When Rusty Thompson watched the Dodgers on television, it wasn't the game or even the score that grabbed his attention. A batboy pushing a shopping cart full of equipment caught his eye.
And when James Oliver viewed a nationally televised real-life crime show, he could instantly identify a grocery store where an arrest went down: "I knew because I recognized the shopping cart."
Thompson, Oliver and partner Tim Tumbleson are members of a new breed of bounty hunter, making careers out of finding and returning lost and stolen shopping carts. And, as Oliver says, "If you've been in the business long enough, you can look at a cart and know who it belongs to."
The three men co-own Oliver's Cart Recovery Service and say it is the largest cart retrieval service in California. They send out a caravan of up to 65 trucks from their Brea-based business each day to cover an area from Oxnard to San Diego.
The service picks up from 9,000 to 10,000 carts each day, they say, scouring alleys, apartment buildings, street corners and homeless habitats to return them to stores such as Lucky, Vons, Alpha Beta, Ralphs and Target.
In the late 1980s, a California Grocer's Assn. study found that the industry was spending $14 million annually to replace lost or stolen shopping carts. Don Beaver, association president, estimates that such costs have now increased to nearly $16 million, with 70% of the loss in Southern California.
"This is just one of those things that is out of control," he says. It is a misdemeanor in California to remove a cart from store property without the manager's permission. Maximum punishment is six months in jail, a $1,000 fine or both. But, says Beaver, the chance of arrest for cart theft is slim: "Law enforcement does not have time to enforce this stuff. Who's going to arrest a little old lady pushing her groceries home?"
Although most carts are found near apartment buildings and within walking distance of stores, retrieving them is not so predictable.
Take the time Jim Cronin, a nine-year cart retrieval veteran, caught the glimmer of something metallic bobbing in the roiling waters of the San Gabriel River. He pulled onto an access road to confirm his suspicion, and struck a cart retriever's gold mine. Cronin spent the next few hours toiling in the water, dragging 14 carts out one at a time with a hook.
Oliver speculates that it was the work of some ornery kids: "They kind of like doing that. Especially if it has recently rained. They want to see the carts go up and down the river and get knocked up against the bridges."
Thompson recalls other occasions when the job became personally treacherous.
While retrieving a cart 10 years ago in Long Beach, he was accosted by a man wielding a pet boa constrictor. Thompson left without the cart. And when he tried to remove a cart from a back yard in Anaheim, he was greeted by gunshots.
"He was drug-crazed or something," Thompson says of the shooter. "He told me to get out of his yard, and I did not wait around to see what would happen." Adds Oliver: "Since that time, we've learned that you knock on the door and politely ask for the cart first."
Finding the carts is only half the battle. Once located, they must be identified. Some carts have numbers stamped into the handlebars, others have signs. Experts, though, can discern a cart's owner by merely glancing at its size and shape.
If the cart is still in original form, that is.
Creative thieves have been known to cut the metal frames and weld them for use as engine mount rooftop television antennas and barbecue racks. Purloined carts also are used for storage bins, baby strollers and makeshift moving crates.
"You'll find a person who has moved from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and they'll fill a couple of grocery carts and put them in the moving truck, then dump them," says Thompson, who's found more than one California cart while out of state on vacation.
Oliver's traces many other cart thefts to the homeless. On most occasions, the partners retrieve those carts when various police departments find them among other stolen property during roundups and call the service.
Oliver opened his cart service 15 years ago after his mother-in-law, a store manager, told him about the growing problem of cart thefts. Tumbleson later joined the company.
Thompson, meanwhile, was working as a grocery clerk for his father when both realized the impact of cart theft on business. They quit their jobs and went to work retrieving carts, and Thompson later opened his own firm.
Three years ago, Thompson merged with Oliver and Tumbleson.
"People associate being in this business with Sanitation Engineering--where you pick up garbage all day," Oliver says. "They just can't imagine that you can make money at a something like this."
But the partners have.