Albuquerque sting puts a dent in 'organized retail crime'

Feb. 2—ALBUQUERQUE — It took an hour of waiting to get the first one.

The suspect exited out the side door of a Kohl's store with a black duffel bag full of clothing and shoes. But before he could make a getaway, he was apprehended by patient Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office deputies, who pounced and quickly placed him in handcuffs.

Within another two hours, deputies nabbed five more accused shoplifters outside the store and a nearby Home Depot in the northwest section of Albuquerque.

More arrests were expected later Thursday as members of several law enforcement agencies took part in a citywide operation attacking what lawmakers and retailers say is an increasingly worrisome problem throughout New Mexico.

They call it "organized retail crime" — thieves who brazenly steal what they want from stores and simply walk out the door, flaunting a seeming invincibility as they leave.

Some criminals work as part of highly disciplined packs in the thefts. Others, operate solo, like Kohl's suspect Eli Montaño is accused of doing, sometimes innocuously slipping out emergency exit doors with stolen goods in a hand basket.

The problem has reached such epic proportions that lawmakers are about to consider two bills that create tougher penalties for shoplifting.

House Bill 55 addresses organized shoplifting efforts that target the same store two or more times, or a number of stores in the same area, over the course of a year. Sponsored by five Republican House members, including Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, HB 55 lays out a scale of penalties, from a petty misdemeanor to a second-degree felony based on the financial amount of the merchandise taken.

House Bill 234, sponsored by Rep. Marian Matthews, D-Albuquerque, also targets organized retail crime, adding the thefts to the definition of racketeering and imposing felony charges against anyone who is in possession of a firearm while shoplifting.

The House Commerce and Economic Development Committee is scheduled to hear both bills at the state Capitol on Friday.

Rob Black, president and CEO of the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview Thursday such crimes are "a growing threat that is costing our retail businesses. We are seeing crimes that we once thought were petty theft turn into something that is more organized, with repeat offenders becoming more brazen and using firearms more often. We need better tools to address those problems."

He praised Thursday's multi-agency sting operation in Albuquerque, noting it's one way to combat the problem. "That's how we get things done — by working together," he said.

Sgt. Donald Hix of the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office said organized shoplifting crimes are costing individual stores in the state between $250,000 and $3.2 million a year. He said one of the Kohl's outlets in Albuquerque — the target of repeat shoplifting efforts — lost $2.1 million last year.

Data shows thieves tend to hit stores between 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Thursdays, he said, calling the time period "the hottest time of the week."

Hix said the problem, which isn't isolated to Albuquerque and has been experienced at several stores in Santa Fe, likely results in thieves taking stolen goods to a fence for money or use them to pay off drug habits.

Bernalillo County Deputy First Class Robert Mason and some of the members of his team said often the thieves will go into stores with a shopping list of goods their dealer wants them to steal in return for drugs.

Dix spoke like a military commander laying out battle plans as deputies gathered around him Thursday in the parking lot at Albuquerque's Coronado Mall a half-hour or so before they set out on their mission.

Hix told deputies to "take down the professionals" and work to get information from them about fences, who deal in stolen goods.

Mason and his three teammates organized quickly, first choosing a complex where a Kohl's, Home Depot and Albertsons are located.

Mason changed into civilian clothes and went inside Kohl's to work with the store's security personnel on identifying potential shoplifters. The stores have video surveillance cameras and loss prevention officials quickly learn to recognize repeat offenders.

Meanwhile, his three colleagues — Deputies Garret McKenney, Jeffrey Naas and Lesley Tharpe — took to their vehicles to patrol the surrounding area while listening to instructions and updates from Mason via radio.

After checking in with store managers at some nearby businesses to let them know she was around, Tharpe took up a position on the east side of the Kohl's store while McKenney and Naas, in a separate vehicle, set up on the south side.

With the aid of a pair of binoculars, McKenney and Naas began looking for the criminals' "spotters" — scouts who track any police presence while their partners work the store in a shoplifting frenzy.

As Montaño moved around the store, edging closer and closer to the door on the east side — which was locked from within — Mason kept the other officers informed by radio, asking Tharpe at one point to hide her vehicle lest the suspect look out the windows of the exit door for any sign of police.

Within a minute, the suspect came out the door on the east side, made a right turn and began walking along the side of the building as if he were headed to the gym with a sports bag full of workout wear.

Within seconds, all the deputes pulled up in separate vehicles, surprising Montaño, who dropped the bag and gave in to the click of the handcuffs on his hands.

He told the deputes he was 42, gave a false name and said he did not know his Social Security number.

"You're 42 and don't know your Social Security number?" Mason asked.

Within a few minutes, deputies had discovered his identity and moved him into the back of one of the patrol cars. Within minutes, they ran a background check and discovered Montaño has been charged with other shoplifting crimes — misdemeanors — and at least one felony charge for assault upon a peace officer. He also had an active warrant for failure to appear for a court date.

Loss prevention officers from Kohl's determined Montaño had $308.10 worth of stolen merchandise, Mason said, which is a misdemeanor charge.

Mason said his agency began conducting shoplifting sting operations last summer. He said it's "incredibly rewarding" to capture shoplifters.

Mason said he takes the crime of shoplifting personally. He said it galls him to stand in line with his wife and children at a store to pay for his goods and "look over and see someone running out with $1,000 in stolen goods."

"They're shoplifting nonstop, all day long," he said.