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What will stop organized retail theft? We went behind bars to ask a prolific shoplifter

A convicted felon explains how he ripped off retailers and why anti-theft measures don’t work.

ONTARIO, Ore. — We’ve all seen the footage. Brazen criminals stealing merchandise off store shelves and walking out the front door. In Portland, organized retail crime has become an epidemic.

Over the past year, KGW has done extensive reporting on retail theft — speaking with police, prosecutors, retailers, private security, customers and neighbors. The one voice we haven’t heard from: a convicted shoplifter. We wanted to learn about the effectiveness of anti-theft measures, where this stolen merchandise ends up and what factors might contribute to the rise in shoplifting. 

Martin Castaway is currently serving seven years in prison for theft convictions in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties. Castaway led a crime ring known as the "Castaway Crew," which hit big box retailers throughout the Portland area. 

We spoke with him inside the Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Kyle Iboshi: Did the presence of a security officer or loss prevention impact your decision on whether to go into a store or not?

Martin Castaway: Not really. If I see a security dude with a gun, I know he can’t touch me. I got to a point where it was almost like a game to me. I wasn’t stopping for nothing. Now, if I see a suspicious car in the parking lot who looks like a police officer, I’m going to have second thoughts on that. I’ll probably just cruise through and keep going.

What factors did you consider before hitting a store?

The most I could get in the least amount of time. I would go into a store, steal $5,000 to $6,000 worth of merchandise and be out in two minutes.

Did you go into a store knowing what you wanted to steal? 

Ninety percent of the time I knew exactly what I was going after.

What did you steal? Most of your cases involved theft of apparel, right?

Anything. Tools. If it is wintertime, I’m stealing $350 North Face jackets. Summertime, it is Nike. I love selling stuff to women. Coach purses, perfumes, makeup from Ulta.

You mentioned Coach purses. That’s an expensive purse. Where do you unload something like that?

Wherever I see women that look like they have money. It could be a strip club. It could be a hair salon. It could be a bar.

How about the other stuff? What happens after those items are stolen?

It could end up in another country. It could end up in a local bar. It could end up down the street. If I got stuff for construction workers, say 100 pairs of Carhartt pants and I’m driving by a construction site, I could pull in there and talk to somebody. Normally, I like to sell everything at once. I like to give them a good deal and just get everything out of my possession, so I’m not riding around with it. You establish clients, just like any business.

Credit: KGW
Police say Martin Castaway led a crime ring called the 'Castaway Crew' which hit big box retailers throughout the Portland-metro area.

The Oregon state legislature tried to address shoplifting by passing several bills, including harsher penalties for those convicted of organized retail theft. Do you think tougher laws will help reduce shoplifting in Oregon?

I don’t think so at all. I think anybody who is engaged in this type of crime — I would say 70 or 80 percent of them are on drugs. They need treatment, not prison.

So, what can be done in our community to help reduce shoplifting?

We need more treatment programs for those struggling with addiction. They’re worth it. And I hope they get help because this s--- ain’t worth it. We should address the problem when it starts. When they first catch someone for theft before they get too far out there when it gets worse.

They call it organized retail crime. Is it organized?

I would say it is pretty unorganized. Everyone is messed up on drugs. This is kind of embarrassing, but I’m going to be straight with you. I would find people who were on fentanyl, who were on drugs. I would exploit that. I would recruit them. They’d be running around with me.

Were drugs a factor for you?

I was on drugs, meth, and drinking. But more so, I think my addiction was gambling (video poker) and the adrenaline from committing these crimes. I liked to have another car every month. A different car. That was because I was burning the cars up in the process of doing crimes. 

(By "burning the cars up’" Castaway meant police were on the lookout for vehicles he was associated with, so he’d have to change vehicles.)

Several stores have instituted tougher security measures to prevent shoplifting. For example, some Safeway stores in Portland have a separate section for high-theft items and certain Fred Meyer locations check customer receipts at the exit. Would that stop you?

No, not at all. What, some old lady is going to say, ‘Sir, Sir!?’ By that time, I’ve already got that stuff in my car. While they’re trying to pull out their phone, I’m already out of the parking lot.

How old were you when you first started stealing?

Man, this is kind of embarrassing, but I think like second grade. I’d go steal Ninja Turtle figurines. I’d steal cartons of cigarettes. I didn’t even smoke. I don’t even know why. I just did it.

We have video of you and your crew hitting Dick’s Sporting Goods on more than one occasion. Walk me through those heists, beginning to end. What are we seeing in the video?

I would pull up and I would check the parking lot. It is in and out. A lot of times the store people don’t even know. By the time they turn around, or even hear the alarms, I’m already out the door.

So, you appeared to target North Face jackets that were near the front of the store, right?

It’s a higher-end coat. It’s not cheap. And I knew I could get 30 or 40 of them at a time. I would try to get women’s and men’s, so I’ve got more to sell. You want your best-selling merchandise in the front, cause that’s what people are going to see when they come into the store. That’s perfect for me. Put it there. I’m gone with it faster.

At one point, you cut the security ties that tethered the jackets to the rack?

If they have a cable on it, I don’t care. I have a pair of cutters in my pocket. 

And then you’re out the door?

Never more than 5 minutes. Cause I don’t want them to have time to call the cops and have them waiting outside for me.

Most retailers tell their workers to avoid physical confrontation, so nobody gets hurt. Good advice?

Yeah, don’t get involved. Don’t get hurt over it. It’s not worth it.

Give me a ballpark figure. How much do you think you made stealing from retailers?

Hundreds and hundreds of thousands. It was pretty addicting to me. The rush of it. The whole lifestyle. I thought I wouldn’t get caught, but I was wrong.

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