Robert Dell ran a drug recovery program for many years at The Rock Community Church and Transformation Center in St. Petersburg, Florida. Prosecutors say that Dell also ran a retail crime ring on the side. The pastor was acting as a fence, buying stolen goods from thieves and then selling them for a profit, according to the police. Dell told people who met with him for help to steal tools like drills and nail guns from Home Depot stores across Florida and bring them to his house. Since 2016, Home Depot and a search warrant affidavit say he sold $3 million worth of goods on eBay under the name Anointed Liquidator.
Dell and four other people, including his wife and mother, were arrested in Tampa, Florida, in early August. This was the end of a seven-month investigation in which Home Depot worked with Florida police. Now Dell is being charged with racketeering, conspiracy to commit racketeering, and dealing in stolen goods. Dell, who is 57 years old, has said he is not guilty. In late September, he was freed on bond. Dell’s lawyer refused to say anything.
In August, executives at stores like Walmart, Target, Macy’s, and Dick’s Sporting Goods said that problems with their inventories were caused by criminal networks. Some executives also said that safety incidents are going up. Some stores, like Target, Nordstrom, and Nike, are closing for good because they say theft and crime have been very bad there.
Retailers and police have a hard time getting rid of complex retail crime, as shown by Dell’s case. It can take months or even years for the people involved to work together to link individual thefts to bigger organizations or groups.
Because of this, businesses that are seeing a rise in thefts are putting more resources into their own investigations of retail crime. They also want to work together with the police and resale platforms to stop people from making money off of stolen goods. Prosecutors all over the country have said they are focusing more on fences. “The fence is very important,” said Scott Glenn, Home Depot’s vice president of asset protection. “There has to be someone in charge of an organized retail crime group for it to work.”
Authorities say that fences can get goods from boosters, or people who are willing to steal for small amounts of money or drugs and that fences often give boosters lists of goods they want. Fences often sell their goods on online markets, but they can also look for buyers in other places. Some of the time, they run wholesale businesses that sell both legally bought and stolen goods to stores or markets.
This year, U.S. attorneys in Washington, Texas, and Pennsylvania said they had arrested or sentenced people who were accused of making millions of dollars by selling stolen goods on eBay, Amazon, Facebook Marketplace, and OfferUp. In a statement, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said, “Those who steal can’t make money without someone to sell it to.” In a report about organized retail crime, Bragg said that his office is focusing on going after fences to stop these crimes from making money.
In September, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar said that the way thieves break into stores and then use online marketplaces to sell their goods creates unique problems, such as questions of who has jurisdiction. A July report from the city auditor’s office said that authorities in Seattle are aware of several fencing operations, but they can’t do any investigations because they don’t have enough staff.
Home Depot investigators started to closely look at two people they had linked to thefts at stores over a period of years before Florida police started building a case against Dell. Similar to other big stores, Home Depot hires people whose job it is to watch security footage at stores and stop theft of its goods. The home improvement store chain has 2,322 locations in North America and made $144.8 billion in sales in the fiscal year that ended on January 29.
This happened in early March: a loss prevention investigator from the company saw two people leaving a store in Ruskin, Florida, carrying two cordless impact wrenches and cordless die grinders that they had not paid for. The investigator took a picture of the car they left behind and gave the police the information. In April and May, agents from the Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Department watched the suspects go to Home Depot stores in seven counties and identified them. The agents then saw the car go to Robert Dell’s house and drop off things in a garage there.