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Opioids causing Home Depot thefts? CEO gets backlash, but stolen tools do fuel local drug trade

A Times report shows Hillsborough deputies struggle to stomp out tool theft networks tied to drugs.

Critics are accusing Home Depot of contributing to “opioid hysteria” after executives with the company blamed drug addiction this week for contributing to the theft of millions of dollars worth of power tools from its stores nationwide.

But this isn’t the first time that the rise of power tool and retail thefts have been linked to the drug trade.

A Tampa Bay Times report from September showed how Hillsborough County deputies tracked and busted suspected tool theft ringleaders who investigators say relied on “boosters” — largely addicts — to steal popular tools that are easy to sell online.

Read the special report: How the Home Depot’s stolen tools are fueling Florida’s drug trade

On Wednesday, Home Depot CEO Craig Menear told investors and analysts that retailers all over are feeling the burn of what they call organized retail crime.

“We think this ties to the opioid crisis, but we’re not positive about that," Menear said.

Law enforcement officers told the Times that the correlation is clear. In less than a year, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office found one ring stole $2.4 million in tools from just four local Home Depot stores.

A Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy escorts Joseph Cox to a waiting squad car. He was arrested during a summer theft sting, accused of walking out of a Home Depot in Riverview with a Dewalt drill he didn't pay for. He was charged with theft and drug possession and later  pleaded guilty to felony petty theft.
A Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy escorts Joseph Cox to a waiting squad car. He was arrested during a summer theft sting, accused of walking out of a Home Depot in Riverview with a Dewalt drill he didn't pay for. He was charged with theft and drug possession and later pleaded guilty to felony petty theft. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]

Home Depot’s head of loss prevention has said it has worked with law enforcement in efforts to bust rings with up to $20 million in stolen merchandise.

“They’re using the stolen items to get the drugs that they need,” Hillsborough County Sheriff Maj. Darrin Barlow told the Times earlier this year. “It’s just a different form of currency they’re using to facilitate drug trade.”

Hillsborough deputies regularly pose as the fences or boosters, who steal tools and other items that are easy to sell online through sites such as OfferUp and Facebook Marketplace. But even after big busts, deputies haven’t seen the problem get better. Once a fence is taken down, another pops up to take its place, Barlow said.

The National Retail Federation just released its annual organized crime theft survey this week. It found that 97 percent of the country’s retailers had dealt with theft rings in the last year and 68 percent said they had seen an increase in activity and violence from shoplifting networks.

During its earnings report, Home Depot pointed to the thefts as a reason its operating profit margin would shrink to about 14 percent next year, compared to 14.5 percent in the third quarter.

Home Depot and other companies have worked with the National Retail Federation to push for state laws to make it easier to charge those leading rings with racketeering, rather than with misdemeanor shoplifting charges.

In Florida, recent legal changes allow prosecutors to aggregate items stolen into combined charges over a 90-day period if the thefts occur in more than one county. This enables officers to target rings, which often spread out thefts and change patterns to evade arrest.

Locally, law enforcement targets ringleaders. The big $2.4 million bust last year resulted in 34 total arrests. But the four men who investigators say led the rings — and instructed those struggling with addiction on what to steal — face the most serious charges.

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