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Partnering for Better Case Outcomes the Chicago Way

An exhaustive investigation into a multi-state organized retail crime (ORC) ring came to a head on a crisp and sunny fall day in Chicago. October 6, 2022, saw retailers and law enforcement from across the greater Chicago area convene in a metro police department parking lot for final marching orders. Loss prevention professionals huddled together with local, county, and federal partners to go over assignments and last-minute plans to execute multiple search warrants around Chicago. Similar meetings also occurred hundreds of miles away in California.

Those present in the parking lot nervously chatted in groups as SWAT teams and their fortified vehicles readied to roll out in the background. A detailed and meticulous plan was in place, and enough manpower was on hand to handle any issue. Later that morning, over a dozen warrants were executed, eight arrested, and an estimated $7.5 million in stolen goods recovered. This proved to be a significant and successful investigation on many levels, but that is not the primary takeaway from this story. The Chicago‑based investigation is a textbook case on how to develop partnerships and build high-level ORC investigations for better outcomes.

Beginning With the Right Questions

The investigation itself began with what was viewed at the time as a simple retail theft arrest in Wilmette, Illinois; a quiet village north of Chicago with a population just under 30,000. Patrol officer Connor Cavanaugh responded to a retail theft of over- the- counter (OTC) medications from a local pharmacy. However, what could have been approached as just another case of catch-and‑release shoplifting turned into a major investigation due to the officer asking questions—the right questions— which led to uncovering a major fencing operation.

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Recognizing the signs of a potential ORC operation, whether through the products stolen, the methods used, or the individuals involved, and then having the foresight to ask the appropriate questions of the perpetrators to gain cooperation and further develop the case, is a skill critical to successful ORC investigations. This foundational step sets the groundwork for everything that followed. The Wilmette police department then leveraged its well‑established partnerships with other law enforcement agencies and retail loss prevention teams to move this information through the pipeline. While it may have started with modest beginnings, the investigation lasted over a year. It involved thousands of man-hours from law enforcement and retail loss prevention teams.

Collaboration and Follow-Up

As is true in any metro area, multi- jurisdictional cases in Chicagoland can be complex and require unwavering dedication to communication, follow- up, and documentation. Commander Mike Robinson with the Wilmette police department spoke to LP Magazine about what works and what doesn’t when collaborating. Robinson stressed that retailers can’t wait until they need something to reach out. Wilmette had started working with retailers many years prior to this recent large case. But back in 2017, they had just begun to work more complicated retail theft cases considered to be ORC.

Why Wilmette? According to 2021 census data, median household income in Wilmette is $174,000 a year and 83 percent of residents have a college degree. The village boasts a crime level well below the national average and is an attractive place to live and raise a family. It may also be an attractive stop-over for these types of criminals since it has a variety of retail locations in an easily accessible location—right off a major interstate and within proximity to Chicago. As a smaller department with forty- four sworn police officers and four detectives, retail thieves may have the mistaken belief that their deeds will fly under the radar, as opposed to a larger municipality with specialized task forces and other resources.

Taking Retail Theft Seriously

Whatever the reason for the activity, Wilmette village leadership and its police department have responded in a visionary way—they’ve taken retail theft seriously. According to Commander Robinson, twenty‑year veteran of the Wilmette police department and commander of the North Regional Crimes Burglary Task Force, Wilmette police started to become involved in ORC cases in 2017. The department consciously shifted its focus from low-level, opportunistic shoplifters to the organized offenders, primarily the fence or crime boss.

The year the department increased their retail investigations isn’t a surprise, as this coincides with a rise in drug-related crimes and weakened legal consequences for retail theft. According to testimony provided by US representative Tim Murphy from Pennsylvania on March 17, 2017, fentanyl use exploded around this time, with the DEA issuing a nationwide alert in 2016.

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“They were calling the rise in fentanyl seizures an unprecedented threat,” Murphy reported. “Customs and Border Protection data shows an 83-fold increase in the amount of fentanyl seized in 3 years.” This most likely has influenced retail crime levels, with retailers being easy targets, converting stolen goods to cash hardly a difficult task, and fentanyl, a highly addictive and easy to acquire drug.

With reporting on these types of crimes inconsistent across retailers, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the problem started. Many retailers experience theft, but then don’t report it as they feel the police have more important things to do. Or, the thief will most likely not face any significant consequences because of their crimes. In Illinois, the felony threshold for retail theft lowered to a more stringent $300 in 2010; but in 2016 Cook County changed the threshold to prosecute felony retail theft to $1000 and above. This, combined with an internal policy— widely publicized by Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx—that the county would not prosecute ANY retail theft under $1000 made for a perfect storm in the most populus county in the state of Illinois. And retailers in metro Chicago have felt the impact ever since. The rise in the fentanyl epidemic which increased demand for cash, coupled with minimal consequences for getting caught stealing in a retail store, have made retailers ripe for the picking when it comes to crime.

Who’s Really the Problem?

Many of the lower-level retail theft offenders, those who are in the stores grabbing the items, are primarily driven by the need to fund their addictions. These offenders may be recruited from homeless encampments, gangs, or other communities that have high levels of addiction.

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“This is a systemic problem and is not changing anytime soon,” said Robinson. “Courts are overwhelmed with these types of offenders who are then released due to prosecution limitations in a revolving door of recidivism. There are not enough resources to help the addicts or adequate jail space to keep them off the streets. These offenders are not typically employed, so stealing becomes an easy source of income, which also makes them easy targets for the ORC groups recruiting these individuals.”

Robinson also feels, “If there is no penalty, there will be no change in behavior.” Without deterrents, retailers are easy marks. Thieves know that retailers have a limited ability to stop them in the act and they also know that penalties are close to nil if they do get caught. Legislatively, this creates a situation where the offenders see the benefits of ORC as far outweighing the potential penalties, which inflames the problem.

