Noe Valley Voice October 2001

Rash of Liquor Thefts Leaves its Mark on Rite Aid and Bell

By Kathy Dalle-Molle

After two recent shoplifting incidents in which the culprits threatened violence, Rite Aid Supervisor Sharon Young says she doesn't feel safe in the 24th Street drugstore where she has worked for the past five years. "Shoplifting definitely seems worse in the neighborhood than when I first started working here," Young says. "I feel like I'm under enormous stress when I come to work."

The two incidents that have left Young fearful occurred in broad daylight on a weekend in mid-August. Both involved thefts of liquor.

In the first, on Saturday, Aug. 11, at 12:20 p.m., two men, ages 29 and 34, took a bottle of Hennessey cognac from the drugstore's liquor aisle. When Young told them she was going to call the police, one of the men grabbed another bottle from the shelf, called Young a "bitch," and threatened to kill her. The men then left the store carrying three bottles of expensive cognac -- Hennessey, Martells, and Courvoisier -- setting off the merchandise alarm.

The suspects then crossed Castro Street and went inside Graystone Wine and Liquor, where they tried to sell the stolen cognac to store owner Gary Speer. When Speer declined, they grabbed a Hennessey gift pack from Graystone's shelves and fled the store.

Police caught up with the two men at a bus stop on 24th Street. After attempting to run away, both suspects were arrested and booked at Mission Station.

The next day, at about 1:30 p.m., Young was standing in Rite Aid's liquor aisle when she saw a man, around 25 years old, steal a bottle of tequila. She tried to stop him before he passed the checkout station, but he hurried by with the bottle in his hand. He then pulled his shirt back and showed Young a blade on his belt, beafore fleeing the store. A customer saw the suspect get into a white car with a female driver and copied down the license plate number. Police later checked the number but learned that the plate had no current registered owner. Police also searched the area for the suspect, but could not find him.

That same week, three shoplifters, each attempting to steal bottles of alcohol, were arrested in three separate incidents at Bell Market on 24th Street. The suspects, ranging in age from 27 to 49, were all males, and two had prior convictions for petty theft.

Bell's corporate office in Southern California would not allow store employees to talk to the Voice about the incidents. But in one case, according to police reports, the shoplifter punched the store manager in the head as the manager was attempting to detain him.

Although liquor is known to be a popular item among shoplifters, Noe Valley Beat Officer Lorraine Lombardo admits that a series of "incidents happening back-to-back like this, at Rite Aid and Bell, is very unusual. But," she adds, "there are many, many people out there with alcohol problems, and they'll do anything for a drink."

After the rash of liquor thefts in August, Lombardo apprised liquor stores in the neighborhood of the crimes and advised them to be cautious about where in the store they place popular items.

Drew Spaulding, manager of PlumpJack Wines on 24th near Sanchez, tells the Voice that his store has not experienced an increase in shoplifting. However, PlumpJack takes several precautions to ward off shoplifters, he says. For instance, the store has a buzzer to let employees know when someone is entering the store. Spaulding also tries to put inexpensive (and therefore less desirable) items near the front of the store. He keeps expensive items, such as cognac, behind the counter in a locked case.

Lombardo says PlumpJack's precautions are good ones, and speculates that liquor thieves may have targeted Rite Aid because the aisle where the liquor is kept is fairly close to the main entrance.

Still, Rite Aid's Young says that for the sake of customers, the store does not plan to change the location of its merchandise.

"We want items to be easily locatable for our customers," she says. "We don't want to have items under lock and key. We don't want to give people the impression that we don't want to sell to them or to make it difficult for them to get to the items they want to buy."

When Young spoke with the Voice in mid-September, she said things have "quieted down" in recent weeks. Still, she noted that cosmetics, candy, school supplies, vitamins, and over-the-counter medications continue to be popular merchandise among thieves.

She also said she feels calmer working in her store on days when Officer Lombardo is on duty and able to take a walk around the store and check in with her. But, she added, she won't feel secure until there is a stronger police presence in the neighborhood.

"This is a really nice neighborhood," she said. "I just wish there were more police around. I think that would help a lot. I want to do my best to help my customers and to put on a happy face. I don't want customers to be scared, but I don't want to have to act like a security guard in my store either."