Baby formula at center of bust

LA CRESCENTA — A woman and three men face 32 theft-related felony charges after they were arrested last week for allegedly taking part in a baby formula burglary ring.

The 32 charges include felony counts of conspiracy to commit burglary, receiving stolen property and petty theft.

The four were arrested Thursday after an employee at a La Cañada Vons Market reported the theft of several cans of baby formula from their store about 2:30 p.m., said Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ray Harley. Authorities are investigating whether the group is part of a larger formula conspiracy.

Flor Ramirez, 30, Francisco Martinez, 28, Adolfo Ramirez, 44, and Kenny Valdez, 25, each pleaded not guilty Monday at Pasadena Superior Court. The four are being held in lieu of bails ranging from $50,000 to $80,000.

While deputies responded to the La Cañada store, Harley and sheriff’s Det. Brian Tibbett drove to the La Crescenta Vons on the 3200 block of Foothill Boulevard, a few miles away.

“Based on previous burglaries, we thought they might be [moving to] another Vons,” Tibbett said. “It was just a hunch that paid off.”

The detectives saw a vehicle and suspects matching the description pull into the La Crescenta Vons parking lot and made the arrest at 3 p.m.

The suspects, from the Van Nuys and Reseda area, had 20 cans of baby formula valued at $500, plus several bottles of high-end hair care products and razor blades, police said.

“It appears they are part of a ring,” Tibbett said.

In the last two months, La Cañada Vons has been hit seven times with baby formula burglaries, Harley said.

Vons stores in Glendale and Los Angeles have also been burglarized.

He added that in past similar operations, the burglars would sell the formula — valued at anywhere from $20 to $28 per can — for about $7 each to a dealer, who would then sell it for a profit on the black market, or at local flea markets.

Vons representatives could not be reached for comment Monday.

But in 2007, Karl Langhorst, director of Loss Prevention Randall’s/Tom Thumb, a Safeway Company, which owns Vons, told the House Judiciary Committee Crime Subcommittee that store thefts cost the company an estimated $100 million annually, with most of that coming from organized crime.

Stolen items often included high-end toiletries and baby formula, he said, with the burglars hitting 10 to 15 retailers a day.

“It is a theft committed by professionals, in large volume, for resale,” Langhorst said.


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