The surveillance video from the Liberty Lake Safeway store is crystal clear. A thief walks into the liquor aisle, glances over his shoulder, grabs a bottle of liquor and casually raises his baggy jacket to slip it into his waistband.
He paces up and down the aisle a bit, then does it again. And again. He occasionally jiggles in place to make sure the bottles are staying put. When he’s done, there are no visible bulges to alert staff that several bottles of alcohol are about to walk out the door.
“I think he’s got something sewn into his jacket or his pants,” Liberty Lake Detective Ray Bourgeois said of the liquor thief, noting the same thief was videotaped a few weeks later sliding liquor bottles under his shirt at the same store.
The investigation has taken police deep into a rapidly expanding underworld of organized liquor theft, believed to be a growing problem statewide after voters last fall handed retail liquor sales over to grocers and big-box stores instead of state-run outlets. Similar thefts have been discovered throughout Spokane County, and now several law enforcement agencies have begun working together to crack down on the problem.
In the Liberty Lake case, 23-year-old Qays Ghulam-Sarwar was arrested March 20 on several counts of theft for allegedly stealing liquor from two Liberty Lake stores. Investigators, however, believe he was part of an organized ring, and a coordinated regional law enforcement effort has identified a handful of additional suspects.
More often than not their crimes go undetected at the time, though in one instance a clerk at a Wal-Mart who tried to stop a liquor thief was assaulted as the shoplifter escaped.
Spokane County sheriff’s Detective Dan Blashill leads the regional effort to stop liquor theft. He sent pictures of the suspects to local stores and asked them to review months of video surveillance footage. The theft total is unknown, but Blashill said he has identified 40 separate thefts just at Albertsons stores in Spokane County since the beginning of the year. He said he’s heard anecdotally that the Shadle Safeway store has lost up to $56,000 worth of alcohol this year, but he hasn’t seen any documentation.
“Not every store has security 24 hours a day,” Blashill said.
Representatives from Safeway did not return calls seeking comment. A loss-prevention employee at Albertsons declined to comment.
Thieves usually steal a few hundred dollars worth of liquor each time, which keeps potential theft charges in the misdemeanor range instead of more serious felonies. But Blashill said he’s trying to tie all the thefts together using organized crime laws, which would significantly increase the amount of potential prison time. “It seems like a somewhat organized effort to do this,” he said. “We’ve got enough people working in concert.”
The rising number of alcohol thefts is not confined to Spokane County. Liquor retailers are not required to report thefts to the state Liquor Control Board, but the board is hearing that theft is a widespread problem, said Justin Nordhorn, chief of the control board’s Enforcement and Education Division. “We’re trying to keep an eye on some of it,” he said.
Nordhorn said he is aware of an organized group that moves from county to county on the West Side of the state, stealing liquor as they go.
The Liquor Control Board has no control over liquor theft enforcement, which is covered under ordinary theft laws. “We have a limited authority,” Nordhorn said. “We have to wait until there’s a resale, whether it’s to another licensee or on Craigslist out of the back of a car. Local law enforcement really has to take that on.”
The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs petitioned the Liquor Control Board, asking it to create a new rule that would require liquor retailers to report thefts to the board so they can be tracked. “They decided not to proceed with the rule-making at this point,” Nordhorn said.
No one knows what happens to the liquor. Theories say it could be traded for drugs or sold. Nordhorn said he’s also heard that the number of teens found in possession of alcohol is increasing in some areas, but has no definitive numbers to back it up. “If we’re seeing an increase in access, it has to be coming from somewhere,” he said. “We’re hearing some indications that some is being resold to licensees. We can’t be certain where it is going.”
The problem has caught the attention of at least one state legislator. Nordhorn said he attended a meeting organized by Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, who was interested in finding out more about liquor thefts. “There’s potentially quite a bit out there going on that hasn’t been identified,” Nordhorn said.