ORC (organized retail crime ) investigation methodology requires that all ORC allegations be addressed in a consistent, legal manner and resolved on a judicious basis. At each stage of the ORC investigation process, the evidence obtained and the ORC theory approach is continually evaluated. The ORC investigation methodology gathers evidence from a broad-spectrum to the very specific. Because of the legal consequences of an ORC investigators action, the rights of all individuals must be observed throughout.
Investigations into organized retail crime entail a variety of steps that are required to resolve allegations of an ORC – surveillance, forensic analysis, cyber intelligence, interviewing witnesses, working with informants, writing reports, dealing with the courts and working with prosecutors. The investigation into organized retail crime must be conducted with both professionalism and adequate cause considering that it specifically deals with individual rights of others.
The ORC investigator, as with any other case, will begin the investigation with the intent that it will result in prosecution or civil litigation. To solve ORC investigations the investigator will be making assumptions through the course of the investigation. ORC theory often begins with an assumption; based on readily available facts presented to the ORC investigator this might include CCTV, inventory deviations, online sales, witness statements or surveillance. This assumption is then tested to see if it can be proven or not. This is done just as a scientist may formulate a hypothesis and then test it to discern its validity.
ORC theory involves the following steps:
- Analyze available data
- Create a hypothesis
- Test the hypothesis
- Refine and Re-test the hypothesis
During a traffic stop in Polk County on two vehicles in response to a BOLO (Be On Look Out) for an armed aggravated battery suspect. The vehicle matched the suspect vehicle description. During the traffic stop, it was determined the occupants of the vehicle were illegal aliens and were in possession of stolen baby formula.
Analyze Available Data
If ORC is suspected the ORC investigator will begin looking into the facts of the case. A review of documents, video, statements and more are likely to be reviewed at this juncture. The ORC investigator should keep in mind that although this might start out as an initial theft report it could be the result of an organized retail crime. In this situation, the ORC investigator would attempt to identify from where the baby formula was stolen. An attentive ORC Investigator may notice whether there were any price tags on the items, store tags, or any kind of identifiers that may further assist in the investigation. They will also be aware of any potential methods or tools that may have been employed to commit the theft.
Creating a Hypothesis
The hypothesis is what is considered the “best guess” to as what has occurred. Some consider it the “worst-case” scenario based on the initial report of ORC.
A hypothesis could be created that these individuals are part of a larger more sophisticated ORC ring and that other individuals may be involved. These subjects may be moving the stolen goods out of state for resell in an effort to lower the risk of detection. Baby formula is not typically fenced via the internet so looking for a physical location to resell the merchandise is probable.
Testing the Hypothesis
Testing the hypothesis encompasses a “what if” scenario. If, as part of the hypothesis a booster ring existed the ORC investigator would likely find some of the following facts:
- The suspects where part of a larger crime ring of boosters.
- Tools indicative of ORC such as booster bags, EAS removal tools might have been located.
- There would be a lack of proof of purchase (receipts, payments, etc.)
- Cell phone usage may indicate others involved, i.e. texts indicating theft activities.
Refining and Re-testing the Hypothesis
Once you have tested the hypothesis, the ORC investigator may find that all of the facts do not fit that particular scenario. If that is the case you should revisit the initial hypothesis and retest. Often times you might revisit and re-test several scenarios before you establish all of the facts. For example, you might hypothesize that the booster is also fencing the merchandise on an online auction platform. Through your review, you eliminate that hypothesis. However, you might now re-hypothesize that they are fencing the merchandise at a local pawn shop. You may then consider visiting the local pawn shop and establish whether the stolen goods are in fact on their shelf.
The Polk County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) and Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), working in conjunction with the State Attorney’s Office (SAO) of the Tenth Judicial Circuit, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Criminal Investigations Division, have shut down an elaborate retail theft ring operating in the central Florida area responsible for the theft of thousands of cans of powdered baby formula, spanning throughout the southeastern United States. In all, 40 detectives working from October 2008 to March 2009. A total of 21 suspects were arrested who were found to be stealing baby formula from 6 different counties (Polk, Highlands, Hillsborough, Manatee, Orange, and Osceola) and transporting it out of state.
The investigation began on October 11, 2008, during a traffic stop in Polk County on two vehicles in response to a BOLO (Be On Look Out) for an armed aggravated battery suspect. The vehicles matched the suspect vehicle description. During the traffic stop, it was determined the occupants of the vehicle were illegal aliens and were in possession of stolen baby formula. Seven suspects were arrested*.
