The multi-faceted crackdown began two weeks ago with the LCBO itself calling in the cavalry, hiring more paid-duty Toronto police officers at its hardest-hit and highest-traffic locations throughout the city.
LCBO officials confirmed late Friday an increase in “security personnel at select locations,” but offered no comment on the scale of the unannounced blitz, which the Star was able to confirm earlier through multiple police sources and front-line LCBO workers.
“We’re seeing uniformed officers here all day, from open till close, and it’s a huge relief to staff. They’re setting up stings in some stores. The LCBO is paying a fortune — we don’t know how long it will last, but the customers sure are happy,” one LCBO source told the Star.
While the focus is on catching thieves, three police sources told the Star their gaze is expanding to include bars and restaurants they believe are complicit in buying and reselling the stolen liquor to unsuspecting patrons.
While liquor theft is largely thought of as petty crime, the scale of the increasingly larger heists involving teams of thieves points more to organized crime, they say.
Though the Toronto Police Service has not ordered operations citywide, Divisions 14 in the west, 32 in the north and 54/55 in the east are leading the charge, logging major arrests in recent weeks.
One especially notable takedown by 32 Division officers near the LCBO at 675 Wilson Ave. in North York involved an LCBO customer, who followed two thieves as they dragged an Ikea-bag-sized haul to their getaway car and then quickly relayed the licence plate number to police. The suspects were intercepted minutes later, ran from the car and were arrested after a brief foot chase.
The customer, who we will call Andy, shared the experience with the Star on condition his name not be published to protect his family from possible reprisal. He credited skills acquired during a 20-year military career with his decision to follow the suspects.
“I was in the store about to pay for my wine when I heard a commotion behind me and turned to see two guys with faces covered by some sort of black fabric, filling up a massive shopping bag. As I turned back to pay, I thought, ‘What the hell did I just see?’ ”
He made a military-style decision. “I kind of do this thing where I gather up the information, analyze what is going on and kind of do a risk/reward thing to decide to do something and then act. It’s really just instinct.”
He thought their facial coverings would hamper their vision, an experience he’d had wearing a similar mask one Halloween. He could see the loot bag was so heavy the men were struggling to walk. Tracking them from a distance down a narrow, unlit alley, he turned a corner and suddenly found himself wide open, and only a few steps from the suspects as they lifted the bag into the trunk of their car.
“I made a note of the plate and I walked past them as calmly as I could — this was where my heart was beating pretty good — I was only ever scared when I turned the corner and realized I was so close to those guys. It was like, ‘Oh, crap.’ ”
Andy walked until he was clear of the suspects and then ran back to the LCBO “as fast as I could,” where the store manager was on the phone with police and conveyed the plate number.
He picked up the wine he’d already paid for and, moments later, as he got into his car and began driving away, the police takedown took place.
“It’s pretty amazing how fast everything clicked together. The police were great. They were in the right spot, in the right place,” said Andy.
The close proximity of police on Wilson Ave. on the evening of Jan. 16 was not mere happenstance, according to Det. Matthew Routh of 32 Division, but part of a more deliberate plan to act against LCBO theft.
Police identified the Wilson store suspects as Dennis James, 25, and Nathaniel Snowden, 31, both of Toronto, and allege the duo is responsible not only for that night’s heist but also for a flurry of thefts from other Toronto LCBOs over the past three months that netted upwards of $90,000 worth of liquor. The pair face 260 charges involving 40 separate incidents.
The vast majority of that loot is long gone, Routh told the Star. None of the alcohol was recovered, save for the $3,800 worth the men had on them when they were arrested.
“Our belief, based on what we observed, is that we think they’re selling the alcohol immediately to some less-reputable bars,” he said.
That belief — that Torontonians may be unwittingly drinking the looted liquor in bars and restaurants — is sobering. And, thus far, unproven in court.
The Ontario Alcohol and Gaming Commission, which inspects licensed premises for potential Liquor Act violations, said in an email to the Star that their “inspections have revealed stolen or illegitimate liquor is not a significant issue.”
Yet police forces across Ontario also have authority to conduct liquor inspections. And as the various Toronto police divisions dive deeper into the LCBO theft epidemic, they say the evidence is mounting.
In 55 Division, Supt. Reuben Stroble points to a recent arrest at an east-end LCBO that enabled police to identify “a network to which some of this property was sold to local bars and business establishments at a discounted rate.”
The arrest marked a significant breakthrough. It was achieved because of a pilot project at 55 Division, which spans from the Don River to Victoria Park Ave. and south from Danforth Ave. to Lake Ontario, where officers have been given cellphones so community members can call them directly, as well as 911. In this case, it was an LCBO worker who called the police cell when a person known to steal entered the store.
At 14 Division, officers have racked up impressive arrest numbers, focusing on LCBO thefts after a rash of public complaints in November. As of Thursday, police have made 171 arrests — 68 of them through direct patrols and stakeouts and 103 by careful police sifting of a stream of online reports and surveillance photos of theft suspects provided by local LCBOs.
