Some Americans dismiss shoplifting as a victimless crime, even a rite of passage for rebellious teens. Some district attorneys have virtually stopped prosecuting retail theft altogether.
But the case of Gary Rasor, the 83-year-old Home Depot employee who died just days ago of injuries inflicted by a fleeing shoplifter, reveals a more dark and serious side to what was once ignored as petty crime.
Rasor, a great-grandfather, “held out his arm as the suspect approached the store’s garden center exit with a cart full of about $800 worth of pressure washers that had not been paid for,” according to media reports in Hillsborough, N.C. “The suspect was walking alongside the cart with one hand pushing it, and used his other hand to shove Rasor to the concrete.”
Shoplifting appliances like pressure washers may sound odd, and a violent shoplifter may not match preconceived notions. But law enforcement and retail industry sources say the new reality of organized retail crime is far different from the “Animal House” image of fraternity pledges stuffing groceries in their sweaters at the Food King.
“The tragic death of an 83-year-old store employee in North Carolina is yet another reminder that retail crime and shoplifting are not ‘victimless crimes,’” said Alysa Erichs, former acting executive associate director for Homeland Security Investigations. “Sadly, this is another example that criminals do not care who or what lies in their wake as long as they’re making money. It’s sick, and it affects all of us. These crimes have very real, dangerous consequences — it’s why we must work together to protect our communities.”
Erichs is a spokesperson for United to Safeguard America from Illegal Trade, a private-public partnership to fight the sale of counterfeit, illicit and stolen goods. In the past, its focus was more on cross-border contraband and fake products like fraudulent vaccines and personal protection equipment. But at a recent summit in Washington, it dedicated an entire roundtable to the growing problem of organized retail crime.
Matt Shay, president of the National Retail Federation, says organized retail crime has become one of his industry’s top concerns. “It is hurting these cities. It is serving urban areas, employees and team members. And we need a really coordinated effort.”
Stores large and small suffered a combined loss of nearly $100 billion in 2021, according to a National Retail Security Survey, and Walmart CEO Doug McMillon says the cost of shoplifting may force the shutdown of some stores.
“Theft is an issue. It’s higher than what it has historically been,” McMillon told CNBC. “If that’s not corrected over time, prices will be higher, and/or stores will close.”
Target’s CFO, Michael Fiddelke, told investors the same thing in November. “This is an industrywide problem that is often driven by criminal networks, and we are collaborating with multiple stakeholders to find industrywide solutions.”
But it’s the violence — like Rasor’s death at a Home Depot or a recent smash-and-grab jewelry store robbery in Huntington Beach, Calif., that devolved into a shootout — that has some retailers most concerned. And law enforcement sources say they should be.
More and more organized robberies are committed by gang members filling orders for illegal online sales. Gangs that traffic in drugs and weapons are now trafficking in everything stolen and counterfeit goods — everything from workshop equipment to handbags from high-end retailers to counterfeit drugs.
And with gangs come guns and violence.
Jonathan Willis with Homeland Security Investigations told the USA-IT summit about a November 2022 bust involving $200,000 in stolen goods and — more disturbingly — more than two dozen weapons and tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition.
“These aren’t shoplifters drifting into serious crime,” Willis said. “These are serious criminals who see the potential for making lots of money in retail theft.”
And while Walmart relies on local law enforcement to address the problem, Jonathan Thompson, executive director and CEO of the National Sheriffs’ Association, told the conference that the unwillingness of local prosecutors to pursue these crimes is making the problem worse.
“There used to be repercussions (for retail theft), but now we’re seeing an increase in deferred prosecutions — ‘so you stole $500 worth of goods. Well, if you don’t do it again for a short period of time, we’ll let it go,’” he said. “This emboldens the behavior of the bad actors. Even when people are arrested, they’re more likely than not to get a ticket or a notice to appear. Nothing more.
“When you can monetize this illegal behavior — online sales of stolen goods is easier and faster than ever — we can’t sustain that as a nation,” Thompson said.
Michael Graham is managing editor for InsideSources.com. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of the newspaper.