Stop the Fence

Patrick Walsh

According to Patrick Walsh, ORC manager with Kroger who participated in the investigation, “In Chicago, there is a strong nexus to narcotics sales. Subjects who operate fencing rings typically prey on vulnerable members of society, including those who struggle with substance abuse. The stolen products are purchased for below retail value and the money received is used to purchase narcotics immediately after.”

Wilmette came to the realization that the only way to make a significant reduction in the repeat retail crime they were seeing steadily increase was to target the ORC leaders and remove the financial incentive to commit these thefts in the first place.

Robinson emphasized, “Why steal the OTC medicine if you can’t sell it anywhere?” His department felt they would have the biggest impact by finding and stopping the fence. “Having the support of the administration and village management has been integral to our success. They have been able to see the problem from a bird’s-eye view and had the fortitude to trust our approach. It’s a lot of effort, time, and money that goes into these cases and having your boss, and elected officials, support is crucial.”

The nature of the theft scheme required the utmost cooperation and communication among the investigators. The street-level thieves would take their ill-gotten goods to local storefronts owned by the head of the ORC group. Based mostly in impoverished neighborhoods, these store fronts at times operated like a local bodega, selling discounted product. Many of these areas have become retail deserts, and while the surrounding community may appreciate a place to buy their needed goods, the criminal element that comes along with these storefronts has a serious negative impact. They may see increased narcotics sales, property crimes, prostitution, assaults, and other crimes.

Once at the storefront or fence, the thief would receive cash for the goods they stole, in this case primarily OTC product. The goods would then be sent to a warehouse, or a “cleaning” facility, where they would be stripped of identifiers or other security tags.

On the date the warrants were served, October 6, at least one cleaning facility was found with what appeared to be a potential situation involving human trafficking in the interior of the facility. Approximately six individuals were found inside, with the doors padlocked and no running water or toilets available. According to one source, those locked inside may have been individuals who were in the country illegally and working off their debt to the crime boss. Meanwhile, various leaders of the group were living lavish lifestyles in the suburbs, with large amounts of cash on hand—enough to purchase a personal jet.

Once the goods had been cleaned and made ready to ship, they would either be sold back to the local storefronts, peddled through online marketplaces, or purchased by “wholesalers” who appeared to be running legitimate businesses. It’s unclear whether any of the goods made it back into the retail supply chain that consumers rely on for safe OTC products. The cases against the eight individuals are still pending.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

Over the last several years, Wilmette PD has been involved in several ORC investigations that spread across multiple jurisdictions. They have a strong partnership with the Will County Sheriff’s department, Chicago PD, Shorewood PD, and many retailers. They also have team members who have grown their knowledge base to be invaluable. Claudia Olivo, lead detective for Wilmette, played an integral role in the October case, from gathering and analyzing financial intel to pulling together needed information for subpoenas. Prior to this case, Det. Olivo had worked only one other significant ORC case. According to one retailer we spoke to, “Claudia was the backbone of this investigation”.

The thousands of hours of work that went into the Chicago investigation also includes a herculean effort from retailers. Tim Lohtak, regional ORC manager from CVS Health, and Patrick Walsh, spent countless hours hunkered down in surveillance vehicles and on the phone together to help shepherd this case through to conclusion.

Delving further into this case with Walsh, he stated, “This was the largest collaboration between law enforcement and retail I have seen in my career. We had seven law enforcement agencies from across the US and four retail investigation teams support the case.” Aside from Tim Lhotak, Commander Robinson, and Detective Olivo, Walsh recognized others who played a significant role in the investigation, to include Jim Kelley, sergeant, California Highway Patrol, ORC Task Force; Ryan Delaney, sergeant, Chicago Police Department ORC Task Force; Gabe Kirstein, field supervisor, Will County Police Assistance Team; and Mike Casson and Dant Foulk, Will County State’s Attorney’s Office.

What is the formula for bringing all these different teams together and producing successful outcomes like the Chicago case? “Sharing information across the public and private sectors is the key to identifying and dismantling the groups quickly,” said Walsh.

Commander Robinson concurred, “Communication is the key, along with following through on what you say you’re going to do. Feds, state police, local cops, and private retailers all have different missions. Recognizing that and managing your case to satisfy the different focus areas of your partners is key for buy-in, commitment, and trust for the next case. No one will answer the phone if you’re all talk and no follow-through.”


In an industry known for sharing best practices and learning from each other, there is much we can learn from this case. For a loss prevention professional who may be new to ORC it’s clear that basic networking and relationship building are keys to a successful investigation—and career.

Walsh shared, “the most important thing to remember is that great ORC investigations start at the store level. Focusing on the basics, such as theft reporting, and shoplifter interviews will help build a strong foundation for long- term investigations. My advice is to get back to the basics, document everything, and don’t be afraid to collaborate with others. Companies may be competitors, but we share the same theft offenders. Leverage your relationships and technology to ensure success.”

Walsh further emphasized that retailers need to “establish relationships before asking for help. Connect with your local agencies and establish open communication. Like retail, each agency has their own policies and procedures. Have an open conversation about expectations on both sides and this will ensure a smooth process when an incident occurs.”

The dedication of the Wilmette police department, Walsh, Lhotak, and many others involved in this investigation cannot be overstated. Their commitment to excellent communication, working together, and resolving cases is clear and presents an excellent roadmap for other teams working together to fight ORC. While retailers continue to lobby for tougher legislation and increased penalties for crimes that impact their business, customers, and communities, they must also continue to work together with law enforcement to help close the gap on ORC crews.

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