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Looking for Holiday Thieves : Officers Prowl the Parking Lots

December 23, 1987|JIM CARLTON | Times Staff Writer

Hearing that a shoplifter has just been arrested at the Target store on North Tustin Avenue, undercover Police Officer Bruce Loftus swings his unmarked car in that direction and steps on the accelerator.

At the store, Loftus and partner Clark Smith walk quickly to an office cubbyhole where they confront a 36-year-old man wearing a scraggly beard, a "BMW" cap and a glum expression as Target security hovers nearby.

The man has been caught taking a camera and pocket calculator, together worth $87.98. He had tried to hide them in his pants, but store security collared him as he walked out.

Loftus asks a simple question: Why?

"My mom wanted a camera for Christmas," the unemployed carpenter from Santa Ana says, his wrists handcuffed behind him and his gaze fixed on the floor. He talks with the promise of anonymity and that police won't use his statements against him.

Why the calculator, Loftus asks?

"The starter on my truck's not working," the man answers. He planned to take the calculator to a pawn shop to get cash for a new starter, he says.

And why, Loftus wants to know, did he pick this store?

"I was on my way home, and I decided to stop by and try it."

Finding out what motivated this shoplifter was part of a recent day's work for Officers Loftus and Smith, members of the Orange Police Department's undercover Special Enforcement Team. Dormant for 10 years, the unit was reactivated the day after Thanksgiving to help fight holiday crime.

In their first eight days on the assignment, the officers arrested 33 people.

Loftus, 26, and Smith, 24, patrol the corridors and parking lots of the city's malls, shopping districts and movie theaters looking for shoplifters, purse snatchers and car thieves. Loftus figures that he and Smith have plenty of job security.

"During Christmas, they (shopping centers) just get ripped off right and left," Loftus said.

Their typical day consists of cruising one parking lot after another. Although the lots are crowded, the officers rule out 98% of the people as potential thieves. The remaining 2% are what the officers loosely categorize as "hypes," who steal to support their drug addictions. "Clark can smell a hype from a mile away," Loftus says proudly. Smith is so good, in fact, that Loftus usually lets him out at the edge of a parking lot so he can walk around and sniff them out.

Wearing jeans and a red ski jacket, and carrying a small plastic shopping bag, Smith looks like any other shopper--except that he spends an inordinate amount of time walking in what would appear to be confused circles, sometimes talking into the concealed radio in his bag.

The officers decide to stake out the Cinedome Theaters parking lot on West Chapman Avenue as the night grows late. Smith starts walking the lot at one end while Loftus sits in the gray patrol car at another. The movies are about halfway through; it is a prime time for auto theft.

The officers focus their attention on vehicles that are favored by thieves, such as the Toyota pickup and the Volkswagen Rabbit, which has a stereo that is popular on the black market.

"Hey, Cool," Loftus said, addressing Smith over the radio by his nickname. "A white van coming toward you. Real dirty looking."

But the van leaves the lot, and the remaining minutes of this shift pass uneventfully, with each officer growing more restless.

"This is the part they don't show on TV," Loftus says. "It can get real old, real quick."

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