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Organized offensive: Law enforcement, retailers combat retail crime

Cottage Grove police officer Jordan Ziebarth talks with a motorist he stopped after witnessing a littering incident at Walmart. Mike Longaecker / RiverTown Multimedia

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories about local law enforcement agencies’ response to retail crime.

When shoppers drive the Walmart parking lot, they're usually after one thing: empty spaces.

Jordan Ziebarth scouts for the exact opposite. The Cottage Grove, Minn., police officer isn't interested in the closest available parking spot to the store.

He's looking at the vehicles that are already there.

To you, it looks like a common parking lot — shoppers coming and going from vehicles, employees shuttling carts back into the store. But to Ziebarth, the Walmart parking lot is more like a fishing hole. He doesn't know how big the fish are or how many he'll catch, but like any experienced angler, he's drawn to the place where he knows he's likely to get a bite.

"I like it," Ziebarth said. "It's a challenge."

PREVIOUSLY: Analysis: Police called disproportionately to Walmart stores

The 12-year police force veteran is like a computer, continuously processing data he's scanning as his unmarked squad crawls through the lot.

Why is that guy sitting in a car parked in the back of the lot? Why is that SUV parked in the fire lane next to the store entrance? That truck — it's parked at an odd angle for no apparent reason. That other vehicle: is it a rental car?

Woodbury police officer Adam Sack looks for the same activity in his community.

"All those things will kind of raise my suspicion," he said.

While Ziebarth and Sack are always on the lookout for solo operators to bust in the lots, they and other cops are keying in more than ever on thieves who are part of criminal networks that target retail stores.

"It's a regional problem," Sack said.

And a national one. According to a 2016 report by the National Retail Federation, businesses reported an average impact of about $700,000 per $1 billion in retail sales.

One group in particular, the Twin Cities Organized Retail Crime Association or TCORCA, has taken aim at the growing trend in the greater metro area. The nonprofit group, formed by Sack and two others, bands together law enforcement, prosecutors and members of the retail business community.

"It's a huge difference," Sack said. "It brings all the stakeholders to the table."

The group, which has recently enlisted detectives from the Hudson Police Department as part of its 900-plus-member enrollment, serves as an information-sharing resource providing cops, as well as businesses, with up-to-the-minute updates on suspects and methods being used by thieves. Members of the organization get email messages alerting them to retail crimes, often with real-time surveillance images of the suspects and their vehicles.

Woodbury Public Safety Director Lee Vague said revelations from TCORCA have been eye-opening.

"I learned shoplifting can't be dealt with as a local problem" alone, he said.

In some cases, suspects have flown into Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, rented cars and fanned out to execute retail thefts on behalf of national crime syndicates.

"You can't deal with it by yourself," Vague said.

By the numbers: Police calls to Walmart and Target

And with Hudson now involved, the group can extend its reach into the Badger State, where officials hope to thwart organized retail crime efforts. The addition of TCORCA will beef up a system that Hudson Police Chief Marty Jensen said already saw crime alerts going back and forth across the border.

"It gives us a heads-up on what's going on in the Cities," Jensen said. "If it's happening over there, it's coming our way, most likely."

Evolving crimes

The list of recent cases includes one involving a group of Cuban nationals suspected of installing credit-card skimmers around Wisconsin. Hudson police detective Todd Pearson said that case, which also involved Red Wing police, is being actively investigated by the Wisconsin Department of Justice and the Minnesota Department of Commerce.

Pearson, along with fellow Hudson detective Glen Hartman, held a seminar July 25 where they shared information about organized retail crime with members of the Hudson business community. The detectives warned local business leaders to be on the lookout for cloned credit cards, credit card skimmers and gift card scams, among other emerging crimes.

Detective Glen Hartman speaks to members of the Hudson business community. Mike Longaecker / RiverTown Multimedia

Hartman noted how a bank in Hudson had a credit-card skimmer installed there.

"These people are very, very sophisticated," he said, explaining how some criminals can install gas-pump skimmers capable of transmitting data over Bluetooth technology to a nearby laptop that can download credit card information while customers pump gas.

Another recent Hudson incident involved a suspect who printed homemade UPC labels that rang up for $25 at Menards. Police said that man slapped the labels on a couple $800 drills and paid $25 each for them.

From there, the suspect almost certainly turned them into quick cash of his own, Hartman said.

The fencing operations have evolved, too. Once the province of pawn shops or shady backrooms in run-down stores, the marketspace has become virtually infinite with apps and websites offering thieves more cover than ever to transact business.

Now they're moving stolen goods on Craigslist or OfferUp, which also caters to local sales. Those Facebook garage sales you see? Ziebarth said that's also a common resource for thieves to fence their goods.

"It's kind of scary," he said.

Hartman said the hope is that by combining multiple investigations through TCORCA, prosecutors can organize cases comprising more robust charges.

