CINCINNATI — When Curtis Burks pleaded guilty to theft charges in October, four local police departments and retail investigators from Lowe’s, Home Depot and Target shared in the win.
“Curtis Burks is widely recognizable by Lowe’s loss prevention officers since he is believed to have committed over $28,000 in thefts in a 6-month time frame in Hamilton County and adjoining counties,” wrote Hamilton County Corporal Bryan Robben in a Sept. 22 affidavit supporting one of the 14 charges that led to a plea agreement and one-year sentence for Burks on Oct. 19.
The WCPO 9 I-Team tried to reach Burks through his attorney, who declined to comment.
His case is one example of how retailers are working with local police departments to combat a $68.9 billion problem: Organized retail crime.
“What we’re seeing today are people who are essentially building a business model, stealing from local retailers and reselling those products quickly and rather anonymously online,” said Jason Brewer, senior executive vice president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, a Washington, D.C. -based trade group whose board includes Kroger Co. CEO Rodney McMullen.
The group’s study estimates Ohio lost $2.1 billion to organized theft, while Indiana lost $1.8 billion and Kentucky, $727 million.
"The economic impact of retail crime is profound," said the study. "Retailers face increased costs for lost product, security, and labor, which lead to higher prices for consumers and, ultimately, lower sales. Lower sales translate to fewer jobs throughout the economy."
Although it isn’t a new problem, the study concludes organized theft has worsened in recent years due to the growth of online shopping venues that allow people to sell stolen merchandise under screen names.
“The level of violence that we’re seeing, the brazen theft, the organized theft is something new,” Brewer said.
Organized theft is generating more headlines, thanks to high-profile cases like the looting of a Nordstrom store near San Francisco last weekend and a series of earnings calls in which retailers, including Kroger and Home Depot, said rising theft levels ate into their profits in the third quarter.
But the amount of theft varies widely across the country. California, for example, leads the nation in the percentage of retail sales lost to theft, at 2.32%. Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana are all below the national average of 1.47%.
But the numbers tell only part of the story. So, the WCPO 9 I-Team spent a week analyzing local theft cases and learning about monthly meetings where police and retail investigators discuss active cases. The meetings take place at the West Chester Police Department and typically draw more than two dozen investigators who compare notes on crime trends, suspects they’re chasing and best practices for defending stores against shoplifters.
“When we say organized retail crime, a lot of times it’s just these serial thieves,” said Lt. Dave Tivin, who runs West Chester’s criminal investigations unit. “If they identify a store, whether it be Home Depot or Lowe’s, and they know they can take a set of cordless Dewalt tools and get out of there without a problem, then there’s no reason to think they can’t go to the same store in another location and do the same thing. That stuff adds up pretty quick.”
West Chester collaborated with Norwood police and the cosmetics retailer Sephora recently to build a serial theft case against Stephanie Spurlock, a Mt Sterling, Kentucky, resident accused of stealing $2,563 in merchandise from an Ulta store at Rookwood Commons and Sephora stores at Rookwood and Kenwood.
Spurlock was identified after Sephora gave Norwood Detective Chad Webster a photograph taken at the Kenwood Sephora, Webster wrote in a July 2 affidavit.
“I shared this photograph with surrounding agencies in an attempt to identify the subject. Marty Broaddus, a criminal intelligence analyst with the Kentucky State Police … was able to utilize a facial recognition tool and received a return to Stephanie Spurlock,” Webster wrote.
Norwood and West Chester both have warrants out for Spurlock, who has not been arrested.
Springdale Detective Ritchy Tuazon also attends those West Chester meetings. He said the group helped him advance his case against Curtis Burks.
“The loss prevention people are really aware of people that do things like this, the boosters,” Tuazon said. “If there’s something I’m hitting a wall on … all I have to do is just bring some information, maybe a photo, and they say, ‘Yeah, we’re familiar with that suspect.’”
Tuazon filed one of the 14 charges against Burks after Lowes gave him security cam photos of a man in a COVID mask leaving its East Kemper Road store without paying for $996 in lighting equipment. Although he couldn’t see the suspect’s face, Tuazon identified Burks by matching his “praying hands” tattoo to an image from Hamilton County’s inmate database.
“He’s 30 years old, 34 arrests, 17 of them were theft-related. He’s a prolific thief,” Tuazon said.
In addition to Lowes, Burks faced three theft charges involving Home Depot’s Glenway Ave. store in Green Township and two theft charges alleging he stole $740 in merchandise from a Walmart store on Ferguson Road in Cincinnati. He was ordered to pay $3,032 in restitution to Lowe’s and $1,549 to Home Depot as part of his plea agreement.
One day after his guilty pleas, Cincinnati police filed new charges alleging Burks stole $4,082 in merchandise from a Target store in Western Hills during nine visits between November 2020 and April 2021. Burks is in the Hamilton County Justice Center awaiting trial on those charges.
“We work very closely with Target and with Lowe’s investigators,” said Mike Combs, director of asset protection for Home Depot. “Even though we’re competitors in the retail landscape, when it comes to getting rid of criminals that are preying on all of us, we work together on all those investigations.”
Combs is an Atlanta-based executive who assigned two full-time investigators to pursue organized theft cases in Ohio. He said the Burks case is “definitely organized retail crime,” but it’s not one of the larger cases Home Depot is trying to solve.
“It’s not uncommon for cases to be starting at a couple hundred thousand dollars, all the way up to a million,” he said. “Our case value and our loss value as it relates to ORCs is up 140% over the year before. And that year before was a record year. We are investigating more. We’re resolving more. Which tells me the problem is still growing.”
That’s why retailers are pursuing legislative and technology solutions to organized retail theft.
Home Depot has developed Bluetooth technology that renders power tools inoperable unless they’re scanned at a register. Kroger is using carts that lock up when they leave the store if a shopper skirts the checkout lane. Several retailers are investing in GPS technology to track stolen merchandise as it travels from shoplifters to fencing operations.
On the legislative front, Brewer with the Retail Industry Leaders Association is pushing for new rules to discourage anonymous selling on Amazon, Facebook Marketplace and other online platforms.
“That’s really what’s vexing law enforcement and retailers,” Brewer said. “It’s very difficult to track folks and see what they’re selling, because they’re not selling with their real name and business information. They’re selling from behind a screen name, often times using fake information. What we’re hoping is that some transparency, and verifying information before they can sell, is going to make it a lot harder to build a business model selling stolen goods.”
But investigators know they’re facing an upfill fight.
“Less than 5% of the stolen product ever gets recovered,” Combs said. “When there is stolen product out there, it’s resold very quickly.”
Part of that is due to the efficiency of online sales, said the Home Depot executive. Thieves no longer have to sell through pawn shops and flea markets.
But Tuazon points to another factor. Organized theft rings have gotten very efficient at replacing thieves who get caught.
“Unfortunately, anyone can fill those shoes,” Tuazon said. “Once Mr. Burks, or people like him, get arrested, there’s just one more waiting to get in.”