Many PD: Walmart shopping frenzy theft investigation handicapped - WAFB 9 News Baton Rouge, Louisiana News, Weather, Sports

Many PD: Walmart shopping frenzy theft investigation "handicapped"

The Many Police Department was hoping to post surveillance photos of those suspected of taking advantage of the shopping frenzy caused by a glitch in the EBT system on October 12, but so far, Walmart hasn't turned anything over. The Many Police Department was hoping to post surveillance photos of those suspected of taking advantage of the shopping frenzy caused by a glitch in the EBT system on October 12, but so far, Walmart hasn't turned anything over.

The Many Police Department's plans to post pictures of those suspected of stealing cartloads of groceries from the local Walmart earlier this month have been put off, at least for now.

According to a post on the Many PD Facebook Page Wednesday night, investigator's efforts to pursue criminal charges in connection with the incident have been "handicapped" by the lack of surveillance images from the store, where they say "many shoppers took full advantage of the flawed system" on October 12.

The Many store was among at least 3 Walmart locations in northwest Louisiana where customers showed up in droves on that night, filling carts to overflowing and checking out using EBT cards that were temporarily not showing any limits because of a glitch in the system operated by Xerox. It happened at retail stores in 17 states, but most followed contractual requirements to set a $50 limit and call for authorization of charges during a system outage.

The problems arose at stores that chose not to follow that emergency process and continued serving customers.

Police were called to the Many store, as well as to the Springhill and Mansfield locations, after disturbances were reported and concerns were raised that some were leaving with those cartloads without paying at all. Others abandoned the carts in the aisles once police arrived.

Police in Many seemed determined to do something about it. The case was turned over to MPD detectives and a request was made for surveillance tapes during the time in question. They announced their intention to post images from those surveillance videos on the Many Police Department Facebook Page, administered by retired Many Police Chief Dean Lambert.

"Our main objective was two-fold, one to have the victim reimbursed for their loss and the other was to make all the customers accountable for any merchandise they left the store with," says the Facebook update posted Wednesday. "Again, it would have been very easy to do nothing, just to leave it up to someone else to do something, but we decided to move forward and with some leg work and using our Facebook page as a tool, that we could make a difference. What made this incident a real challenge was the purchases made by the EBT cards, this was a legal gray area and certainly there were liabilities if the investigation became too aggressive. But we were determined to go as far as we could to aid the victim and to make all the customers answerable for their actions."

So far, that surveillance video hasn't materialized. "Thus we can only assume that they have not located any images that show clear evidence of a theft," explains Lambert. Without that, and records from the Department of Children and Family Services of the transactions showing the excessive purchases at the store that night, the investigation appears to be at a standstill.

Still, all hope is not lost, as Lambert's status update wraps up with a nod to U.S. Senator David Vitter's open letter Wednesday to DCFS Secretary Suzy Sonnier and Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell. In the letter, Vitter demands "aggressive action" in response to the incident, including the pursuit of criminal charges and the formation of a task force dedicated to the pursuit of prosecutions of the theft and fraud cases. 

Vitter also wanted to make sure the retailers were not reimbursed by the state for purchases made beyond the limits.

"We commend Senator Vitter in his effort to bring some accountability to this situation. His involvement gives us hope that our desire to continue the legal process might become a reality. We believe there is documentation out there that will show both intent and the clear act of felony theft. The question is when and if that information becomes available. So for now, although this investigation is still very active, we can at the moment, only monitor the continuing developments and be ready to move forward if the opportunity presents itself."

Late Wednesday afternoon, DCFS responded to Vitter's letter with a letter of their own. In it, Secretary Suzy Sonnier detailed how the department has already addressed his concerns. Sonnier says transaction attempts over the available balance on the EBT cards were returned as non-sufficient funds and will not be reimbursed.

According to Sonnier's letter, the department has already asked the USDA to approve sanctions against those who knowingly used their SNAP EBT cards to buy food beyond their approved limits. An answer is expected on Thursday.

Those sanctions can include the suspension of benefits for anywhere from 1 year to permanently, depending on the number of previous offenses.

Sonnier also pointed out that it's up to the retailers to pursue charges, but that the DCFS would support those retailers that choose to do so.

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