ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Shoplifters, getting more and more brazen, are essentially daring store workers and security to stop them. But, when someone does step in, the thieves are pulling out weapons and firing off shots to get away. It’s gotten so out of control, that law enforcement is now shifting its focus to what was once a petty crime.
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It is evident someone is shoplifting when they are seen stuffing items in bags or under their clothes, grabbing them off the shelf in bulk, or even pretending to pay but then taking off with what’s hidden instead. Security guards and Asset Protection Officers have long paid attention to these indicators, but it’s become too dangerous for these first lines of defense to step in.
“There is nothing that the retailer can do. There’s nothing even that their security officers can do,” explained New Mexico Attorney General’s Special Agent. “They’re being knocked to the ground. They’re being beaten. They’re having guns pulled on them, tasers, knives, bear mace.”
Employees, many making minimum wages, are told to keep a distance and document the theft. In an effort to hold the thieves accountable, the Attorney General’s Office and Albuquerque Police created the Organized Retail Crime Unit.
“The driving force behind this is not just kids stealing candy bars, there is an organizational presence there. And it’s related to money laundering, racketeering, and a lot of other things. And that’s the main focus of this program,” the Agent shared.
He took KRQE along on an operation to get a closer look at the work the team is doing. Because the Agent is leading the unit and frequently conducts stings while undercover, KRQE was asked to keep his identity secret. The operation KRQE witnessed took place at Walmart on San Mateo, near Central Avenue in Albuquerque.
“This particular Walmart has had a lot of issues. They’ve had a lot of pushouts, they’ve had a lot of walkouts, they’ve had incidents of violence, things like that,” he explained.
During these operations, the Organized Retail Crime Unit works off the store’s list of known thieves and looks for new faces. “We’ve got people monitoring what’s going on inside the store, as well as what’s going on outside of the store and providing that information back to the rest of the team,” the Agent said.
Once a suspect is identified, the team converges at the store’s exit to arrest him or her. “Take down, take down,” they yell to each other as they approach the suspect. Then, an officer retrieves the stolen items and takes everything back inside. A cashier rings up each item to calculate the haul. The Agent says that the receipt and the store’s surveillance footage capturing the theft are critical evidence for each case.
The next step is clearing the scene created outside of the store to keep the ongoing operation a secret. The arresting officer drives the suspect to a different location where he or she is questioned and booked.
The Agent says they try to gain insight, “Why did you choose this location? Why are you stealing? Why are you stealing what you’re stealing? And what you’re planning on doing with it once it’s stolen?”
“They are planning and pursuing revenue from these stores and then selling them illegally to other customers. They’re purchasing weapons or purchasing guns,” Attorney General Hector Balderas explained. He added that often the thieves are selling or exchanging the goods for drug money. And to get that money, they’re getting bolder and more desperate.
“These criminals are directly tied to the level of violence in our community. So if we make these store centers more safe, we have a real chance to actually reduce the harm level in our own community and that’s the real takeaway,” the Attorney General explained.
During the ride-along, the team caught Juan Alderete with $500 worth of car detailing products, floor mats, and a cart. Leon Quillen was arrested after trying to walk out with more than $600 worth of vinyl records he hid under his coat. And, police stopped Aaron Gonzales, but not for shoplifting. He’s accused of driving to Walmart in a stolen car.
The Organized Retail Crime Unit caught a total of 16 people in that week-long operation. Since September, the team’s conducted 8 operations, arresting about 85 people.
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“It is low risk, and it is absolutely high reward,” the Agent said of shoplifting. “No one thought though, that all they need to do is to go to Home Depot or Walmart to pick up these violent offenders,” the Attorney General added.
Brianna Garcia is one example. Surveillance footage from the Walmart Neighborhood Market near San Mateo and I-40 shows her firing multiple gunshots out of her car window at the store’s entrance on February 1, 2022. Security had just tried to stop her from shoplifting, but she ran away. Police say that was Garcia’s 4th known shoplifting spree that week.
For many, shoplifting is their profession. The Attorney General explained, “A lot of these individuals will go hit Sandoval County, Valencia County, Bernalillo County, all within a day or a week. And they play court systems off of each other. And so, we are making sure that the judges understand the full criminal history.” As a result, his office charged one suspect with 35 criminal charges. Balderas said they’re proving the shoplifter’s actions rise to a felony.
“I don’t want to see our neighborhoods losing grocery stores, losing drugstores, just because we can’t get a handle on safety and the criminal activity in our community,” the Attorney General said. His Agent added, “It’s difficult, you know it’s – it can often feel like pushing against the ocean. But we’re making a difference.”
The Attorney General is now working to expand this effort across New Mexico. He credits the retail industry for its help in swiftly providing surveillance video to build cases and working on new technology to deter shoplifters. His office is also prosecuting these cases and aiming for prison time. Most cases are still winding their way through the courts.