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Posted on Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 5:58 a.m.

Five years of 'lucrative' shoplifting ring results in Ypsilanti Township man paying $50,000 back to stores

By Kyle Feldscher

Two people go into a department store, steal merchandise and walk out without being noticed.

They return to their car and give the merchandise to two other people, who walk right back into the store and return it. They’re given gift cards in exchange.

Those gift cards are then sold to another man for half of what they’re worth and that man then sells them on eBay, taking home all the profit.

According to police, this exact scenario was coordinated by an Ypsilanti Township man for five years before he was arrested, charged and convicted of using a computer to commit a crime and receiving and concealing stolen property late last year.


The thieves targeted stores such as Marshalls and T.J. Maxx throughout southeast Michigan.

Angela J. Cesere |

Michael Johnson, 43, was sentenced to five years of probation and is required to pay more than $50,000 in restitution for running the shoplifting ring from his home. Police said Johnson had at least four other people who would go to stores around southeast Michigan and sell him the gift cards they received.

Robert Ratcliff, Brandi Haley, Stacey Moose and David Murdoch were charged with being the four co-conspirators in the case. Johnson and the four others were arrested in November 2010, according to police.

Michigan State Police Detective Sgt. Julie Busch said Johnson’s activity on his eBay account led her to believe he had been running the operation for five years. She said it was possible that he had worked with other people in the past, but the four charged in the case were his main operatives.

“When they’d go out, they’d hit four to six stores at a time, one right after another,” Busch said. “I don’t know if they did it every day but they did it multiple times per week.”

Busch said Marmaxx stores — such as T.J. Maxx, Marshalls and Home Goods — were the main targets, but the group also hit stores operated by Bed Bath & Beyond, Sears, Dunham’s Sporting Goods and Kohl's throughout southeast Michigan.

The people going into the stores to steal the merchandise were often drug addicts, Busch said. She said four people would travel in a group, with two of them going into the stores while the other two waited in the car.

The two going into the store would steal merchandise and then walk out of the store and hand off the goods to the two people waiting in the car. They would then walk right back into the store and return the stolen merchandise, usually being compensated with a gift card, Busch said.

The gift card amounts were usually small, and if they were denied at the location the materials were stolen from, the operatives would drive to another location of the same store and return them there, Busch said.

“They wouldn’t even hang on to the stuff long enough (to make it look like they weren’t stealing),” Busch said.

Busch said the whole operation was “pretty lucrative” for Johnson. He would pay the operatives for the gift cards — often for about 50 percent of what they were worth — and then put them for sale on eBay, she said.

She said the Western Wayne Narcotics division sees about one or two cases such as this a year and nearly all of them are fueled by drugs. Busch said the runners for Johnson were heroin addicts who were doing the crimes for cash to buy drugs.

While the operation might have been lucrative for Johnson while it was working, he’s paying a stiff price to the companies he targeted.

Johnson and his operatives were arrested in November 2010 after investigators from Marmaxx turned over their findings to police, Busch said. She said the loss-prevention investigators from these companies are usually the ones who deal with the large conspiracies such as this and do a great job in helping police and prosecutors with the cases.

Johnson pleaded guilty to using a computer to commit a crime and receiving and concealing stolen property and was sentenced on Jan. 10 by Washtenaw County Trial Court Judge Donald Shelton.

While Johnson wasn’t initially sentenced to a prison term, Shelton ruled he must pay $47,536.33 in restitution to Marmaxx stores and $3,085.84 to Office Max. If Johnson doesn’t make his $500 per month payment, he could face a maximum of 7 years in prison Shelton ruled.

Johnson, who told Shelton he works as a subcontractor doing insurance repairs, apologized in court to his family and to the court.

“You’ll never see me again in this court,” Johnson said.

Kyle Feldscher covers cops and courts for He can be reached at or you can follow him on Twitter.



Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 6:38 p.m.

Restitution doesn't mean DIDDLY SQUAT. You can't squeeze blood from a turnip. Or water from a rock.

j hampton

Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 1:38 a.m.

I don't understand the blame the victim mentality. I am sure that these stores have thousands of loyal customers because of the liberal return policy. I frequently shop at Bed Bath and Beyond because of its no hassel return policy. Treating honest customers like criminals because of a few scumbags is simply bad business. And why do some think we should blame the judge for the sentance. Do we really want to fill our prisons and jails up with shoplifters? We already have more citizens in jail than any other nation on the planet.


Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 1:06 a.m.

Glad to hear this ring has been broken. Thanks to all involved in the break!


Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 9:53 p.m.

Why walk out of the store? Why not grab it off the rack and then walk over to returns and get a gift card?


Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 10:51 p.m.

He'll be thanking you for the idea if he reads this. But I assume its something about the same person as who picked it out. Can't imagine how they would ever know. Its not like anybody is paying attention anyway.


Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 8:49 p.m.

That's it ? Only probation & 50,000.00 payback. Not enough for this dude. What a slime bag.


Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 7:18 p.m.

Doesn't say much about the stores loss prevent depts........


Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 7:10 p.m.

