Helen Packer left Santa Monica Farmers' Market one day last January without the spinach she wanted.
It was not the quality of the produce or the long lines that deterred Packer. The 69-year-old retired secretary could not buy the spinach because a pickpocket had snatched her wallet.
"I had just unzipped my purse to take my billfold out and pay for the spinach," Packer said. "When I put my hand back in my pocket a second later, it was gone. It was so quick."
Stealthy thieves like the one who nabbed Packer's wallet have robbed at least 459 other patrons in the past four years since Santa Monica police have kept computer records, taking an average of $118 from each victim.
But the number of incidents has dropped since police began a campaign to increase public awareness of the problem.
"The only defense against a pickpocket is to keep your mind on your money," said Sgt. Al Cantara, coordinator of the Los Angeles Police Department's pickpocketing and fortune-telling detail. Cantara trains local police to detect pickpockets.
Santa Monica police periodically uses plainclothes officers as decoy victims to catch thieves in the act at the market. They have increased the number of parking structure attendants and foot patrol officers in the area.
However, signs in Spanish and English warning shoppers to be wary of pickpockets have been most effective in combating theft, said Don Umber, supervisor of the Santa Monica Police Department's crime-prevention unit.
"The signs went up in the latter part of 1985, and that's when we really saw a decrease," Umber said.
In 1985, market patrons reported 108 incidents. Last year, the number of reported cases dropped to 69. Eleven incidents have been reported this year.
Packer said she saw the signs warning shoppers but "didn't think it would happen" to her.
No one is immune, said Santa Monica Police Officer George Centeno, who has worked undercover on the pickpocket detail.
Elderly people and women are especially vulnerable, he said. Women tend to leave their purses open, and male senior citizens often carry their wallets in baggy pants that are easily picked, Centeno said.
Pickpockets love a crowded place with lots of distractions, such as a busy market, sporting event, shopping center or airport, police said. Santa Monica Farmers' Market is the largest of the 100 markets administered by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
If the two rows of 65 stalls between 2nd and 4th streets on Arizona Avenue had not been so crowded, a woman standing near Packer would not have asked her to move aside, causing Packer to momentarily look away from her open purse. The pickpocket saw his chance and took it.
Medicare Card Stolen
Packer lost $40, her Medicare card and driver's license.
Pickpockets generally operate in teams of three, Centeno said, with one person doing the actual stealing, another shielding the theft and a third making the getaway with the wallet an instant after it is stolen.
"Sometimes we catch the thief, but he's already handed off the wallet," Centeno said.
Plainclothes officers posing as shoppers finally learned to attach wallets to purses with long strings, enabling officers to apprehend the actual pickpocket and his accomplice, Centeno said.
Pickpocketing incidents come in waves, Centeno said. Once word gets out on the street that police are concentrating on a particular area, thieves become scarce.
Imong de la Cruz, a farmer who has sold organic vegetables at the market since 1982, said he has witnessed two incidents at the market. In one, police caught the thief; in the other, the thief got away. But de la Cruz said he has not seen or heard of any incidents lately.
"The pickpockets are scared now," de la Cruz said. "But if the people don't watch their money, someone else will."