9 accused in organized $102K theft from Safeway

Organized retail crime has $30 billion industry impact

Nine people are accused of stealing more than $102,000 from Safeway-Albertson stores. Arrests were made in February 2017 (KOIN)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – A group of 9 people is accused of stealing more than $102,000 from Safeway-Albertson stores, according to police.

The 5-week investigation into the suspect organized retail crime (ORC) began in October 2016.

ORC typically involves more than one individual, said Scott Chapman, the Director of Asset Protection for Albertson-Safeway. He said the groups usually steal merchandise and sell it on the black market.

“They’re in business to make money, whether it be for drugs (or) whether it be for re-selling,” Chapman said.

Nine people are accused of stealing more than $102,000 from Safeway-Albertson stores. Arrests were made in February 2017 (KOIN)
Nine people are accused of stealing more than $102,000 from Safeway-Albertson stores. Arrests were made in February 2017 (KOIN)

ORC can result in higher prices for consumers and less taxes for state and local governments, he said.

The thieves will steal in bulk quantity. Loss prevention officers showed KOIN 6 News the lengths the thieves will go.

Some will use what’s known in the industry as a “booster bag,” which is typically a large handbag lined with tinfoil. Other thieves will load up a shopping cart and simply leave without paying. Those are called “push outs.”

Chapman said ORC investigators are seeing thieves steal high-value items that are popular across a wide demographic of individuals such as laundry detergent, teeth whiting strips, allergy medicine and nutritional supplements.

“It’s a quick turn for them,” Chatman said. “They can sell it quickly.”

Recently, KOIN 6 News rode along with the Gresham Police Department and ORC investigators from Safeway as they took down a team of 9 people suspected of stealing more than $102,000 in product from Safeway.

Nine people are accused of stealing more than $102,000 from Safeway-Albertson stores. Arrests were made in February 2017 (KOIN)
Nine people are accused of stealing more than $102,000 from Safeway-Albertson stores. Arrests were made in February 2017 (KOIN)

The investigation resulted in the identification of 9 suspects, including suspected ringleader Jenna Hollingshead.

According to ORC investigators, Hollingshead was “specifically targeting” stores in Southeast Portland and Gresham. She was selling laundry detergent pods online for prices “far below their market value,” according to Safeway. Undercover investigators were assigned to the case.

ORC undercover investigators eventually identified John Logan Irish, Stephanie H. Mitchell, Andrew J. Christie, Kristin Renee Eichler, Michael William Lewis, Richard Santos, Tyler Scott Tomlinson and Kristan Lee Partin as associates to the operation Hollingshead was running.

Safeway investigators tell us they developed probable cause to have each arrested; however, not all have been indicted by a grand jury.

Gresham police Detective Brandon Crate, February 2017 (KOIN)
Gresham police Detective Brandon Crate, February 2017 (KOIN)

Gresham Police Detective Brandon Crate said most ORC suspects are stealing so they can support a drug habit.

“That’s why it’s imperative for us to try and combat this,” Crate said.

Investigators stress ORC is not simply shoplifting.

“We’re not looking at targeting people stealing a candy bar, or a bag of chips or a soda or something like that,” Crate said.

KOIN 6 News was there when Hollingshead was taken into custody. Before being lodged into jail, we had a chance to ask her questions about the alleged ORC operation investigator said she was running.

She declined to comment.

Crate described ORC criminals as “opportunistic.”

“They’re not targeting specifically Gresham in general,” Crate said. “It doesn’t end just at Safeway and Fred Meyer. They target a lot of the retail stores in terms of stealing jeans, stealing anything they can make money off of.”

The National Retail Federation recently published a report that found, “for the first time, 100% of retailers surveyed believe their companies have been victims of organized retail crime, and 83% said ORC activity had increased in the previous 12 months.”

Nationally, ORC is estimated to have a conservative $30 billion industry impact, according to the NRF.

“It’s a huge problem for these businesses,” Crate said.

To fight back, law enforcement and retailers have teamed up to form the Northwest Organized Retail Crime Alliance (NWORCA). The group is made up of law enforcement throughout Oregon and Southwest Washington and several prosecuting attorneys.

Nine people are accused of stealing more than $102,000 from Safeway-Albertson stores. Arrests were made in February 2017 (KOIN)
Nine people are accused of stealing more than $102,000 from Safeway-Albertson stores. Arrests were made in February 2017 (KOIN)

“We try to identify these boosters…and we come to some strategies with the district attorney’s office to not only arrest, but prosecute these people,” Crate said.

Oregon has an organized retail theft statue on its books, but it is rarely used because prosecutors are able to secure longer prison sentences when using the state’s first-degree theft and aggravated first-degree theft statues when applicable.

Nine people are accused of stealing more than $102,000 from Safeway-Albertson stores. Arrests were made in February 2017 (KOIN)
Nine people are accused of stealing more than $102,000 from Safeway-Albertson stores. Arrests were made in February 2017 (KOIN)

Chatman, the Director of Asset Protection for Albertson-Safeway, said ORC not only has a financial impact on businesses, but could also endanger the consumer. Products that are being sold in stores are carefully regulated and watched for quality assurance.

Chatman said he’s seen baby formula stolen during the summer months and left sitting inside the thieves’ vehicle despite a warning on the product that advises to avoid direct sunlight.

Within the last 5 years, police have seen ORC groups start to use the internet as a way to move their stolen product. Detective Crate showed KOIN 6 News items that were available for purchase on the website “OfferUp.”

ORC investigators often times have to go undercover to determine which sellers are legitimate and which are fencing stolen product.

Stores have recently started marking their products with stickers to help warn consumers about ORC. At the Safeway store in the Pearl District, a set of razors had a sticker on them that identified the store it was being sold at and included a toll-free number for people to call if the product was found being sold elsewhere.

OfferUp provided KOIN 6 News with the following statement:

“The trust and security of our users is a core focus for us at OfferUp. We always recommend that users meet in a public location, utilize our messaging system, and consider the ratings of other users. More tips for keeping transactions secure can be found on OfferUp.com.”

In the case against Hollingshead, court records show that she has convictions for theft, criminal trespass, unauthorized use of a motor vehicle and possession of a controlled substance. She also has 11 probation violations.

Christie, the second suspect indicted and linked to Hollingshead’s alleged operation, is now in warrant status after he failed to appear for his arraignment on March 3, according to court documents.

A trial date for Hollingshead has not been set. She has since pleaded not guilty to the grand jury indictment.