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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Sirens & Gavels

Charges: Thefts cost Seattle stores $6M

SEATTLE (AP) — The crime appeared petty on the surveillance video: a mother-daughter team of heroin-addict shoplifters nonchalantly wheeling a cart of boosted items through the open sliding doors of a grocery store.

But their arrest early last year led investigators to the organizers of a major, international theft operation, prosecutors say — one of two unrelated rings that cost Seattle-area stores an estimated $6.1 million in lost merchandise, money the chains try to recoup by raising prices for everyone else. The busted rings represent just a tiny fraction of what is an enormous regional and national problem, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg told a news conference Thursday.

"What we are talking about today are people who direct armies of shoplifters," Satterberg said.

Jason Moulton, a former FBI agent who heads local loss-prevention efforts at the Safeway grocery chain, has spent years lobbying law enforcement on the problem, and it was a workshop he conducted that prompted local police departments, including Normandy Park south of Seattle, to start paying closer attention. When a QFC grocery store reported thefts by the mother-daughter team, investigators from Normandy Park arrested them and joined police from neighboring Burien in launching an investigation.

Read the rest of the story by Associated Press writer Gene Johnson by clicking the link below.

Prosecutors say the investigation revealed that dozens of thieves were working for a SeaTac couple, Chanthou Rim and Sara Kong. The couple is accused of reselling some of the stolen items to local markets and directing other goods to Cambodia, smuggled in shipments of automobiles — an aspect of the crime that prompted a parallel investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Rim and Kong were charged Thursday with eleven counts that included attempted trafficking of stolen property, criminal solicitation and conspiracy to commit organized retail theft. They face from four years to a little over five years in prison if convicted.

A phone number for the couple listed in charging papers did not accept incoming calls, and the prosecutor's office said no lawyers had made appearances on behalf of the couple, who are not in custody. They are scheduled to appear for arraignment June 2.

In unrelated charges also filed Thursday, four members of a family that runs the GMS Market in Seattle's Greenwood neighborhood face similar allegations. Prosecutors say they would buy stolen items from shoplifters for $1 to $2, then resell them at their market or online, on eBay or Amazon Marketplace. Photos taken as part of the investigation showed fresh chicken breasts packaged with QFC stickers on them being sold at GMS for steep discounts.

The family members — Gulshan Rai and his wife, Shabnam Sukhija, plus their son and his wife — told investigators they made $7,000 to $8,000 a month selling stolen items, according to a Seattle police probable cause statement.

"During an interview, Gulshan Rai admitted that he knew the items that people brought to him and his family members were stolen, but he attempted to justify his actions by explaining it was necessary to do this because many people shoplift from his store," a detective wrote.

Rai declined to speak with The Associated Press on Thursday. He and his family members are also due in court June 2.

The thieves involved in both cases were primarily drug addicts who needed cash to feed their habits, Satterberg said. But the fact that they were paid so little for their efforts "did not engender a lot of loyalty among the shoplifters," who quickly helped law enforcement in the investigations, he said. The thieves were sometimes given shopping lists that included diapers, batteries, lotions and other items.

About 15 to 20 of the shoplifters have been prosecuted themselves, many in municipal courts, Satterberg's office said.

Jan Teague, president of the Washington Retail Association, said some retail chains in the state boost their prices 10 to 20 percent to compensate for theft-related losses.

The collateral effects include workers at the chains being paid less and state and local governments collecting less in tax revenue, said assistant Seattle police chief Jim Pugel.

"If you are paying a price that is less than wholesale, you're probably buying stolen goods," he said.

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