The latest effort by Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in the battle against organized retail crime (ORC) resulted in the takedown of a gang in a rural community 32 miles west of Charlotte, North Carolina. The October 20, 2022, raid resulted in the recovery of $167,000 in stolen merchandise and 28 firearms including assault rifles, silencers, and 20,000 rounds of ammunition. Over the last three years, HSI estimates the scope of loss from this gang’s activities exceeds $5 million in stolen goods.
Hiding in plain sight, Jeremy Huffman’s arrest took place at a modest, ranch-style home on a multiacre plot of land in the town of Kings Mountain. The arrest was the culmination of three years’ efforts by investigators from ten retailers including Target, CVS, Walgreens, and Publix. The retailers’ combined efforts were compiled and presented to HSI in August this year.
According to one source, this ORC group had allegedly been stealing from retailers in the Carolinas for 30 years with multiple generations involved. HSI worked with the retailers’ ORC and loss prevention teams to determine the method of theft, types of merchandise, where it was being stored, and how it was resold on easily available internet platforms. Due to the large amount of stolen goods and interstate and transnational nature of the movement of the goods, HSI added their resources to the investigation.
Huffman’s gang allegedly traveled throughout the Carolinas and cities all along the East Coast from New York to Miami committing “shelf sweeps” of merchandise—a method of theft where multiple gang members enter a store and distract store employees while others sweep entire shelves of product into bags. These groups can at times be violent and are not easily deterred by store personnel or security. Products that have a high demand and are easily resold are often the target. These unchecked theft activities often result in traumatized store employees, lost business, increased prices for consumers, lost tax revenue for communities, possible business closures, and possible unsafe product being recirculated and purchased by unsuspecting consumers.
Four simultaneous search warrants were served as part of a joint task force involving HSI, the Southeast Regional Response Team, Shelby and Kings Mountain Police Departments, and Cleveland County Sheriff’s department. Aware of Huffman’s strong anti-police, anti-government sentiment as well as previous felony arrests, the law enforcement raid included over 100 representatives from both state and local agencies. The warrants were served without incident, and the case is currently pending additional charges and arrests.
According to HSI Deputy Special Agent in Charge for the Carolinas Mike Prado, who spoke on behalf of the Charlotte HSI office, these types of investigations are more effective due to cross agency and retailer cooperation. “The retailers can establish the scope of the investigation and clearly outline the thefts and the linkages. They are instrumental in helping to connect the dots on these cases. HSI can then lend its federal resources to the state and local agencies to make an even greater impact.”
Deputy Prado credits strong legislation like NC House Bill 766 in helping to define ORC and ramp up the consequences on these cases. “Retail theft is typically seen as low risk and high reward due to the high value of the goods and the easy online resale process,” he explained. “What the public may not know is that these thefts are often linked to other illicit activities such as human trafficking, gun dealing, or drug rings. These bad actors will use the funds from their ORC thefts to support their other—often violent—activity. Bill 766 helps us hold these individuals accountable through tougher forfeiture and civil and criminal penalties.”
Combined with House Bill 1009, North Carolina makes their state a less desirable place for ORC gangs to do their business. As ORC has continued to spread across the US, metro areas like New York, San Francisco, or Chicago are often featured in the news. However, small towns like Kings Mountain (population 11,409) aren’t immune. As Deputy Prado stated, “Rural areas like this are attractive because storage units and property are less expensive, and in remote areas it’s easier to go unnoticed. ORC on this scale is a relatively newer phenomenon here, spurred by the prosperity happening in the Carolinas. It is ideally located so that stolen goods can be easily moved across state lines or internationally.”
Deputy Prado, who oversees the operations for over eight HSI offices in the Carolinas, has served with Homeland Security since its early days and works a wide variety of cases in addition to ORC, including human trafficking, illicit drugs, and financial and cyber crimes among others. He attributes HSI’s successes, like that seen in this recent arrest, to the fact that HSI has the broadest programmatic reach of all the federal agencies. Part of what is dubbed as “Operation Boiling Point,” HSI has committed to working with retailers and across agency lines to take down these dangerous ORC groups. The have also committed to supporting a national command center and are engaged in community education to bring awareness to this threat to society.