CINCINNATI -- The Kroger Co. isn’t in the business of busting drug dealers. It’s just something that happened while minding its business.
The Cincinnati-based grocery chain helped Middletown police organize a task force to combat shoplifting in Southwest Ohio this year. Court records and interviews show the task force involved 13 law enforcement agencies and nine retail partners over six weeks. It chased theft suspects all over the state, filing more than 100 criminal charges and – so far – winning at least eight convictions.
Investigators seized more than $300,000 in stolen merchandise and 24 vehicles. The task force broke up fencing operations at Caesar Creek Flea Market in Clinton County and helped federal drug agents nab an alleged leader of a crack cocaine distribution network in Jeffersonville,, Ohio.
It’s all in a day’s work for Dennis Dansak, senior corporate manager of organized retail crime for Kroger. A former FBI special agent, Dansak runs a team of about 25 investigators who share video surveillance and other resources with police looking into theft rings. Since 2009, Dansak’s team helped break up stolen property rings in Los Angeles, Seattle, Nashville and now Ohio.
“We’ve had over 600 arrests of people involved fencing operations” since 2009, Dansak said. “Out of those 600 arrests, we haven’t lost a case. Most haven’t gone to trial. They all pleaded guilty.”
Middletown Police Sgt. Steve Ream said Kroger was a crucial ally in a task force that tracked suspects as far north as Urbana and south to Colerain Township.
“Pretty much anything we needed they took care of. They were wonderful,” said Ream. “I could come up with, OK, I need a car and Denny Dansak would have been like, OK, you’ll have it tomorrow. They were awesome. They had the same mentality we did: We’re going to take this road where it leads.”
The National Retail Federation says organized retail crime is a $30 billion problem for the nation’s retailers. It’s gotten worse in the last three years, according to eight out of 10 loss prevention officers surveyed by the retail trade group in May.
“These aren’t just one-time impulsive shoplifters. They’re doing it as a profession,” said Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell, whose office has netted four convictions from the Middletown-led fask force. Fornshell credits the group with gathering enough evidence to demonstrate that those arrested are part of a larger criminal enterprise.
“That allows us to get a bigger charge, a more significant charge against these individuals,” he said. Otherwise, “they know they’re not going to get in any kind of significant trouble. So, they do it with impunity.”
Professional shoplifters, known as boosters, tied to organized retail crime rings enter stores with a shopping list of goods they know can be easily sold online or on the streets, including baby formula, laundry detergent, DVDs and denim. Procter & Gamble Co. brands, including Tide, Gillette and Crest, are among the most popular targets for thieves.
“We’ve interviewed boosters who tell us they average about $15,000 a month,” said Dansak. “They come in with a shopping cart and … their goal is to steal as much as they can and get it out the store without detection.”
The boosters were not hard to find in Southwest Ohio.
In its first six weeks, Middletown Police recorded 116 theft arrests, 31 traffic citations and 32 additional criminal charges from the task force. It also assisted on the seizure of $250,000 in stolen goods from booths at Caesar Creek Flea Market on June 29 and the arrest of a confessed drug dealer in Fayette County.
Court records show Marcos Baker, 35, of Jeffersonville, faces up to 20 years in prison for his Sept. 13 plea to a federal charge of cocaine possession with intent to distribute. He faces a Dec. 19 trial in Fayette County on state charges of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, related to the Caesar Creek raid.
DEA Agent Steve Ray stated in the affidavit that Fayette County investigators had “intelligence regarding Baker’s involvement in drug trafficking dating back to 2001” and a confidential source for the DEA had twice purchased crack cocaine from Baker in 2011. When investigators learned that Baker was trading stolen merchandise for drugs, they arranged a transaction involving marked merchandise.
“Det. Eastes showed Baker several tubes of Axe body wash and other personal hygiene products and Tide laundry detergent,” said Ray’s July 18 affidavit. “Baker stated that the next time he met with Det. Eastes he would trade drugs for the stolen items.”
Dansak said the connection between drugs and shoplifting is common.
“When we dismantle a fencing operation, we see that it’s often narcotics users who are the boosters,” he said. “They’re getting about 10 percent of retail value when they sell to the fence. They’re using that money to buy their narcotics. It’s a vicious cycle for them.”
Dansak said Kroger uses video surveillance and interviews with detained boosters to gather information on
organized retail crime rings. Dansak spends a lot his time educating law enforcement agencies on the advantages of building bigger cases, instead of prosecuting boosters for single theft at a single store or jurisdiction.
“The key is working with law enforcement,” he said. “We can identify all the fences we want. But if we can’t get prosecutions made, that’s a stumbling block. Coming from the DA’s office … I can tell you law enforcement wasn’t educated. Once they understand this is not shoplifting, they see this results in large amounts of seizures, recovered property. We go after their financial accounts.”
In Los Angeles last year, Dansak said Kroger helped authorities seize $752,000 from a safety deposit box tied to an organized retail crime ring. Three years ago in Seattle, it helped law enforcement track a theft ring to a car dealer who was shipping vehicles to Cambodia filled with stolen goods.
“We identified them as a fencing organization based on the intelligence we’d gathered,” he said. “Each car sold had about $20,000 in stolen products inside.”
While the recovery amounts were not as large in Southwest Ohio, Middletown’s Sgt. Ream said the work of the task force continues to produce arrests.
“Just this past week, we’ve had close to 20 additional theft arrests,” said Ream. “And I only need to identify you once. Once I know who you are, then I start pulling in this theft at Walmart and this one at Kroger, and then Meijer, Family Dollar ... Next thing you know we’re hitting you with warrants from all over southwest Ohio. That’s what this did. And that’s where the retail partners help us because they have stores all over.”