(This cart of groceries valued at about $150, including the meat in black packaging at the top of the photo, was abandoned after a shoplifter was approached by staff at Mr. D’s. Photo provided by Michelle Motherway.)
(Lander, Wyo.) – Local authorities and business owners are working together on new prosecution strategies in an effort to curb large, organized shoplifting incidents. Repeat offenders of large-scale shoplifting could be facing felony burglary charges.
Lander area stores in recent months have been hit by seemingly “organized shoplifting rings,” Fremont County Attorney Michael Bennett said.
During these hits, Mr. D’s owner Michelle Motherway has witnessed and Lander Police have taken reports of groups of four or five people hitting a store at once: one is scout, two load groceries into a cart, a driver is waiting in the vehicle and occasionally another person is involved to help transfer the groceries or merchandise into the vehicle.
Not long ago, a group of shoplifters almost left Safeway with nearly $1,000 in groceries before they were runoff by staff. ”That’s certainly far more different than the 13-year-old stealing lip gloss,” Bennett said.
However, both Motherway and Bennett said some of these rings have involved minor children in their attempts.
“We see them come in pretty regularly,” Motherway said, adding that one week this summer her store was hit four times. While there has been more activity recently, she said that their shoplifting incidents come in waves. She said not long ago staff forced a shoplifter to abandon a cart of nearly $150-worth of items. She said it’s difficult for the loss to be made up by selling more products. As a locally owned business, Mr. D’s, she said, doesn’t have the ability to write off losses at a national, corporate level.
Lander Police Lt. Chuck Carr said the large-scale shoplifting incidents are monetarily affecting local merchants. Bennett said this could result in a community-wide effect of higher prices due store owners needing to cover their losses.
In response to the organized shoplifting, Motherway, Bennett and the Lander Police Department, as well as others, have worked together to devise a new prosecution strategy to deter would-be shoplifters.
“We need some sort of a tool to tell these shoplifters we mean business,” Bennett said.
Shoplifting generally is a minor crime followed by punishments of small fines in city court. Bennett’s plan is to begin charging those individuals taking large amounts of items, and doing so habitually, in Circuit Court. There the crime is punishable by $750 in fines and/or six months in jail. Additionally, they will be trespassed from the business they were attempting to take from.
Bennett said then with the trespass order, they cannot legally re-enter the business. If they do, and are caught in the act of attempting to shoplift, the suspect can be charged with burglary. Burglary requires prosecution to prove that a person was not allowed to be where they were and had an intent to commit a crime. The felony charge is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
These tactics will not be used against suspects of minor and first-time thefts, the county attorney said. These larger-scale incidents go beyond shoplifting, Bennett said, calling those who do them “thieves.”
Motherway commended Bennett and the police for being “receptive and helpful” in working on the problem.
Bennett said at this point there are several shoplifting suspects currently in the system that are being prosecuted in this manner. On Monday, multiple attempted shoplifters in Lander were trespassed from the Family Dollar and Safeway. According to Carr, two women were attempting to put nearly $700 worth of groceries into styrofoam coolers and leave the store without paying for the items. They were both trespassed from Safeway.
Bennett also said he will work with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to follow-up on rumors that these rings are stealing items for resale on the Wind River Indian Reservation. He noted that he has advised Riverton Police of the crackdown in Lander.
Questions to the local Safeway management were referred to their corporate offices per company policy.