How to Catch a Thief

Then a person needed to cross the line of where the registers were without paying for the product and head out the door. We'd jump out in front of the person, flash an ID, and attempt to corral them back in without physical manhandling, which was easier said than done. But again, the store feared liability. If you had to chase someone, you naturally had to try to grab them. Sometimes a fleeing suspect would throw down the property in hopes that you'd stop chasing them. If he was within reach, I'd keep chasing.

Most of the time suspects were cooperative, like my first bust out on my own after a month of training with Jack. An 18-year-old guy stole a pack of condoms on a Friday afternoon because he was too embarrassed to buy them. As the first arrest on your own is a pretty big hurdle, that was a lucky pack of Trojans. He acknowledged that I ruined his Friday night.

For each thief any of us caught in the store, we knew at least five got away each day. They'd leave their markers like roach droppings: torn packages, discarded wrappers, a UPC torn off because the miscreant feared a sensor was encased within.

Police usually took forever to respond to the drugstores, especially in the worse areas of the city, so we had to take that into consideration in a decision to prosecute. While I'd sit there for three hours with an unrestrained suspect in the back of the store, I'd always think about what other products were flying off the shelves and out the door. Once a suspect who claimed not to speech English kept trying to reach out and feel my leg with a creepy grin on his face as I kept calling the police to urge them to step up their response; I eventually just kicked Grabby out of the store and told the police dispatcher to forget it.

One of the first lessons of surveillance at a drugstore is the observation that people can be really disgusting. To this day I always grab the third deodorant back on the shelf because I've seen people try on the stuff and put it back. I'll never buy a loose, unpackaged hairbrush or comb, because I've seen people use them -- and one guy blow on the brush to release whatever residue collected after he pulled it through this hair -- and put them back on the shelf.

And though some busts were more amusing than others -- the guy who unwrapped fishing lures and stuck them throughout his clothes, making it a painful chore to recover the product -- the hardcore criminals more than balanced out the kids who shoplifted on a dare or the occasional sticky-fingers.

One night I chased a thief to the edge of the parking lot, where he turned around and swung a hypodermic needle at me; I jumped back just in time to avoid getting stuck. Another evening I chased a man into the parking lot who turned around and began pulling a gun out of his coat; upon seeing two store employees race up behind me he thought better of it and ran away.

Then one day I spotted a woman place a floppy denim purse in the child seat of an otherwise empty cart, wheeling it back and forth around the store. She stopped in front of the Fruit of the Loom section, unwrapped a pack of briefs, held one up for size, seemed to like what she saw, and placed the pack on top of the purse. Around the next aisle, with an unzip and a zip, the undies disappeared into the purse. She did the same with a foot care product from the Dr. Scholl's section. Leaving the empty cart by the front door, she walked out into the parking lot toward her car, where I caught up with her.

I confronted the suspect and employed the loophole to the rule about not grabbing a suspect if you can help it -- if our product was in their bag, you could grab the bag. So when she was uncooperative I got a hand on the purse. She got in her car, my arm was over the top of the door, she slammed the door on my arm, started the car and began driving off while holding the door closed on my arm. I got dragged along for a little bit before I freed my arm; I got her license plate and it wasn't long before she got hauled in on three felony charges: assault with a deadly weapon, strong-arm robbery and petty theft with priors. I got hauled in to get chewed out by my boss with a six-inch oval hard welt on the inside of my right forearm, which was in a sling.

My case was prosecuted by a sleepy deputy DA whose wife had just had a baby; he was so not in trial mode that at one point on the stand I called objection to the defense asking a totally irrelevant question. The judge chided the prosecutor to ask for an objection and then ruled it sustained. Despite being convicted on all three charges, the woman's family hauled a small grandchild before the judge to plead against jail time and she was given probation. "Better luck next time," one guy in the exceptionally trashy family told me as they walked out of the courtroom.