Colorado grocery stores experience laundry detergent theft trend

The nationwide trend of thieves stealing laundry detergent from grocery stores has made its way to Colorado, with an incident last month in Centennial going viral.

Three men are suspected of stealing hundreds of dollars worth of laundry detergent and Downy Unstopables In-Wash Scent Booster Beads from a King Soopers location at 5050 E. Arapahoe Rd. on the evening of June 18, according to the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office. The getaway driver, 32-year-old Jorge Pantoja, was arrested by June 28 on the misdemeanor charge of shoplifting, on top of unrelated felony charges.

Police are still searching for the other two suspects, who allegedly go by Robert and Bugsy.

“We’re in the process of investigating this case,” said Ginger Delgado, spokesperson for the sheriff’s office. Although the crime is considered a misdemeanor, “the reason that we pursued this one is because it was obviously caught on video,” then sent to the police.

Santino Burrola, the employee who filmed the incident, caught the license plate and uploaded it to TikTok, was allegedly fired by King Soopers afterward for his involvement. “And, then, the story just exploded and went national,” Delgado said.

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Earlier this week, a GoFundMe was organized for Burrola by a family member to raise money for potential legal fees and a cross-country move. As of Friday afternoon, more than 900 donors contributed over $28,000 to his cause.

“As a former military police officer, he did what he thought was right in order to capture criminals,” Alexia Gomez, Burrola’s cousin, wrote. “He was not given severance pay and is planning to move to Florida to be closer to his family.”

Neither Burrola nor King Soopers immediately responded to a request for comment.

A nationwide crime

The incident in Centennial is shedding light on a crime that has bothered American grocery stores for about a decade: the widespread theft of laundry detergent, predominantly Tide. Since 2012, news outlets – from national publications like New York Magazine to community newspapers – have sounded the alarm on the phenomenon.

The reasons behind laundry detergent theft vary. “It’s an easy product to sell on Facebook Marketplace,” said Joe Moylan, Aurora Police Department spokesperson. One sheriff’s office in Louisiana called it “the new currency on the street” that’s traded for drugs.

In early April, 43 containers of laundry detergent were stolen from a Safeway in Broomfield, according to Broomfield Police Department spokesperson Rachel Haslett.

Colorado Springs Police Department confirmed incidents of detergent theft, although spokesperson Robert Tornabene declined to provide specific numbers. Its team has discussed issuing a public service announcement about it and other commonly stolen goods.

Last December, Attorney General Phil Weiser formed a taskforce to help law enforcement fight organized retail theft.

About two years ago, Chris Howes, president of the Colorado Retail Council, noticed that store theft was worsening throughout the state. His organization represents the largest chain retail companies.

“Theft in the state of Colorado on an annual basis approaches $1 billion,” he said. “Obviously, we’ve never seen anything like this.”

And these incidents aren’t carried out by teenagers stealing candy bars or jackets for personal use, but “groups of individuals going from store to store down the highway to steal products, so they can turn it to cash” – organized crime, Howes said.

He described the targeted items as goods “that are in demand on the streets” and expensive enough to make a profit.

At a Safeway at 560 Corona St. in Denver, the shelves of the laundry detergent aisle sat partially stocked on Friday afternoon, with prices for Tide ranging from $11.99 to $23.99 at full price.

Howes declined to comment on the Burrola incident in Centennial, but said, “unfortunately, for liability reasons, every single retailer I know has a policy” that confrontations between team members and thieves can lead to job loss for the team member.

He said some stores have closed on the West Coast because of the widespread theft. “We don’t want that in Colorado,” Howes added.

The National Retail Federation lists laundry detergent as one of the top items stolen by organized crime groups, according to last year’s retail security survey. The retail trade association asserts that organized retail crime is growing.

“We know from our members that the retail departments most vulnerable to theft include those with items that can be easily resold,” said Heather Garlich, spokesperson for The Food Industry Association. “It shouldn’t surprise us that the departments of top concern include general merchandise, health and beauty care, meat, center store, pharmacy, and seafood.”

In these situations, she pointed to one of the organization’s top concerns as “preventing violence.”

As a result of the heists, “shoppers are now seeing everyday items like toothpaste and dish soap behind lock and key,” the National Retail Federation wrote in a statement for a congressional hearing in June on the rise of organized retail crime and its threat to public safety.

For example, anti-theft equipment was attached to Tide bottles in a CVS Pharmacy in Washington, D.C., according to think tank American Enterprise Institute.

Target and Albertsons, the parent company of Safeway, declined to comment for the story. CVS didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

For now, all is quiet on the detergent theft front in other areas of Colorado. Deputy Cocha Heyden at the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and Moylan at the Aurora Police Department separately stated that they haven’t yet noticed the crime in their jurisdictions.

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