals know about it already. They have friends who have gotten help, officer Nathan Erdmann says. They know they can get help, too, if they’re ready.

“So if they’re not, you’ve still got to enforce stuff, whether or not it’s going to affect their drug use,” Erdmann says.

The amount lost per retail theft has risen in the past five years, with the average reported case tilting over $500, according to national figures. It’s not just bad for business. It hurts shoppers, too.

“You can say Fred Meyer is the victim, but we’re paying that cost,” Kornish says. “They’re not going to take the loss. The CEO of Walmart isn’t going to not take his month of vacation to Hawaii. They’re going to raise prices.”

Low-hanging fruit can turn into serious felony charges. In spring the ProAct team watched a man hop out of a Chevrolet Malibu, walk into Walmart with nothing and exit lugging a heavy load.

“Generally, Walmart doesn’t bag your things in a duffel bag,” Kornish says. “So that was a bit of a clue.”

They found he’d allegedly stolen $1,000-plus between Fred Meyer and Walmart. He had two handguns and a bag of methamphetamine. He was taken to jail, one of the rare times when a suspect is booked in a shoplifting case in Snohomish County.

Most cases end in misdemeanor citations. Any theft of $750 or more is a felony in Washington state. The county jail will turn away suspects, either because they’re a medical liability or there’s not enough space. Officers try to follow seemingly minor cases upstream, where there are bigger fish.

Their investigations have led to busts, at a drug house full of 17 people on S. Lewis Street in 2016; at a storage unit stocked with heroin and stolen guns in 2017; and at the new business of a pawn shop owner, who was suspected of taking at least $70,000 in stolen goods. Erdmann started work on the pawn shop case two years before the raid in March.

ProAct officers have something patrol officers don’t. Time. They can sit, watch and learn what’s going on in the city’s seedier parts, and get to the know the cast of characters. Lately, Monroe police have noticed they’re seeing fewer local faces. They take it as a sign of word getting around, that the cops here are watching the exits.

Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; chutton@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @snocaleb.

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