Two women stuff their purses full of items from an Old Navy store and shove security officers out of the way as they escape.
Five men rush into Saks Fifth Avenue, snatch dozens of high-end handbags and flee to their getaway car parked just outside the door.
And in an incident that stunned an Eastside neighborhood, a man trying to steal armfuls of items from a clothing store fatally shoots in the head a man who tried to stop him.
What once seemed a petty crime has escalated into either an enterprise by organized criminals or, at worst, a potential flash point for violence.
Authorities attribute much of the increase in such brash and violent shoplifting to organized retail crime, groups of people who steal large volumes of merchandise not for themselves but to sell.
And in a way, Indiana is a magnet for such activity. Neighboring states have laws that punish offenders more severely than Indiana does. For criminals, the Hoosier state offers plenty of opportunity and less risk if caught.
That doesn’t mean they try any less to not get caught.
“I’ve been in retail for 21 years, and a long time ago you would have employees really get involved to stop shoplifting,” said Matt Thompson, chairman of the Indiana Retail Organized Crime Coalition and Lowe’s regional loss prevention director in Indianapolis. “Now, you have people who have been killed by shoplifting.”
The thefts essentially steal billions of dollars from retailers nationwide each year, costs that drive up the prices for goods for consumers.
The thefts also steal something else: a bit of the safety usually associated with a day of shopping.
‘It happens all the time’
On March 24, five men walked into the Saks Fifth Avenue store at The Fashion Mall at Keystone, snatched 21 purses and two key chains valued at $45,000 and piled into a black SUV waiting outside the south entrance.
On March 30, Ho Lee was found with two gunshots to the head inside the Body Gear clothing store at 2816 E. 38th St. Police said a young man trying to steal items fired a handgun at Lee three times when the 36-year-old Noblesville resident confronted him. A 19-year-old woman shopping at the store was shot in the leg.
On April 21, two women entered the Old Navy store at 8631 River Crossing Blvd. shortly before 2 p.m., stuffed multiple items into their purses and pushed loss-prevention officers out of the way as they ran out of the store toward a getaway car. The women led police officers in a chase that reached speeds of 80 mph.
After dumping the car and fleeing on foot, one of the women was prepared to fight an officer. The officer fired his stun gun at the woman, but it was not enough to subdue her. She was eventually taken into custody after the officer took her to the ground with a hip toss.
The second woman, who was two months’ pregnant, hopped a chain link fence outfitted with barbed wire before police caught her. The officer who chased her down suffered a deep gash to the back of his leg.
Police discovered that the women were carrying more than $3,000 worth of items from Deb, Nordstrom Rack and Aeropostale.
Nationally, shoplifting incidents that end in violence have been climbing at a steady rate. In the National Retail Federation’s 2013 survey, retailers said about 18 percent of apprehensions led to some level of violence, up from about 15 percent the previous year and 13 percent in 2011.
“They’re so bold, and they’re so brash, and they can be very intimidating.” said Rich Mellor, the federation’s vice president of loss prevention.
For Indianapolis police Detective Russ Sering, the Body Gear incident is an example of how dangerous organized retail crime, also known as boosting, can be.
“It happens all the time. And for the boosters … there’s a lot of talk of ‘Why should I sling dope and get a bigger charge when I can boost and get D felony theft … if not pleaded down to a misdemeanor?’ It’s a lot less risk and a lot more reward.”
A push for harsher punishment
The frequency of the thefts and the complexity of the criminal organizations make bringing offenders to justice a difficult task, Thompson said.
To combat the trend, he said the Indiana Retail Organized Crime Coalition is working with state lawmakers and county prosecutors to pass legislation that would make boosting a more severe crime. The goal is to strip some of the low-risk, high-reward appeal.
The 2013 National Retail Federation survey lists 28 states that have passed or enacted legislation related to organized retail crime, including all of the states surrounding Indiana.
“That’s our golden goose right there,” Thompson said of the legislation. “We’re looking at the language in the (organized retail crime) laws of our bordering states to draft legislation for Indiana, and we hope to have it introduced in time of the next legislative session.”
Earlier this month, one member of a group of shoplifting suspects who called themselves the Get Money Team was sentenced to a year in prison after pleading guilty to corrupt business influence and theft charges.
Class D felony theft in Indiana is punishable by up to three years in prison.
However, if she were caught doing a similar crime in Michigan, where a new law went into effect in March, she could have been formally charged with organized retail crime, a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
In Illinois, where organized retail crime legislation was signed in 2011, prosecutors also would have been able to seek forfeiture of her assets.
The tougher state laws help, said Mellor of the National Retail Federation. But the patchwork of state-by-state laws motivates thieves to cross state lines in search of less severe punishment should they get caught. With Indiana being surrounded by states with organized retail crime laws, criminals in the Midwest could be drawn to the Hoosier state.
“The criminals are very quick to hop state lines,” Mellor said. “For example, I’m in the Washington, D.C., area, and Virginia and Maryland are all so close. They’ll jump across into Virginia, where they’re home free with the stuff they stole in D.C. or Maryland.”
The National Retail Federation has been lobbying for organized retail crime to be defined as a federal crime with appropriate sentencing guidelines.
“We’ve been advocating for a number of years, so the federal lawmakers are tuned into it ,and they know how serious it is,” Mellor said. “The problem is they have other priorities, and we just keep trying to get on the priority list.”