Stop, thief! Drop that meat
Shoplifters here and nationwide flesh out a growing trend fueled by resale rings.
By ROBIN STEIN
Published March 4, 2007
TARPON SPRINGS - The chase ended before it began on a Saturday morning, the getaway plan foiled by a fatefully positioned curb in the Winn-Dixie parking lot. By the time police arrived, the tripped-up culprit was lying facedown on the asphalt, trailed by his loot.
There were no cartons of cigarettes, boxes of Sudafed or hair dye - none of the traditional fare of supermarket bandits. The bounty targeted in this score was three plastic-wrapped packs of red, nicely marbled rib-eye steaks.
Curious, perhaps, but not unusual.
Meat seems to be quite popular among local shoplifters, a review of recent Tarpon Springs police records shows. Of the seven theft calls from the local Publix and Winn-Dixie stores that officers responded to in January, six involved some sort of flesh.
And evidence suggests the trend extends far beyond the city limits.
One indicator is the emergence of a Web site, www.meatthief.com, set up to honor humankind's "unconditional love for meat" and the "extreme measures a few will undertake to possess its glory."
The anonymous host, "Baron Claus von Lambshank," posts commentary about "outrageous" incidents involving "meat larceny throughout the globe," along with links to media coverage.
There was a spate of "choplifting events" in Scranton, Pa., and a "serial food thief" in East St. Louis facing his fourth arrest on accusations of stealing hams from the same store.
Bolstering this snarky compilation of anecdotal accounts is statistical evidence.
The Food Marketing Institute, an industry group in Washington, D.C., conducts annual surveys of supermarkets across the country.
"Losses of meat were up if you look at the long-term trend," said William Greer, a spokesman for the institute. "Typically they are very high-quality cuts."
Meat - along with painkillers - topped the list of most frequently shoplifted items in the institute's most recent report, which analyzed data from more than 7,000 stores owned by 42 retailers.
After four years of decline, shoplifting accounted for 35 percent of total product loss in 2005, up from 30 percent a year earlier.
Meat loss dropped off a bit since an unprecedented high of 2004, but not nearly as much as health and beauty care products, which propelled flesh-eating thievery to the top spot.
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Professional theft rings have orchestrated major resale scams of batteries, cigarettes and baby formula in recent years. Now, similar operations - on a local scale - have emerged in the meat trade, Greer said.
"It's a perishable item, but you have people who will go around with a cooler in their car and take orders at bars and restaurants ... usually for choice pieces of meat."
The extent of the informal meat trade is unclear, as the survey captures only the losses that stores find out about - a fraction of what's actually stolen. But supermarket companies, from independent operators to publicly traded chains, have been taking notice.
Digital cameras are being installed to monitor meat cooler areas. Tiny sensors that trigger alarms are embedded in labels and cloths placed underneath meat.
On the legal side, an industrywide coalition has been pressing lawmakers to stiffen penalties for shoplifters operating as part of an organized theft ring, arguing that the petty-theft measures currently on the books do not provide a strong deterrent.
Only about half of the shoplifters caught are turned over to authorities, the Food Marketing Institute survey shows.
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Tarpon Springs police are responding to plenty of meat theft calls.
The curb-foiled getaway at Winn-Dixie, for instance, resulted in three counts of retail theft for 24-year-old Brady P. Kusmierczyk of New Port Richey.
Capt. Jeffrey Young said Tarpon police have seen no signs of a local meat resale operation. Many of the grocery store shoplifters are repeat offenders, he said.
For instance, shortly before noon on Jan. 11, police responded to a call from a loss-prevention officer for Publix. Store employees saw a woman stash a bottle of shampoo in her purse and then proceed down Aisle 4 to the sushi cooler and slip two packs in her bag. After the suspect sauntered past the cash registers, a confrontation ensued. The woman reportedly dropped her loot and dashed to her 1995 Chevrolet Tracker, which a police officer later traced to Sarah Dale Waguespack, 25, of Holiday.
Waguespack had two theft convictions, records show.
Also at Publix, a 48-year-old man from Tarpon Springs was stopped with sushi, along with Nathan's franks and a pack of ground sirloin.
And loss-prevention officers thwarted a middle-aged woman's attempt to skip out without paying for her chicken tenders.
Back at Winn-Dixie, less than a week after Kusmierczyk and his steaks were cleared from the parking lot, Gigi Sessions, 44, was spotted entering the restroom carrying a pack of boneless rib eyes.
She emerged appearing to have only her jeans jacket in hand. Store employees were dispatched to search the restroom but found no meat. Then Sessions was confronted.
When she was in police custody, the officer asked why she had selected the most expensive cut.
"If you're going to go, you should go all the way," she responded, according to his report.
[Last modified March 4, 2007, 00:18:53]
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