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'Greed Is Always the Downfall' : Trip to Nordstrom's Trips Up Teen Thief

December 06, 1987|JAMES RAINEY | Times Staff Writer

Matthew Sabal said he understands why Nordstrom department stores are popular.

The 46-store chain carries the finest clothing and salespeople treat customers right, according to Sabal.

"If I were Joe Shopper, it's the place I'd want to shop," the 20-year-old Hermosa Beach resident said recently. "They're nice people."

The stores were also a nice place to steal, according to Sabal, who pleaded guilty to grand theft and four charges of burglary this week.

Police said Sabal lived the high life with $100,000 in illicit refunds that he received over 10 months from Nordstrom stores all along the Pacific Coast in a sophisticated shoplifting scheme.

Sabal admitted in a videotaped confession after he was arrested Nov. 10 that he was apprehended three weeks ago because he returned to the Nordstrom store in West Los Angeles one too many times.

His guilty plea on Tuesday in South Bay Municipal Court in Torrance was the result of a plea bargain that prosecutors said will result in a three-year prison term. Sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 28 in Torrance Superior Court.

Sabal discussed the crimes with striking candor in the videotape. He said he offered the information, in part, to help the department store chain thwart other thieves.

"Maybe if I had gotten popped (arrested) the first time, it might have been the big scare," Sabal said. "I might not have done it again."

'Every Crook Would Jump'

Nordstrom officials declined to discuss the case. "I can't tell you anything, because then that could just be used by someone else," said Carol J. Laub, fraud manager for Nordstrom stores in Southern California. "Every crook in town would jump on it."

Police said Sabal, then 19, was wanted on a Florida theft warrant when he flew to Los Angeles last Jan. 21.

"I came to California looking for a fresh start," Sabal told police, "but I only had a few dollars in my pocket."

He said an acquaintance planted the idea of stealing from department stores and using the merchandise to receive refunds. "From then on, it was an ever-widening door," Sabal said.

In his taped confession, Sabal said he worked hard at perfecting his crime.

The articulate, confident young man struck the pose of a "casually expensive" shopper. He chatted amiably with store employees and requested only top-of-the-line clothes. He liked to carry Nordstrom shopping bags filled with boxes, so that he appeared to be a customer who was ready to spend.

"You go in there like you own the place," Sabal said. "It got me by for a long, long time."

He would steal expensive items, such as men's slacks, by hiding them under his clothing.

Sabal would later transfer the stolen item to a gift box, alter the sales tag to indicate a higher price, then return to another department in the store where employees would not know the correct price. He returned the items for cash, using four different phony identification cards. Sabal noted with a smile that the initials of one alias were B. A. D.

He also tried to ease suspicions about large cash refunds by selecting several items and having them set aside, promising to return the next day to pay for them.

Living the High Life

The scam netted $100 to $1,300 a day, money that Sabal said he used to fly up and down the coast, staying at fine hotels and eating at the best restaurants.

"I made lots of money and had lots of fun," he said. "It gave me the opportunity to go play."

Police from the South Bay Regional Burglary Team said Sabal, who boasted that he had an IQ of 180, ran into trouble when he became too bold.

When a refrigerator and a television were reported stolen from the TraveLodge in Hermosa Beach on Aug. 30, detectives traced the alias on the motel guest book to Sabal. The correct identification led to his apartment on Pacific Coast Highway in Hermosa Beach.

Just as burglary team Detective Terry Moreland prepared to serve a search warrant at the apartment, he learned that Sabal had been picked up for shoplifting at the Nordstrom at the Westside Pavilion shopping center in West Los Angeles.

Suspicious Guard

Sabal said an alert security guard caught him Nov. 10 as he attempted to return a $165 pair of pants--marked up to $195--stolen just minutes before from the men's department.

The guard became suspicious because Sabal returned to the store too often.

"Greed is always the downfall," Sabal said.

Moreland said the scope of the thefts was unclear until the day after the arrest, when he searched Sabal's apartment. Moreland said that he and Hermosa Beach Detective Wally Moore found dozens of receipts for thousands of dollars in refunds, along with the stolen television and refrigerator.

Police said they discovered more receipts in Sabal's Culver City storage locker.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Schuit said he had enough evidence to charge Sabal with 91 burglaries in Los Angeles County, but that additional charges would not have added substantially to Sabal's impending prison term.

"His downfall is his ego," said Lt. Gary Stephens, commander of the burglary team. "They (investigators) stroked him and told him they were real impressed with what he did. And then he told them all about it."

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