Why Are Prices So High Again??


Staff member

The man who walked into a T.J. Maxx store in Amherst one summer morning in 2022 was no ordinary shoplifter.

He was Chester Culler, 45, also known by about 50 other aliases, a master retail thief who stole items and used a devious refund scheme to steal cash from stores in more than 30 different states.

His specialty was walking into stores, filling a shopping cart with items from the shelves, taking those items to a service counter and asking for a refund. Because certain stores allowed people to return items without a receipt, the scam often worked.

U.S. Homeland Security Investigations agents said Culler stole more than $416,000 through refund fraud committed at stores at least 800 times between 2020 and this year.

Authorities said Culler is just one part of an army of professional shoplifters wreaking havoc on retailers all over the United States, helping to raise prices for law-abiding customers and causing some stores to go out of business.

Federal agents say organized retail crime rings cost the national economy an estimated $127.5 billion a year, and the number keeps rising.

“Retailers are seeing unprecedented levels of theft ... and the situation is only becoming more dire,” said David Johnston, vice president for asset protection at the National Retail Federation.

“If people had any idea how rampant it is, they would be shocked,” said Lt. Emil DeVincentis of the Cheektowaga Police Special Investigations Bureau. “We’ve arrested people who already had more than 200 shoplifting arrests on their record.”

About 90% of the shoplifters his department encounters are organized “professionals,” DeVincentis estimated, as opposed to those who shoplift because of poverty or drug addiction.

The retail federation defines organized retail criminals as people who “steal frequently, often moving across county and state lines, with a focused approach on which retailer to target and which merchandise to steal.”

Many of these organized retail criminals have “specific fencing operations to sell their stolen merchandise and may often be part of the criminal enterprise,” the federation said.

The Erie County District Attorney’s Office gave The Buffalo News access to several store videos showing the brazen actions of shoplifters at local stores.

One video shows a man who stole 31 times from the same department store in North Buffalo. The video shows the man, wearing a hooded sweatshirt, scooping up dozens of Nike T-shirts, wrapping them in two new jackets and walking out with the loot. Another video shows two women stuffing hundreds of dollars of cosmetics into large shopping bags and walking out without paying.

“Organized retail crime is a growing problem here, kind of like the problem we’ve had with stolen cars over the past few years,” acting District Attorney Michael J. Keane told The News. “We’re not talking about the mom who goes into a store to steal formula or food for her baby. These are professionals who walk out of stores with alarming amounts of merchandise, often in the thousands of dollars.”

‘A one-man show’​

Police said Culler used his own tried-and-true strategy to steal from stores.

“He was a self-orchestrated, one-man show” who figured out how to exploit weaknesses in exchange policies at stores, said Matthew J. Scarpino, special agent in charge of the Buffalo Homeland Security Investigations Office.

According to court papers, Culler lived in Charlotte, N.C., but his crime spree took him all over the country, including stores as far away as California, Texas, Montana – and Buffalo.

He pleaded guilty to felony wire fraud in late April. He now faces a sentence of at least 46 months in federal prison.

After showing fake photo identification to a store employee, Culler would be given a store value credit gift card as a refund for the items he had just taken from the shelves, according to a complaint filed against him in federal court in Buffalo.

Scarpino said Culler used the gift cards and a small amount of cash to make purchases of items at stores. He then altered his purchase receipt to make it look like the purchases were made in cash only. That enabled him to later return the items he’d bought and get cash back.

On one August day in 2022, the scheme enabled Culler to steal a total of $3,456 in cash and merchandise from six T.J. Maxx, Marshalls and Home Goods stores in Amherst, Orchard Park, Cheektowaga and North Buffalo, according to the complaint.

One day before his Buffalo visit, Culler hit stores in Pittsford, Victor and Canandaigua, a federal agent claimed. And the day after he left Buffalo, he hit stores in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Scarpino said federal agents began building a criminal case against Culler after they were alerted to his behavior by security personnel for the company that owns T.J. Maxx.

“We prepared a criminal complaint. Store security was alerted to watch for him, and when he hit a store in Connecticut in February, he was arrested,” Scarpino said.

Organized shoplifter rings​

Police say some of the organized rings that steal from local stores – including one headed by pawn shop owner Rico Vendetti – pay drug addicts and other people to become serial shoplifters.

Vendetti, 45, was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2016 in Buffalo’s federal court. He pleaded guilty to racketeering, admitting that he hired shoplifters to steal breast pumps, dental white strips, razor blades, electric toothbrushes, binoculars, plumbing fixtures, vacuum cleaners and other items.

According to court records, Vendetti paid his “boosters” 25 cents on the dollar for stolen merchandise, and then sold the items online at bargain prices.

Federal prosecutors said Vendetti’s crime ring – one of the largest of its kind ever busted in Western New York – obtained and sold more than $700,000 in merchandise.

Ambitious criminals such as Culler and Vendetti typify the new breed of high-volume shoplifter, Keane said.

Shoplifters Nazaire Murray and Kashmonay Holley, from Monroe County, walked out of Buffalo area Ulta Beauty stores with almost $170,000 in stolen cosmetic products,
according to the Erie County District Attorney's Office. This image is a screenshot from a store security video. The two pleaded guilty to felony grand larceny on March 13.

Working with State Police and local police agencies, Keane’s office has prosecuted prolific shoplifters, including Nazaire Murray and Kashmonay Holley, women from Monroe County who pleaded guilty to stealing almost $170,000 worth of cosmetic products from Buffalo-area Ulta Beauty stores.

Another was Gerald R. Mundell III, who hit the same North Buffalo Kohl’s store 31 times. He admitted to stealing more than $15,000 in men’s shoes and clothing before he was caught.

And another who pleaded guilty was Nyeaira Stallworth, a “serial shoplifter” who was banned from the Walden Galleria after stealing $4,900 worth of sunglasses, but continued to steal from stores.

The DA’s Office called Rico D. Small one of the admitted coordinators of a team of shoplifters who stole $70,000 worth of merchandise from stores in less than a year.
Small, Stallworth, Mundell, Murray and Holley have all pleaded guilty to crimes.

Shoplifter Gerald R. Mundell III hit the same North Buffalo Kohl’s store 31 times, stealing more than $15,000 in men’s shoes and clothing, before he was caught, according to the Erie County District Attorney’s Office. This image is a screenshot from a store security video. Mundell pleaded to felony grand larceny in City Court on Feb. 27.

Earlier this month, two men from Romania pleaded guilty to felony wire fraud in a “gift card scam” that enabled them to steal $94,000 from stores in Western New York and in 11 other states. The U.S. Attorney’s Office said Retan Muntean and Samuel Dimitru purchased gift cards and, shortly after, told cashiers to cancel the purchases. They then gave “decoy” gift cards to the cashiers and kept the gift cards that had been activated.

Because store owners fear shoplifters might become violent, many managers tell retail employees not to approach suspects when they witness the crimes, according to the National Retail Federation.

Some local shoplifting suspects have recently pulled knives and – in one case – a Taser on store workers who confronted them, Cheektowaga police said.
The retail federation said some stores are having workers wear body cameras to capture images of shoplifters in action.

Prison time is rare​

Cheektowaga police, whose jurisdiction includes the Walden Galleria and many other retail businesses, handle on average about 40 shoplifting cases a month, according to DeVincentis and Detective Chris Lovallo.

“Very few” of those who are arrested, probably less than 5%, wind up serving any prison time, the investigators told The News.

“We’ve had many cases where individuals, repeat offenders, stole more than $50,000 in goods and did no jail time,” the lieutenant added. “If there are no consequences or punishment, they’ll probably keep doing it.”

The two Cheektowaga investigators also said the state’s bail policy – very few nonviolent offenders are held on bail after arrests – makes it appear that shoplifting is not considered a serious crime.

“Change is needed,” DeVincentis said.

Some thefts do result in prison terms.

In January, Rico Small pleaded guilty to a felony crime of enterprise corruption. Erie County Judge Kenneth Case sent Small to prison for 1⅓ to four years for helping run a shoplifting ring that stole an estimated $70,000 in goods. The maximum sentence Small could have received was 8⅓ to 25 years in prison.

The DA’s Office often seeks state prison terms in retail crime cases, particularly those involving repeat offenders, a spokeswoman for Keane said.

The state budget approved last month included measures Gov. Kathy Hochul proposed to combat organized retail theft.

The budget included $40 million for dedicated retail theft teams within the State Police and local law enforcement agencies, a $3,000 tax credit for small businesses that invest in shoplifting prevention measures, allowing prosecutors to charge shoplifters with more serious crimes by totaling the value of merchandise stolen from multiple stores, and making it a felony to assault retail workers.

Shoplifting millionaires​

Shoplifting and other retail crimes have turned some criminals into multimillionaires. The biggest shoplifting rings taken down in Western New York are modest, compared with some that police have investigated in other parts of the country.

In December, police raided the Bonsall, Calif., mansion of Michelle Mack, arresting the woman in her pink pajamas and accusing her of running a shoplifting ring that stole $8 million worth of cosmetics and other items.

Mack is accused of paying the travel costs of shoplifters who victimized more than 240 stores all over the country, officials said. California’s attorney general, Rob Bonta, said Mack resold the items – including high-end cosmetics and purses – online.

Bonta claimed that Mack’s shoplifters were directed to pilfer well-known brand names with high resale value, including Burberry, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Bottega Veneta, Michael Kors, Gucci, Coach, Versace and Maison Margiela.

Why should the average consumer care if someone steals from companies such as Gucci and Versace?

Organized retail crimes “are not victimless,” Homeland Security officials said in a recent report. The report estimated that organized retail crime costs federal and state governments nearly $15 billion a year in lost tax revenues, not including sales taxes.

“It is estimated that the average American family will pay more than $500 annually in additional costs due to the impact of organized retail crime,” the report states.