"You'll never see me again in this court," Johnson said. Why, is he moving? Maybe branching off into other areas?


Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 7:02 p.m.

The Mentality of Shoplifting : Thanks for this report. Shoplifting has become a much bigger problem than as reported in this story. I am not speaking about groups of individuals who may commit thefts on a large scale, on a regular basis. I am more concerned about the mentality of average shoppers whom I find in retail stores shopping for routine grocery items. It is unfortunate to see people routinely stealing small amounts of retail merchandise in various creative manners. Some consume items and dispose of the cartons or containers without ever paying for it at the register. Some remove the item from the carton or box and conceal the item and the fact of theft is discovered when we find such empty containers left behind. Retail Stores do not have personnel to detect thefts even if they have security cameras at every part of the store. The problem is that of not able to pay to hire people to monitor activity seen on those security cameras. Theft is detected on a few random occasions when the theif is reckless and makes no attempt to evade detection. Some smart theives walk right under the nose of the cashiers by simply concealing things. We cannot waste our Police resources to investigate and prosecute such petty thefts but the problem is not going away and poses a big concern to the health of our retail business establishment and to those people who actually depend upon these retail establishments to make a living and to pay their bills. While the retail merchant copes with his loss, we must recognize the harm that is done to the well-being of hourly wage earning workers who labor at these places to make a simple, and honest living. This is Unfair and it must stop.

Woman in Ypsilanti

Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 5:01 p.m.

One of my biggest pet peeves is people who steal things like one granola bar from a package which they then put back on the shelf for the next unsuspecting shopper (me). On the one hand, I feel that if someone is stealing a granola bar, they must be hungry but it is annoying nevertheless. I also have to admit that I have stopped shopping at Meijer because of this. It isn't fair to the retailer I know. I wish I knew the solution.


Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 6:50 p.m.

publish there picture in all the STORES... $ 500 amonths for $ 50,000==== I bet the guy is moving his operation and the "crew" out of be continue....

Silly Sally

Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 1:04 p.m.

Publish "THEIR" pictures, (not "there") after all, the medical doctors and the child porn people have THEIR pictures published.


Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 5:59 p.m.

What exactly aren't we being told here? Probation and restitution for running a theft ring for at least five years? Channel your inner Paul Harvey and give us the rest of the story.

Bertha Venation

Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 5:10 p.m.

OOOOIEEE! Looks like ol' Bertie's in the wrong bidnizz. Seriously though, I'm glad at least some of it is getting paid back, though it may take several years.

Bertha Venation

Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 9:05 p.m.

Aw, honey... I didn't finance through Medicare. I belong to a credit union. Couldn't afford a new car, so what the hey. If you see me on the shoulder of the Pennsylvania tpke, please don't run me over. I'll be there waiving my left arm yelling... "GO AROUND! GO AROUND!"


Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 6:18 p.m.

Why. You already ripped off Medicare for that Hover round you don't need. I think you're doing fine, granny. lol


Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 4:59 p.m.

Probation? For running a criminal enterprise for five years? I understand restitution is part of the deal and he needs to make money to pay it back - but c'mon ... give him 30 days in the slammer at least so he knows what its like. Then he can decide if its worth it to pay people back or go back to prison.


Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 4:54 p.m.

It does not matter how stringent store policies are regarding returning merchandise or how stiff the penalties for theft are, people will find a way to break the law, if that is their intention... As the economy plummets I am sure we will hear about even more creative methods. I think detailing these methods in the news just lead more people to try them. I do not have a solution. But when an item is made for pennies in foreign countries and then sold here to us at a 200% markup, there is something wrong with the whole picture.

Berda Green

Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 4:51 p.m.



Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 4:10 p.m.

I can sympathize with the stores here. They feel like they have to have a liberal return policy so they don't lose customers, but it's also costing them a lot in theft and bogus returns. Everyone loses here. I'd have no problem with all stores requiring a receipt 100% to accept any returns. What's so hard about saving your receipts? Maybe that might cut down on the level of shoplifting so the stores wouldn't have to charge all of us higher prices to make up for the losses.


Wed, Feb 1, 2012 : 8:39 a.m.

dotdash is right. Meijer and Target can scan an item and swipe a credit card to see if you have used that card to purchase the item within 90 days. I almost NEVER keep my receipts and I never use cash at these locations because of the simplicity of returns there. The problem with always requiring a receipt is that the consumers lose. It's almost like having a no returns policy in some people's minds. That's how stores get you. They offer a 'decent' return policy, but know that most people will not make it back to do the return.


Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 4:21 p.m.

But with technology today, the stores can do even better-- they can trace purchases electronically. The cynic in me thinks many stores choose to require receipts because there will always be a percentage of people who can't find the receipts, thus assuring a lower return rate.


Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 4:05 p.m.

A 3-step process involving significant risk, a lot of hassle like driving around, traceable accounts on eBay, low profit ratio -- this is a terrible business plan. Come on, crooks of America -- raise your standards!


Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 2:42 p.m.

I hope that as a condition of probation the perps cannot go anywhere near retail stores...yeah...ALL retail stores. This sentence is pathetic IMO!


Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 1:35 p.m.

guy had to b a moron to get caught.5 years?he's a pro and will b right back at it again.


Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 1:23 p.m.

"and $3,08.84 to Office Max" I think you missed a number in this one.

Kyle Feldscher

Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 6:21 p.m.

M- You're right, I missed a 5 on there. It's been added. Also, Jojo, I laughed. Very clever.

Jojo B

Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 3:14 p.m. had its copy-editor stolen and replaced with a $100 Borders gift card.

Richard Carter

Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 1:08 p.m.

Sounds like a sweet deal to me -- make mad money on a weekly basis, and if you get caught, no problem -- you just pay it back over time. Seriously, I wish some kind of better example had been set here in terms of punishment. Sure, paying back the money is great, but I would love to have seen something like pay it all back AND spend a year in jail, or don't pay it all back and then spend 7 years in jail.

Alan Benard

Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 12:39 p.m.

Stores don't really prosecute shoplifters on a regular basis, and shoplifters know it.

Susanne Brace

Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 5:10 p.m.

They usually have to wait for people to try and steal a whole ton of stuff before they can actually be prosecuted with any effect.


Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 4:02 p.m.

It's not nearly that simple. I owned a retail store for years and I can tell you the police make it very difficult prosecute shoplifters. Unless you have iron-clad evidence, they won't even investigate it.


Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 11:57 a.m.

Wow, probation???? Hope it works.


Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 11:57 a.m.

I really fault the stores for their return policies! They need to not give gift cards in lieu of a receipt. They are making it easy for someone to get something for nothing. Time to tighten up. No return.


Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 6:03 p.m.

I'm sure that stores, especially national chains like the ones targeted, have analyzed potential fraud versus customer loyalty/satisfaction and determined that their policies make sense. I have no idea if you have ever worked retail, but customers do indeed feel absurdly entitled over the smallest, and most irrational things. That being said, does the blame rest anywhere except squarely on the shoulders of the criminals who committed the crimes? Of course not!

Woman in Ypsilanti

Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 5:36 p.m.

I don't know if there is a correlation between those who have bad finances and those who don't keep receipts. I suppose there might be but I also know that one of the advantages to having a good paying job is that one doesn't have to worry about such things. I also don't balance my checkbook. But I have excellent finances and never bounce checks because I pad my checking account.

Woman in Ypsilanti

Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 5:33 p.m.

*shrug* I just don't like it. The changing rooms seem too small. A lot of time a "helpful" sales person will keep bugging me. I know a lot of people like that kind of attention from retail staff but I don't. I am pretty good at eyeballing an item of clothing and knowing if it will fit or not. I almost always get it right so I don't have to return items too often. But when I do, I expect to be treated like something other than a thief.

Susanne Brace

Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 5:07 p.m.

@ Woman in Ypsilanti, I've never understood the not trying things on in the store, it juat doesn't make sense to me. Especially since you end up having to make two trips, and if you aren't able to come back for awhile, the item you are looking for may already be sold. On another note, is it really unreasonable that people are expected to keep track of their receipts? I wonder if there is a correlation between those with bad finances and those that can't keep track of receipts?

Woman in Ypsilanti

Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 3:24 p.m.

Although I would never be rude to a sales person following a written return policy. I also would be very angry at a store if they didn't accept my items to return just because I didn't have the receipt any more. I also would not buy anything from that store again. However, I would be happy if they allowed me to exchange the item for something else in the store instead of giving me a gift card or a refund. Usually I am exchanging things because I don't like trying on clothes at the store and I got the size wrong so all I want to exchange it for the same item in a different size. The point is that most people are honest and a store can't make things too difficult for their honest customers in order to prevent theft. Even if that means higher prices because such policies allow for more easy shoplifting.

Susanne Brace

Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 3:16 p.m.

That is the policy.... You try being in retail and having your job security based on customer satisfaction, and having pissed off customers because you can't do the return for whatever reason. People feel so entitled these days, they refuse to take no for an answer, even if it is clearly stated in the policy. That and even if the return is refused per policy, corporate will likely give it to them when they call and complain AND give them a gift card for their trouble. Then people at the store level get yelled at and are told to just take care of these things at store level.....


Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 2:40 p.m.

I can't attest for all Meijer stores, but one in Livingston County won't give you the time of day without a receipt. It works for me. I would guess that it helps to keep the prices down for the honest shoppers.


Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 2:13 p.m.

I disagree with having to have a receipt. I loose them as soon as they hand them to me. In fact I've stopped going to stores that won't allow returns with out a receipt. Proof of purchase, however, is different. I have no problem presenting the credit card I used to make the purchase. I'm surprised that some stores still can't look up purchases from your credit card, although they all seem to be slowly figuring it out.

Chaz H

Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 12:52 p.m.

@Arieswoman: It will be interesting to see if your comment gets deleted. Blaming the victim is against the rules of commenting... but does that apply when the victim is a corporation? It just might, since the government apparently recognizes corporations as persons.


Mon, Jan 30, 2012 : 12:05 p.m.

I believe that Target allows one return without a receipt per year and you have to show a driver's license. This is fair - we all occasionaly lose a receipt.