PHOENIX – A major organized crime ring accused of stealing thousands of dollars of baby formula from local grocery stores is out of commission thanks to a successful investigation and enforcement action by Scottsdale Police, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office and members of the Arizona Organized Retail Crime Alliance (AZORCA). As a result of their cooperative efforts, dubbed “Operation Powder Burn,” 17 defendants are now facing multiple felony counts of organized retail theft, fraudulent schemes, trafficking in stolen property and assisting a criminal syndicate.
“Operation Powder Burn is a prime example of how businesses and law enforcement can work together to shut down criminal organizations,” said Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery. “Organized retail crimes of this magnitude harm not only businesses in our community but consumers as well, by reducing inventory and increasing costs. These offenses also provide funds that are frequently used to facilitate other criminal activity,” he added.
“Fry’s Food Stores is very pleased with the results and the cooperation between law enforcement agencies and the retailers,” said Joe Kopelic, Division Loss Prevention Manager for Fry’s Food Stores. “These criminals travel and cause harm to our communities and businesses regardless of the city or town and the joint effort is greatly appreciated. We look forward to continued success in these endeavors.”
Between September 2013 and January 2014, local grocery stores in multiple cities throughout Maricopa County experienced a dramatic increase in organized retail thefts. The recurring pattern in these incidents involved suspects entering the stores and filling reusable shopping bags or shopping carts with cans of baby formula. The suspects would then exit the store without paying for the formula and leave the scene in a get-away vehicle with the stolen goods. The thefts occurred at numerous stores, including Fry’s Safeway, Walmart, Albertson’s, Basha’s, Winco and Food City.
During the course of their investigation, Loss Prevention Investigators from the affected retailers and Scottsdale Police Detectives learned that Tyler Hanesford (D.O.B. 8/5/1987) taught, directed and paid multiple people to steal the formula and also stole formula himself. Hanesford would then sell the stolen goods to Deborah Lynn Russell (D.O.B. 2/16/1966), who paid an average of $5.64 per can compared to the average retail value of $21.12 per can. On February 13, 2014, investigators served a search warrant at Russell’s residence where they discovered and seized more than six thousand cans of baby formula with a retail value of approximately $150,000.
By sharing information and surveillance video through the Arizona Organized Retail Crime Alliance, Loss Prevention Investigators from separate stores were able to provide Scottsdale Police with evidence to identify individual perpetrators and the scope of the crime ring. Detectives were ultimately able to document 94 separate incidents of baby formula thefts from stores in every jurisdiction from Surprise to Apache Junction representing a monetary loss to the retailers of $63,838. The total number of incidents and value of stolen goods attributable to the crime ring is likely much higher.
On August 4, 2014, a Maricopa County Grand Jury handed up a 102-count indictment against Tyler Hanesford, Deborah Russell and 13 accomplices. Two other defendants were charged in a separate indictment. By December, 2014, all the defendants were located and served with the charges. The next scheduled hearing in the case is a case management conference set for February 26, 2015.
An indictment is not evidence of guilt. All defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty.