Crime & Courts

CMPD: Theft ring targets customers of Whole Foods, Panera Bread

A multistate theft ring is targeting customers at Whole Foods markets and Panera Bread cafes, stealing wallets and credit cards from distracted shoppers, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police say.

According to a search warrant filed in the case, members of a South American ring quickly spend thousands of dollars with the stolen credit cards. The thieves often buy gift cards, which are difficult to trace and have become popular currency in hiding thefts of this type.

CMPD has been investigating the thefts since September. The department has also been in contact with detectives in a Colorado town who are two months into their own statewide investigation of similar thefts.

On the search warrant, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer B.C. Kipp says the local investigation has identified several groups of men and women – up to 14 members in all – who have victimized residents in Charlotte, and states including Massachusetts, New Jersey, California, Kentucky and Colorado.

Kipp said the groups use phony names and IDs, and travel with plane tickets and rental cars paid for through third-party travel agencies.

In the warrant, Kipp asked US Airways for any flight information connected to Hector Molina, 59, who also goes by Hector Segundo Molina Escobar. Police say Molina is connected to the crime ring that operated for a time in Charlotte.

American Airlines, which now includes US Airways, did not return a phone call Monday seeking comment.

CMPD did not disclose how many people are believed to have been victimized by the ring, or how much money the thieves have stolen.

Charlotte has one Whole Foods store – in SouthPark – while St. Louis-based Panera operates 17 bakery-cafe franchises in the two-state Charlotte region.

Store managers at the SouthPark Whole Foods did not return phone calls Monday. A Whole Foods spokeswoman in Atlanta said the office was not aware of any crime ring targeting the chain. The Texas-based grocery chain is known for its array of organic food, wine and coffee.

In a statement, Panera said it could not comment on the current investigation while adding that the safety of its customers and employees is a priority.

“Please be assured that we are working with local authorities whenever there is a reported incident,” the statement said.

Citing the ongoing investigation, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police spokesman said Kipp was not available to answer questions about the case.

Meanwhile, an Observer search of police and media reports found several thefts that match what Kipp described.

In December, police reported a credit-card theft at a Panera in North Andover, Mass. The card was later used in a Target in New Hampshire. Two suspects were captured on camera, according to news reports.

A year ago, police in Boulder, Colo., reported a similar wallet theft at that city’s Whole Foods. The victim was shopping when she said her cart was rammed by one being pushed by a Latino male. In the resulting commotion, she didn’t realize her wallet had been taken, according to police reports.

Surveillance photos taken a short time later showed two women using the cards to make thousands of dollars in purchases at Boulder’s Apple store, a Target, Nordstrom Rack and other retailers. According to witnesses, the women spoke in Spanish, wore high-end clothing, and carried Gucci and Louis Vuitton handbags.

Kim Kobel, a Boulder police spokeswoman, said credit card theft in Boulder, as in most cities, has become a chronic problem, particularly among female shoppers who put purses in the top baskets of their carts.

“The purse is wide open and the wallet is hanging out. They reach for something on the shelf while someone is walking by and it’s gone. It only takes a second,” she said.

At Panera, customers typically order at the counter, find a place to sit, then return to the counter to pick up their food. If they leave their purses behind, their wallets become easy prey.

In Colorado Springs, Colo., police Detective Chris Chenoweth said he is two months into a statewide investigation that may involve up to six other cities hit by credit-card thefts, often involving Panera stores, similar to what is described in Kipp’s warrant.

Chenoweth, who has been in contact with Charlotte police, said he has several search warrants out and is still collecting credit card receipts and store surveillance videos connected to the thefts. At this point, he said, he continues to separate individual crimes from those that may be part of an organized ring.

Sgt. Todd Drennan, head of the financial crime unit in Colorado Springs, said groups of credit-card thieves routinely operate in his state along the Interstate 25 corridor.

“They tend to come in and get out quick,” he said. “They might be in the state for a week but won’t stay in a place for more than a day or two. Which makes it hard for any law enforcement group to track them.”