'Operation Powder Burn' shuts down baby formula crime ring; 17 charged

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By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman

PHOENIX -- The Maricopa County Attorney's Office said 17 people face charges stemming from an organized crime ring that stole thousands of cans of baby formula from numerous grocery stores across the Valley.
Fifteen of the defendants are charged in a 102-count indictment that alleges organized retail theft, fraudulent schemes, trafficking in stolen property and assisting a criminal syndicate. Two other defendants were charged in a separate indictment.

An investigation, dubbed "Operation Powder Burn," was conducted by Scottsdale police, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office and business representatives participating in a retail crime alliance.
The County Attorney's Office said Thursday that the thefts occurred at numerous stores, including Fry's, Safeway, Wal-Mart, Albertsons, Bashas', WinCo and Food City, between September 2013 and January 2014.

Investigators said the suspects entered the stores and filled reusable shopping bags or shopping carts with cans of baby formula. The suspects would then exit the store without paying for the formula and leave the scene in a getaway vehicle.

According to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, loss prevention investigators from the retailers and Scottsdale police detectives learned that Tyler Hanesford, 27, taught, directed and paid multiple people to steal the formula and also stole formula himself. He would then sell the stolen goods to Deborah Lynn Russell, 48, who paid an average of $5.64 per can compared to the average retail value of $21.12 per can.

On Feb. 13, 2014, investigators served a search warrant at Russell's residence where they discovered and seized more than 6,000 cans of baby formula with a retail value of approximately $150,000.

Detectives documented 94 separate incidents of baby formula thefts from stores across the Valley, representing a monetary loss to the retailers of more than $63,000. Authorities said the total number of incidents and value of stolen goods attributable to the crime ring is likely much higher.

All the defendants have been located and served with the charges, according to the County Attorney's Office.
"Operation Powder Burn is a prime example of how businesses and law enforcement can work together to shut down criminal organizations," County Attorney Bill Montgomery said. "Organized retail crimes of this magnitude harm not only businesses in our community but consumers as well, by reducing inventory and increasing costs. These offenses also provide funds that are frequently used to facilitate other criminal activity."