"How we accomplish that is by communication" with other law enforcement, Pearson said, "and we can aggregate those."

Law enforcement's goal, Hartman said, is to keep organized crime suspects from pleading to misdemeanors that put them back on the street after facing minimal penalties.

"They're going to start giving them the maximum and start putting them in jail," he said.

Cross-state busts

Law enforcement officials said they're harnessing teamwork more than ever, where online tools and social media have become vital resources.

A 2016 Hudson case illustrated how credit cards swiped from a car allegedly led to a two-state crime spree that racked up thousands in fraudulent charges.

The incident began with an Aug. 21, 2016, theft of credit cards from a vehicle parked at the Hudson boat launch. Detectives learned that the suspect, a former Hudson resident, allegedly ran up more than $600 in charges later that day at Target in North St. Paul on one of the stolen cards.

A criminal complaint against the suspect, Demetri Montoya, states he charged another $700 a day later at the Hudson Target before going to Target stores in St. Paul, where he allegedly charged nearly $1,000 more to the Hudson woman's stolen card.

Surveillance footage from the Hudson incident revealed a man, identified by police as Montoya, asking a Target worker for help in buying an iPad. The video shows the clerk struggling to complete the transaction before escorting Montoya to the customer service area, where he allegedly presented the Hudson woman's stolen credit card in a successful transaction.

Security signs are visible in the Hudson Walmart parking lot. Mike Longaecker / RiverTown Multimedia

Pearson alerted Montoya's Minnesota probation officers in Washington, Hennepin and Ramsey counties. Pearson later got a call from a North St. Paul officer who said she identified Montoya using the Hudson woman's card to buy a large TV at the Target store there, according to the criminal complaint.

Pearson said in the complaint that an attempt to use another of the Hudson woman's stolen cards at the Woodbury Walmart was likely to result in Washington County charges.

Montoya faces one felony count of misappropriating an identity to obtain money, and one misdemeanor count of credit card fraud in St. Croix County. Montoya, who now lists a South St. Paul address, had his preliminary hearing on those charges July 28 and is scheduled to be arraigned on the charges Aug. 21.

Another case involving authorities from Wisconsin and Minnesota led to charges in 2016 in St. Croix County against two St. Paul women suspected of using stolen credit cards at retail stores around the metro first stolen in Hudson.

The case began with a Sept. 15, 2015, theft report from a woman who left her vehicle unlocked while she ran into the Hudson Kindercare Learning Center to pick up her child. A criminal complaint issued in the case states she got back in the vehicle to find her purse and its contents gone. Staff later reported they saw a woman jump out of a vehicle that had parked next to the victim's and snatch the purse inside.

Hudson Kindercare staff spread the word to its other centers and learned that a Kindercare in Shakopee had been hit the same day by suspects in a vehicle matching the one used in Hudson.

Hudson detective Pearson then put out an alert to other agencies. Three days later, he learned that same suspicious vehicle was sought in a similar incident in Minnetonka and that Shakopee police had identified one of the two suspects. It turned out police in Burnsville and Brooklyn Center were searching for the same woman, too.

Later that day, Pearson was contacted by Sack from Woodbury, who told him a pawn-system check revealed one of the suspects in the Hudson case had pawned a wedding band in St. Paul. The ring allegedly turned out to be among the items missing from the Hudson woman's stolen purse.

A day later, Sack contacted Pearson again to tell him that the second suspect from the Hudson theft was on his radar. Sack reported that the two women were suspected in a Woodbury Walmart shoplifting incident, where several of the Hudson woman's credit cards were used to buy nearly $1,500 in merchandise.

Sack passed along surveillance stills from that incident. Two women matching the same description turned up in surveillance photos passed along from St. Louis Park, Minn., police after a theft from a car there.

Sack then accessed the first suspect's Facebook profile and discovered she was friends with a woman whose Facebook photo matched the other person from the surveillance stills.

A photo lineup was given to Woodbury Walmart staff, who positively identified a picture of 37-year-old Kimbery J. Letexier as the shoplifter.

Photos lineups featuring Letexier and the other suspect, 26-year-old Bianca M. Sheppard, didn't yield positive identifications among Hudson Kindercare staff, but detailed descriptions given by the employees matched additional clothing features spotted in additional surveillance captured of the suspects from that same day.

Letexier and Sheppard were each later charged in St. Croix County Circuit Court with a half-dozen theft charges stemming from the Hudson incident. Letexier pleaded not guilty to the charges in June 2017 after her arrest; a warrant has been issued for Sheppard's arrest.

Retail-related crimes continue to add up in Minnesota and Wisconsin. In the final part of this series, RiverTown MultiMedia explores what solutions Walmart and members of the criminal justice system are employing to tackle retail crime.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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