Pubdate: 2 Sep 1999
Source: Hartford Courant (CT)
Copyright: 1999 The Hartford Courant
Author: Daniela Altimari with contributions from Christine Dempsey


Joseph Macca did not have a famished infant in mind when, according to
police, he and an accomplice stole eight cases of Enfamil from the Shop
Rite supermarket in Manchester.

Instead, police say the homeless drug addict told them, he was planning to
feed a booming black market for baby formula.

``It's a hot item,'' said Lt. Brian Smith of the Vernon Police Department,
which has seen several instances of baby formula theft in recent months.
``It's expensive and it's easy to unload on the street. [Drug users] steal
it to finance their drugs.''

A case of baby formula that costs more than $30 in a retail store fetches
about $20 on the underground market. The most common buyers are mom-and-pop
shops looking to cut out wholesalers.

Baby formula also is popular among drug dealers, who reportedly use the
product in its powdered form to thin out heroin and cocaine, a practice
that dilutes the drug but boosts the dealers' profits.

There's even an international market. Smith said he has heard rumors of
stolen baby formula winding up in South America. In Indiana, thieves stole
a tractor-trailer truck loaded with 5,000 cases of infant formula from a
parking lot. Investigators believe the formula was destined for underground
markets in the United States and abroad.

In Fort Worth, Texas, U.S. Customs agents busted a ring that paid crack
addicts to shoplift cases of formula. The purloined product was later
shipped to Iran, Libya and Iraq, where economic sanctions have created a
steep demand.

Police in the Hartford region said they suspect that the formula stolen
from local stores stays closer to home.

``It's one of those things there's a heavy demand [for] in New York City,''
West Hartford police Sgt. James Zeller said. ``[Thieves] can take it to
small grocery stores and sell it.''

Police said that Macca and his alleged accomplice, Susan Levanti, told them
they were planning to sell the 96 cans of stolen infant formula to Asian
grocers in Hartford. Macca, 29, said that he is homeless and has a cocaine
problem, and that he stole the baby formula because he needed money,
according to a police report.

``Junkies will steal large amounts of whatever they can if there's a market
for it,'' said Manchester police Officer Christopher Davis, who arrested
Macca and Levanti on July 26.

Unlike cigarettes, another commonly stolen item, cases of baby formula are
heavy and difficult to hide. But their bulk has not deterred thieves.
Often, a group of thieves will enter a store just before it closes, load a
cart with baby formula and brazenly steer the cart out of the store, said
Bernard Rogan, spokesman for the Shaw's supermarket chain.

Retailers have had to get creative in their attempts to thwart thieves.
Many large chains put a limited amount of the product on store shelves, or
place infant formula behind the service desk so customers have to request
it. A Shaw's store in Marshfield, Mass., took that step after it was hit
repeatedly by thieves, Rogan said.

``You're betwixt and between,'' Rogan said. ``Obviously, we want to make
things convenient for our legitimate customers, but we try to never put out
too much of the product.''

- ---
MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart