WICHITA, Kan. — Several arrests have been made in a crackdown on repeat shoplifters and buyers of stolen goods in the Wichita area.
According to the district attorney's office, charges have been filed following a year-long undercover effort aimed at stopping the theft of merchandise from retail and grocery stores in Wichita.
The effort was the first joint project between law enforcement and retailers to combat organized retail crime in Kansas, and began in February 2013.
The purpose of the investigation, led by the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s office, was to discourage organized retail crime by focusing on the shoplifters, or “boosters,” who then sell the stolen merchandise to third parties. Dillons Stores and Target donated merchandise to assist law enforcement in this investigation, including meat, electronics, home appliances, baby formula, baby wipes, detergent and other items.
The first stage involved identifying "boosters" who were targeting Dillons, Walmart, Target and other local stores. Following interviews with those suspects, investigators identified more than a dozen individuals and locations in the Wichita area who were knowingly buying stolen items at discount prices. The DA's office said many of those buying stolen merchandise operated markets and restaurants in and around Wichita.
Once identified, an undercover detective offered purportedly stolen merchandise for sale to people at various businesses and residences in Wichita. Believing the merchandise and food items were stolen, the buyers paid discount prices for the property. In some cases, the suspects directed the undercover detective to return with specific types of stolen property. The undercover detective conducted approximately 32 in-person transactions of purportedly stolen merchandise in the months from March to September of last year. In some cases, one buyer would act as a purchasing agent for several businesses.
The investigation was expanded to include fraudulent EBT/Vision card transactions, and in one case the undercover detective traded stolen merchandise for controlled substances. At one point, a home and business were searched pursuant to a search warrant, and a vehicle and stolen merchandise were seized from several locations. Additional arrests are expected.
To date, eight people have been charged in Sedgwick County District Court and U.S. District Court with various charges, including felony theft, conspiracy to possess stolen property, and benefit fraud. These added benefit fraud charges involved the use of government benefit debit cards in some of the transactions between suspects and an undercover Sheriff’s detective.
Among those arrested and charged as a result of the project:
- Kieu Thi (Linda) Pham was indicted by the US Attorney’s office and entered a plea to one count of wire fraud.
- Molly Nola pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to one count of wire fraud. She admitted to fraudulent use of a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program card to purchase food items at a Sam’s Club in Wichita.
- Daphne McWhinney pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to one count of wire fraud. She admitted to fraudulent use of a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program card to purchase food items at Thai An Market in Wichita.
The joint investigation also involved other agencies, including the Hutchinson Police Department, Reno County Attorney, United States Attorney’s office in Wichita, Sedgwick County District Attorney, and the enforcement arm of the United States Department of Agriculture.
A survey by the National Retail Federation shows retailers lose approximately $40 billion a year to organized retail crime.