At first glance, retail theft appears to be a minor crime. The amounts are usually small. The crime rarely involves violence. And in fact, retail theft reports frequently get bumped from the crime section of this paper due to an abundance of more serious criminal offenses. But shoplifting, police and retailers will tell you, is a chronic and widespread problem in Oak Park and River Forest.

“It seems small because most of the items taken aren’t that expensive,” said River Forest Police Chief Nicholas Weiss. “But all those items add up.”

Just how much they add up was underscored last week by a bust of what Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan called a multi-million dollar retail fencing operation in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. On Dec. 2, dozens of sheriff’s deputies and Chicago police raided Central Grocery at 324 N. Central Ave. They also served search warrants at three other near by buildings where undercover officers had observed individuals moving stolen merchandise during a six week investigation. The operation, Sheahan said, handled “hundreds of thousands” of items, taking in some $50,000 in stolen merchandise on an average day, and as much as $18 million in a year. It was a “magnet,” he said, that attracted as many as 100 shoplifters a day, all looking to unload property stolen from retail outlets. People were reportedly paid between 20 and 30 per cent of the retail value of stolen merchandise, which was then resold to other stores.

A relative of one of the five men arrested inside the store disputed Sheahan’s estimate of the extent of the operation before a Saturday morning bond hearing at the Maybrook Courthouse.

“They’re exaggerating,” Joe Darawsha said flatly, adding that police took only around $10,000 worth of merchandise off the store’s premises last Thursday.

“Maybe several employees made some mistakes, but that doesn’t mean everyone’s guilty,” he said.

But Sheahan and Cook County Judge Charles P. Burns weren’t buying it.

“It is believed to be one of the largest fencing operations ever uncovered in the Chicago area,” Sheahan said Thursday. On Saturday Burns set bonds ranging from $80,000 to $230,000 for the five men accused of running the illegal operation.

While police said a significant amount of that stolen merchandise came from the proceeds of retail warehouse burglaries, much came from smaller scale shoplifting that occurs daily throughout the Chicago metropolitan area, including Oak Park and River Forest.

With many stores serving affluent consumers, Oak Park and River Forest are desirable targets for boosters. Last week there were 10 instances of retail theft reported, five in each town, while over the last eight weeks at least 67 people have been arrested by police in the two towns on retail theft charges.

The people committing those crimes aren’t only non-violent, entry level criminals.

“No matter what other things they’ve gotten into, criminals often still revert back to (shoplifting),” said Oak Park Deputy Chief Robert Scianna. “Simply because it’s easy to get away with.”

The challenge of dealing with such criminals is underscored by the fact that at least seven of the people arrested during that period had more serious felony charges on their records, including robbery, weapons violations, and attempted murder.

Raymond Garvey, a convict who was paroled on Sept. 21, is alleged to have stolen a number of videos and DVDs from the Blockbuster on Lake Street in Oak Park Dec. 1. Garvey has 13 felony convictions over the past 30 years, including attempted murder, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. Garvey tried to flee, but was caught and arrested.

River Forest isn’t exempt, either. This past Sunday, security personnel at the Dominick’s, 7501 North Ave., managed to restrain theft suspect David Ortiz, but only after the 31 year old Ortiz allegedly punched several of them while resisting.

The security personnel and surveillance technology required to protect stores against the constant onslaught of retail theft don’t come cheap. None of the major chains will talk in detail about either their anti-theft strategies or their costs.

“We definitely expend a substantial amount of money to protect our merchandise,” said Dominick’s spokesperson Winona Redmond, who called theft an “everyday part of the retail experience.” Redmond said that her company is “very aware” of such frequently stolen products as baby formula and over-the-counter medications. In fact, both Dominick’s and Jewel have taken to marking high theft items with identifying store codes to help make fencing more difficult.

“The cost to the merchants is always passed on to the customers,” said Scianna.

Scianna scoffs at the notion that those stealing such products as food and baby formula are using it to feed their own family.

“I have never ever found that to be the case,”said Scianna, a 32-year-veteran of the Oak Park force. “They steal that stuff to sell to a fence.” The ultimate goal, he added, is to acquire money for drug purchases.

Underscoring Scianna’s contention is the fact that police arrested James Mallett. 20, and Antonio Hill, 19, both of Chicago, last Thursday for allegedly selling drugs outside the Central Grocery during the course of their investigation.

“Often times the boosters selling the stolen goods are also drug addicts,” Sheahan said. “It’s easy to see how the two businesses feed off each other.”

While Scianna terms much of the shoplifting activity “garden variety (theft),” he said it feeds into a much larger system that makes retail theft economically worth while.

“If you didn’t have an outlet for the merchandise they steal, they wouldn’t steal it,” he said Scianna.

“That store on Central, that’s just one. There are many, many others like that around.”

Four of the five men arrested at Central Grocery last Thursday for allegedly accepting stolen retail merchandise were either Moroccan or Israeli citizens here on Green Cards, or holding dual citizenship. Judge Charles P. Burns set bond for them Saturday morning, and ordered all to surrender their passports. None wanted their consulate in Chicago officially notified of their arrests.

Muhammad R. Okab, 43, of the 1000 block of Northwest Highway, Park Ridge. (Central Grocery owner).Two counts of theft. Dual U.S./Israeli citizenship. Two counts theft.  $80,000 bond.
? Mahmod M. Okab, 30, of the 1000 block of Northwest Highway, Park Ridge. Four counts theft. Dual U.S./Israeli citizenship. $80,000 bond.
? Adel Kashwa, 54, of 5900 block of  West Lake Street, Chicago. Seven counts theft. Resident of Chicago for 25 years. Judge raised his bond from $160,000 to $230,000.
? Said Ali Darawsha, 34, of Chicago. Six counts of theft. Israeli national here on Green Card, married to American citizen. $180,000 bond.
? Abdelouahed Aitelmekki, 48, of Chicago. Six counts of theft. Moroccan national here on Green Card. $220,000 bond.

In addition, Brian T. Humphries, 34, of the 1000 block of North Lorel Avenue, Chicago was charged with two counts of theft. Items allegedly stolen include 81 units of baby formula, plus a quantity of razor blades. Humphries has four kids, aged 7 months to 10 years, and  reportedly works as a security guard. His bail was reduced from $60,000 to $40,000.

Not currently in custody:
? Hassan Al-Hamdani, 32, of  Chicago. One count of theft.
? William Anderson, 31, of 2924 W. Lexington St., Chicago. One count of theft.

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