I   was 8 or 9 years old, I guess, when my mother caught me stealing a pack of chewing gum from the grocery store.

Today, it's called retail theft or shoplifting. Back then, my mother called it "stealing."

No matter what it was called, my mother was furious. I mean hopping mad. Thinking back on it, I'm surprised she didn't choke the life out of me and bury me under the mulberry tree at the back of the property.

In my mind it was only a 5-cent pack of chewing gum, but in her mind it might just as well have been a $10 slab of steak.

So she dragged me back to the store and made me confess to the store manager. Then she made me give the manager a nickel for the pack of gum. Then she made me give the pack of gum back to the store manager.

In the end, I had no gum, and I lost a nickel (my paper route money) in the deal. This was more than 55 years ago, when a nickel was considered real money.

Plus, Mom was so ticked off with me she created a list of chores the length of her arm for me to do. It took the rest of that day and half the next to get them done.

Then she ratted me out to my father. And he added more chores to the list.

And on top of everything else, she said about two dozen times how disappointed she was in me. That hurt worst of all.

Now fast-forward 55 years to a front-page story in The York Dispatch about an organized retail theft ring in the West York area that resulted in the arrests of about 110 people.


Retail theft apparently has been on the rise across the United States in recent years. That includes York County, it would seem.

One recent study revealed that 96 percent of loss prevention executives across the country said their businesses were victims of organized retail theft in the previous year.

"These organized criminal groups are very adaptive in how they operate," said Rich Mellor, vice president of loss prevention for the National Retail Federation. "It is essentially a business enterprise."

I don't think I'm naive about such things. I know people steal. I know they shoplift. I know they rob banks. I know they break into jewelry stores. I know if it's not nailed down someone's likely to pilfer it. I know people are capable of all sorts of crimes that include taking something that doesn't belong to them.

And they're amazingly clever in how they go about it.

Hey, my house was robbed a couple of years ago. If anyone knows about the dishonest side of human nature, it's me. From personal experience.

So I can't explain why I was surprised to read that 110 people were picked up by local police, charged with involvement in a retail theft ring based in West York.

Police said the theft ring netted an estimated $750,000 in stolen merchandise. But it could be more, maybe as much a $1 million, officials said.

That's a lot of merchandise. Especially since it all came in dribs and drabs.

Over-the-counter medicine seems to be a big target these days. And beauty products. And in case you haven't noticed, a five-quart container of motor oil costs upwards of $30 in today's market, and that's at Walmart.

So basically, anything that has value is fair game. That includes baby formula, tobacco products, meat, seafood and anything that costs more than $5 in the local grocery store. I'm expecting to read about a run on chicken parts any day now, given the high cost of chicken these days.

And that's not just in York County.

Imagine how many people and how much merchandise might be involved in theft rings working in larger metropolitan areas such as New York, Miami, Chicago, Baltimore, and Los Angeles.

It's hard to imagine 110 people allegedly committing retail crimes in York County every day, very often in broad daylight.

The truth is, though, that's just a drop in the bucket.

It's probably 10 times 110, or 20 times 110, in York County alone.

People who got their starts stealing a pack of gum or a candy bar and getting away with it because their mothers didn't snatch them up by the scruff of their necks and put the fear of God in them.

Some of us are lucky, I guess.

And some of us are not -- they're the ones who'll be passing through the legal system in York County in the next six months to a year.

If found guilty, some will be fined. Some will spend time in jail. A few might spend considerable time in state prison. Some will be required to do community service. Some will be expected to pay restitution. Some will have to pay a lawyer to represent them. Most will see their names plastered in the newspaper every time their case comes up in court and, if they have any sense, they'll be embarrassed by it.

All allegedly part of an organized retail theft ring, the likes of which York County probably has never known.

And with luck will never know again.

Columns by Larry A. Hicks, Dispatch columnist, run Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. E-mail: lhicks@yorkdispatch.com.