The Aug. 11 theft at the Ralph’s supermarket in Anaheim was brazen.
During the after-work rush hour, at 5:40 p.m., thieves made off with $1,600 worth of high-end liquor from the store at 711 S. Weir Canyon Rd.
They used a burglary tool to break into a locked display cabinet in the alcohol aisle when no one was looking.
They then removed several bottles from boxes and placed the boxes back in the cabinet, went to a different aisle, and used a special tool to pull security labels off the bottle caps.
Then they put the bottles in bags they had brought into the store, and then split.
The two weren’t concerned about surveillance cameras, apparently – just store alarms.
Anaheim PD Officer Robert Lopez, a detective on the agency’s Burglary/Auto Theft Detail, was assigned the case Aug. 17.
That case would turn into a much broader one involving a husband and wife with L.A. gang ties who are suspected of stealing expensive booze from 55 Ralphs supermarkets throughout Southern California over a 10-month period, culminating in a courthouse chase in San Diego straight out of the movies.
“It was like a spider web that kept on growing,” Lopez said of the series of liquor thefts at Ralphs supermarkets, about a dozen of which occurred in Orange County –including at least two in Anaheim.
The hooch heists, which began in October 2017, stretched from San Diego to Santa Barbara counties and east to Palm Springs. A handful of times in Palm Springs, the thieves walked into the same store three times to unload the pilfered goods into their car, and go back inside to steal more.
The thieves made off with between $200 and $6,000 worth of high-end liquor — including the labels VSOP, Grey Goose, Cîroc, Patron, Hennessy, and Rémy Martin — during each theft.
In all, the thefts amount to a loss to Ralphs in the thousands of dollars, said Mike Patterson, an Organized Retail Crime Investigator with Ralphs and Food 4 Less who probes crimes involving people who steal in bulk from the grocery stores.
According to court records, one of the suspects in the liquor heists is a man who uses the alias Christopher Gangstercrip — not exactly a subtle reference to his gang affiliation.
His real name is Christopher Leandre Henderson, 30.
His suspected accomplice in the Ralphs booze thefts is his wife, Varnetta Shaw Brown, 38.
Both, according to Lopez and one of his APD partners on the case, Det. Dave Hermann, are suspected of stealing the liquor and then fencing it by selling it to owners of mom-and-pop liquor stores, and also to people on the street.
After all, any sale of the stolen liquor was 100-percent profit for Henderson and Brown.
As Lopez, a 16-year APD veteran, started looking into the Anaheim Hills heist on Aug. 17, he awaited the results of CSI specialist Kim Edelbrock, who had dusted the liquor cabinet and empty boxes for prints.
A print came back that matched Henderson, whose previous acts of malfeasance had landed his fingerprints in the state database.
Lopez then heard from Patterson, who informed him that Ralphs previously had issued a Southern California crime bulletin on two suspected perps — Henderson and Brown – who had been caught on surveillance cameras in several stores.
For months, Patterson had been amassing evidence concerning the prodigious crime spree, with the help of an associate in loss prevention, Chris Macias, a whiz at video surveillance.
At first, Brown was the only suspect in the liquor thefts, which began in Arcadia, said Patterson, a retired Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy who has worked in loss prevention for Ralphs for more than a decade.
Patterson dubbed her the “Liquor Lady Crew,” even though she was seen working alone.
Soon, Brown’s husband was seen on video surveillance committing the crimes with her. In all, the pair used seven different vehicles, all without license plates, during the thefts, including a silver Mercedes SUV.
TRIP TO SAN DIEGO
After the APD got a hit on Henderson’s fingerprints, Lopez and Hermann had enough probable cause to arrest him and Brown for the Ralphs theft in Anaheim.
They found out the suspected stiff drink-pilfering duo had been arrested in San Diego on Aug. 25 after getting caught in the act at a Ralphs at 3455 Del Mar Heights Rd.
True to form, the suspects allegedly hit that supermarket at 5:55 p.m.
A personal connection helped lead to that arrest. One of the store managers at the Del Mar Heights Ralphs is friends with Sgt. Sal Hurtado of the San Diego PD. Hurtado told the manager to call him directly should the suspects ever show up in his store, and that’s exactly what the manager did.
Hurtado was able to respond to the call immediately and make a car stop and arrest Brown and Henderson. Henderson was driving on a suspended license.
Patterson got word of the arrest, which occurred on a Saturday night. He was watering his backyard grass and sipping on a bourbon and smoking a cigar when the call came through.
Fearing that the pair would just receive a citation for the Del Mar Heights robbery, Patterson – the only one at the time who knew about the months-long crime spree — called Hurtado in the hopes that Henderson and Brown still would be in custody.
Patterson told Hurtado about the series of robberies, and Henderson and Brown were held Aug. 25 on a half-dozen Ralphs thefts in San Diego County.
The two were arraigned on Aug. 29. Both were released in lieu of $25,000 bail each that day.
By then, the APD was on their tail.
Henderson and Brown had a court date on Sept. 13 in San Diego to answer to the half-dozen Ralphs thefts in San Diego County.
Hermann and two other APD detectives — Lopez was in Greece, attending a buddy’s wedding – drove down to pay them a visit.
Hermann, JC Rodriguez and Cesar Aguilar stepped into the courtroom to arrest the duo after the hearing, during which Henderson and Brown were considering a plea arrangement with the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office to each serve three years in prison.
Before they could decide on the offer, Henderson and Brown’s defense attorney tipped the two off that the three APD detectives were in the house.
That’s when Henderson and Brown, still waiting their turn to go before the judge, bolted out of the courtroom.
Hermann and his APD partners gave chase, and arrested the two just as they were about to get on an elevator.
During the period between that arrest and when they posted bail on Aug. 29, Henderson and Brown – obviously not worried about getting caught — are suspected of stealing liquor from 10 more Ralphs, all in Orange County.
They remain in custody at Orange County Jail.
The APD was able to get a judge to agree to bail enhancements to $120,000 each.
The APD detectives also successfully got a 1275 PC hold on the pair, meaning the suspects have to prove that any money used for bail didn’t come from criminal activity.
“They’re very good at what they do,” Patterson said of APD detectives.
Detectives in San Diego County, meanwhile, also were able to get bail for Henderson and Brown raised to $100,000 each, from $25,000 each.
Henderson and Brown also are suspected in at least two thefts from CVS locations in Orange County – one in San Clemente and one in Mission Viejo, Patterson said. In those alleges crimes, Henderson also faces robbery charges, in addition to burglary charges, for allegedly using force or fear against a store employee.
Now, prosecutors in several Southern California counties are figuring out how to proceed with charges against Henderson and Brown regarding the 55 thefts of high-end liquor from Ralphs stores.
In O.C., Henderson and Brown have pleaded not guilty to three felony counts of grand theft and three felony counts of second-degree burglary, court records show.
Asked why he thinks Henderson and Brown got caught, Patterson said they got “comfortable.”
The two weren’t shy, Patterson said, about posting valuable information about themselves on social media, including photos of Brown with a bottle of champagne at her feet.
Patterson initially was able to link Brown to the woman seen on video surveillance stealing liquor from Ralphs when, on May 26, she returned a bottle of Centrum vitamins to a Ralphs in San Diego. She gave the clerk a telephone number that linked her to an address in Nevada and was eventually connected to Christopher Henderson.
Patterson said he was surprised she gave the clerk a valid phone number.
“Smart criminals don’t get caught,” he noted.
Meanwhile, Ralphs, he said, is looking into equipping its high-end liquor cabinets with alarms.