Through further investigation and interviews, detectives learned there was additional stolen baby formula at the Days Inn motel located at 4104 West Vine Street in Kissimmee (Osceola County). Detectives responded to the motel and located 2 vehicles in the parking lot, both of which contained the stolen baby formula. Six more suspects were arrested*. All thirteen (13) suspects were charged with organized retail theft (F-2). Through interviews with detectives, these suspects admitted to working together as an organized theft ring.
- All of the suspects were in the country illegally and were either here from Honduras or Mexico.
- The suspects admitted to traveling from Atlanta, Georgia for the sole purpose of stealing baby formula.
- They were being paid anywhere from $100 to $300 a day for stealing baby formula.
- Three of the vehicles they were driving had recently been purchased for the sole purpose of stealing baby formula.
The suspects advised detectives that they operated in the following manner:
Three men would go to a store, one subject acted as the vehicle driver while the other two subjects entered the victim business. The two males would then meet with two females inside of the victim business. One of the male subjects would place baby formula into a shopping cart or shopping basket. They would then walk to an aisle without a security camera. The other male would conduct Counter-surveillance to ensure the group was not apprehended.
The females would then walk to the aisle where the man with the cart of baby formula awaited. Within a minute or two the women would then exit the store with up to six cans of baby formula in an over-sized ladies’ bag. The bag had the lining removed and contained nothing inside. This type of bag is called a “Boost Bag.” In several of the stores, the women were able to go in and out of the store more than once to steal baby formula.
The group would spend approximately fifteen minutes in each store before getting back into the vehicle. The driver never exited the vehicle. The group would then drive to the next store. The group was able to steal the formula from fifteen or more stores per day. The suspects would then take the formula back to their motel room and pack it into paper shopping bags. Once the formula was packed, the subjects then transported the stolen baby formula to a storage unit. They would then repeat the process until they had enough formula to call and have it transported to an out of state location.
On October 16, 2008, a PCSO patrol deputy conducted a traffic stop on a black Honda for a traffic violation after he observed it leaving Dundee Storage. The driver, Jose Chirinos-Hernandez, DOB 08-28-1983, had a suspended driver’s license and was placed under arrest. During a search of the Honda incident to arrest, the deputy located numerous cans of baby formula, which were later verified as stolen. The patrol deputy also located a map of store locations and tally sheets used to count stolen formula. Carmen Banega- Castillo, DOB 04-19-1986, who was also in the car, was taken into custody as well. A search of the storage unit belonging to the driver of the Honda revealed 900 cans of baby formula valued at $17,500. Detectives determined this was part of a large-scale organized criminal enterprise and asked for assistance from FDLE and the FBI Lakeland Field Office.
From November 2008 through February 2009, detectives served 20 search warrants and interviewed numerous people who were already in jail or had previously been arrested for baby formula theft, two of whom were in other county jails: Jessie Lopez, DOB 12-31-1972; and Blanca Sevilla, DOB 01-06-1969. As a result of these interviews and the ongoing investigation, the organizer of this retail theft ring was identified as Eli Nimrod Castillo-Almendarez, DOB 08-20-1979. Eli rents a storage unit in Orlando and employs groups of individuals to steal baby formula. Eli arranged on average two trips a week, transporting the stolen formula from Florida to North Carolina, where it was then repackaged and sold.
In February 2009, the USDA and FDA Criminal Investigations Division joined the investigation. The investigation ended on March 5, 2009, when the organizer, Eli Nimrod Castillo-Almendarez, and three others, Eber Ramon Escalante-Almendarez, DOB 09-16-1989; David Ruiz, DOB 01- 29-1982; and Sonya Ponce, DOB 12/4/81, were arrested by PCSO deputies. Charges on these four subjects vary from Organized Retail Theft to No Valid DL, and additional charges are pending.
In all, 21 arrests have been made, and over 3,000 cans of stolen powdered baby formula have been seized, with a retail value of $75,000 (the cans average in value $25.00 per can). Last week alone, detectives seized 1,955 cans of formula, which was one week’s worth of work for the boosters. At $25.00 per can, $48,875 worth of formula was stolen in one week, which means in one year, the suspects stole $2.5 Million worth of formula. One suspect told detectives she has been doing this for 7 years. At $2.5 Million per year, her group was responsible for stealing $17.5 Million worth of formula.