Agent: Retail theft connected to bigger crimes

PANAMA CITY — The people stealing bras and baby formula might seem relatively harmless compared to abusive spouses or drug dealers, but sometimes their ill-gotten gains reach the Middle East and wind up financing a terror attack.

That might be what happened in a sprawling case investigated over several years by Special Agent Scott Springer with the Department of Homeland Security. The investigation led to dozens of arrests and seizures, and the conspirators at several points plotted to kill Springer, he said.

Imagine Detective Jimmy McNulty, the fictional protagonist in the television series “The Wire,” explaining to students the techniques he and other officers used to investigate Stringer Bell and Marlo Stanfield. Substitute stolen baby formula for cocaine and heroin and you’ve got a pretty good picture of Springer’s investigation.

But it’s not just baby formula. Organized rings of thieves steal prescription drugs, over the counter medications, razor blades, computer equipment and guns and sell through “fences,” stores that pass off the stolen merchandise as legitimate.

Organized thieves have been known to hijack truckloads of merchandise, Springer said, but they often operate on a smaller scale. For example, Panama City Police last year arrested five women from Georgia at Pier Park on charges of stealing thousands of dollars from stores like Victoria’s Secret and Bath and Body Works.

“They don’t all steal that stuff and go home and wear it,” Springer said.

Springer’s investigation led to charges against a ringleader of an international criminal organization and the leaders of four cells with ties to Islamic radicals, he said.

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