As detailed in four earlier stories in this series, LCBO outlets in Toronto have been targeted by thieves more than 9,000 times since 2014, according to police data obtained by the Star. And the pace of those thefts has increased year over year, accelerating threefold and making the LCBO far and away the most targeted retailer in the city.
When you put faces to those numbers, the deeper human tragedies are obvious. Court documents and anecdotal stories from more than 30 front-line LCBO workers who approached the Star since the series began describe an onslaught of increasingly audacious and at times menacing theft, much of it driven by addiction and mental health issues.
“Many of these cases are incredibly sad,” said Staff Sgt. Tam Bui of 14 Division. “Some of them, right away you understand it’s more a health issue than a law enforcement issue.
“But then we see the groups stealing in high-volume, again and again, for thousands of dollars each time, until you’re talking in the range of $250,000 worth of liquor. That’s a whole different story. That’s our main focus.”
Though no new citywide data is available since the crackdown, officials with 14 Division say the combined heft of the LCBO’s paid-duty police, together with the success of the division’s patrols, have driven the number of thefts down. Though uniformed paid-duty officers rarely make arrests, their presence is proving an effective deterrence. And the regular-duty results of Bui and his team are readily apparent.
Other sources, meanwhile, have provided the Star with a sense of the vast range of characters in the orbit of LCBO theft.
One photo given to the Star shows an elderly gentleman who looks and sounds almost sprung from the pages of a Charles Bukowski novel. His role in the stolen liquor equation is to circulate through Toronto’s underground poker scene, selling bottles out of a duffel bag at two-thirds face value.
Other known players include the “Rickety Crickets Gang,” named by LCBO front-line workers. They are known to have plagued a number of east-end LCBOs for much of 2018 and along the way, earned a reputation for “stumbling, bumbling, almost hapless theft.”
In the absence of security and with LCBO staffers under orders to not interfere when thefts are in progress, the Rickety Crickets made their slow-motion escape with the loot each time — despite the fact that one of them is living his life of crime upon a mobility scooter.
Said one LCBO source who saw the Rickety Crickets in action: “It got so frustrating and at the same time hilarious that during the last few robberies, staff would mock them as the theft took place, playing ‘Yakety Sax’ (the theme to Benny Hill) on their phones while these guys grabbed the goods.”
Police may have allayed some of that frustration with the recent arrests, but some officers are skeptical about what will happen when the suspects reach court.
“Certainly my experience is recidivism is very high in this kind of criminal activity because there doesn’t seem to be a penalty,” said 32 Division’s Routh. The two men arrested by his officers in January were both on probation and one was out on bail, awaiting trial on a previous charge.
These are “significant criminals,” he said. “You and I as taxpayers, we’re out $92,000 in alcohol that we know of. It’s our tax funds that are being abused.”
But a judge at Old City Hall recently sentenced a man arrested by 14 Division officers for stealing $1,100 from an LCBO on Bloor St. W. to 20 days in jail, calling the theft a “high-end deliberate act.” The man, who was on probation for other offences, entered the store with a luggage bag and filled it with bottles of Jack Daniels, JP Wiser and Canadian Club, before wheeling it out of the store.
Routh is more positive about the outcome of his division’s recent arrest of the two men caught on Wilson charged with stealing dozens of times from LCBOs.
A dedicated Crown has been assigned to the case — which isn’t typical — as part of a new program instituted by the province in August.
It’s “fantastic,” said Routh. “Now we know we have a single voice at the Crown’s office that we can work with and that has a vested interest in the case.”
But skeptics, including some LCBO front-liners, wonder whether the paid-duty police blitz is a one-off, or merely the first stage of a deeper, more strategic overhaul that will lead to safer stores not only in Toronto but across the province.
“I am wondering whether this is indicative of a co-ordinated long-term effort or more of a public relations thing,” said Jane Archibald, a Toronto resident who has campaigned tenaciously since last fall, calling on the LCBO, police and the municipal and provincial governments to take action on liquor theft.
“Hopefully the LCBO are implementing a province-wide solution.”
In a series of remarks to LCBO staff — including a video message last week and an email two days ago — President and CEO George Soleas sought to reassure workers he and his team “always look to incorporate new methods and technologies, including the continuous upgrade of CCTV equipment in all our 665 locations.
“We will be implementing other technical safeguards in our stores, as well as increased security in some locations. We appreciate everything you do to prevent and report theft, and how you care for the safety of our customers and each other,” Soleas wrote.
Andy the Good Samaritan, for his part, wouldn’t hesitate to act again should he find himself in a similar situation.
He did, however, end the interview emphasizing his concern about anonymity.
“Nobody knows what connections these suspects have or what kind of irritation this has caused their buyers or their bosses,” he said. “I don’t want to risk them coming after me or my family in an act of revenge.”
Mitch Potter is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @MPwrites
Patty Winsa is a Toronto-based data reporter. Reach her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org