Shoplifting in Chicago

How police are dealing with the rise of flash shoplifting mobs and organized shoplifting.

Somewhere in the Midwest—I’ve been sworn to secrecy about its exact location—is a large warehouse. On the outside, it has no signs or distinguishing details. But inside is the hub for much of Walgreens’ expansive security system, one that’s unusually large, even for a major retailer. It’s where Jerry Biggs, the director of Walgreens’ organized retail crime division, spends much of his time.

Biggs, who has held this job since its inception in 2003, is a big, affable guy who wears cowboy boots and decorates his office with John Wayne memorabilia. A poster of 1950s movie I Was a Shoplifter hangs on one wall and a confiscated booster bag, a fake Gucci tote lined with duct tape, sits on a chair to one side.

In this office, Biggs watches a computerized system that allows him to monitor Walgreens stores in every state. Biggs loves talking about shoplifting. “A regular booster can get $500 or more a day, sometimes from one store,” he says. “We’ve arrested people with shopping lists in their pockets. One guy was even walking around the store consulting his list. We have it on tape.”

Biggs has a lot of digital footage and he is happy to show it to me. There is video of a shoplifter grabbing bottles of Aleve off a shelf and throwing them into one side of his coat with lightning speed, while a partner surveys the store for security guards. In another, a man in a suit wanders up to a shelf outfitted with one of those acrylic lockdown boxes—the kind that holds razor blades or packages of Claritin. The man checks it out, walks away, then comes back and quickly breaks the clips holding the box in place. He puts the entire acrylic box in a shopping cart, heads to a remote area of the store and nabs the contents: $2,000 worth of diabetes test strips.

Biggs has the other side of such scenes on tape, too: a montage of arrest photos—people crying, people looking as if they need a fix, people smirking—strung together to a soundtrack of “Bad Day” by Daniel Powter.

Back in the warehouse, Biggs shows off a stack of merchandise. It stretches from one side of the warehouse to the other, climbing as high as two stories. Monster Energy drinks, Eveready batteries, Advil, Tylenol PM, men’s colognes, Olay skin cream. The array is mind-boggling. It was all used as bait in the Patel brothers’ arrest. “There was an undercover police sting that involved all this merchandise loaded onto a 53-foot semi trailer and offered to [the Patels],” Biggs explains. “The market value here is $100,000, but the fences offered to buy it for $22,000.” That’s when the brothers were arrested.