Arrests shut down Gresham shoplifting rings

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Thousands in stolen merchandise was sold through apartment 'storefronts'
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Mara Stine
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Thursday, January 19, 2012
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Three Gresham residents are behind bars, accused of setting up stores in their apartments from which they sold thousands of dollars in stolen items at deep discounts.

The suspects, two of whom police arrested Thursday, face allegations of first-degree theft, money laundering, organized retail theft and first-degree aggravated theft. All three also are being held on U.S. immigration holds.

Gresham police seized nearly $47,000 worth of stolen merchandise from two apartments and a storage unit during their investigation, which began earlier this month in response to huge numbers of shoplifting cases at area Safeway, Albertsons, Target and Fred Meyer stores, said Gresham police Sgt. Claudio Grandjean, department spokesman.

They served the first of three search warrants at an apartment in the 17300 block of Southeast Stark Street on Jan. 10 and found that the tenant — identified as Maria Vasquez-Baltazar, 40 — had turned it into a storefront.

Inside, police found and seized about $23,000 worth of stolen merchandise that she allegedly was selling to people in the neighborhood for about half-price, Grandjean said.

Home-front merchants

These organized theft rings consist of “merchants” who take orders for customers, then pass those orders on to shoplifters who steal the items. The shoplifter then sells the item to the merchant for 20 percent to 30 percent of retail price. The merchant then sells it out of his or her house, apartment, garage, you name it, for half of retail price.

Gresham police Det. Rick Blake found paperwork in the woman’s apartment leading him to a storage unit near Southeast 197th Avenue and East Burnside Street. Inside the unit, police seized another $5,000 to $6,000 worth of stolen merchandise, Grandjean said.

On Thursday, police served another search warrant at an apartment in the 19000 block of Southeast Yamhill Street and seized nearly $18,400 worth of goods from another home-based storefront, he said. “Stuff was just stacked in every nook and cranny.”

In one bedroom, police discovered a bed made out of stolen merchandise: Instead of a box spring, a mattress covered boxes of stolen goods, he said.

Police arrested tenants Jaime Sanchez-DeLeon, 40, and Elizabeth Alquisira-Burquisa, 35, on various theft charges.

In both cases, the stolen items consisted mostly of laundry detergent and toiletries, such as shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste and perfume. Police also recovered batteries, energy drinks, Nike shoes, North Face and Under Armour clothing with the tags still attached, and even pots and pans.

Speaking of the first storefront police busted, “It was modeled more after Fred Meyer,” with one-stop shopping, Grandjean said.

Well-connected theft ring

Gresham Police Chief Craig Junginger said such theft rings serve as a one-two punch to legitimate stores.

“This hurts local businesses on both ends in not only the theft of the merchandise from their stores but also when the local people don’t shop and purchase goods from their businesses because they are getting them cheaper at these garages,” Junginger said.

For example, a shoplifter steals a $30 bottle of Tide laundry detergent, sells it for $10 to the person running the illicit store, who then sells it for $15 to $20.

Members of the “well-connected and organized theft rings” also steal items specifically requested by the sellers as being in demand. Oddly, Mazola cooking oil is a hot item right now, Grandjean said.

But it’s not only legitimate businesses that suffer — so do the neighborhood these storefronts pop up in, Grandjean said. “It really brings the neighborhood down because they’re attracting thieves and drug addicts,” who steal the in-demand merchandise and sell it for a quick buck, Grandjean said.

Gresham police have seen and busted these kinds or theft rings before. Past busts resulted in seized diapers and baby formula. One even involved designer jeans.

But the more recent cases involving items needed for everyday life, which could be a sign that the recession has created a broader market, so to speak, for such underground stores.

“It seems to be more prevalent,” Grandjean said of such operations. “And there’s probably more of this than we realize.”