Scottsdale Baby-Formula Theft Suspects Arrested

An investigation into a sophisticated baby-formula theft ring in the Phoenix area has resulted in the arrests of 17 Arizonans.

Alleged ringleader Deborah Lynn Russell shipped thousands of baby-food cans to mom-and-pop retail shops on the East Coast, Bill Montgomery, Maricopa County Attorney, said at a news conference today.

Local authorities didn't know anything about the buyers, saying that part of the investigation has been turned over the U.S. Secret Service.

Members of the Arizona Organized Retail Crime Alliance and Scottsdale police joined Montgomery at his office to tout the bust.

"Operation Powder Burn" began when grocery chains across the Valley including Safeway, Walmart and other big names began to see a "dramatic" rise in organized baby-formula thefts. The thieves would typically fill up shopping bags with the pricey formula, then bolt from the store into a getaway vehicle. Scottsdale police documented 94 separate thefts, in part by using surveillance cameras hidden among products on shelves. Retailers estimated a monetary loss of more than $63,000.

The probe revealed that Tyler Hanesford, 27, "taught, directed and paid multiple people" to steal formula, which he also did himself. Russell, 49, then bought the formula for one-quarter of its retail price of about $21 per can. Police found more than 6,000 cans of formula at Russell's home following a February 2014 raid.

Hanesford, Russell, and 13 accomplices were indicted by a grand jury in August on more than 100 criminal charges. The other defendants were located and charged as of December, and they're all facing upcoming court hearings.

Cristina Beloud, Arizona U.S. Secret Service Special-Agent-in-Charge, tells New Times that the federal agency is conducting a forensic examination of computer equipment found during the raid, but couldn't share any other information.

It sounds possible that the East-Coast big fish of this operation may be swimming away. We'll update this post if we learn more about who was on the receiving end -- apparently it wasn't a bunch of starving babies.

Arresting the alleged thieves provides some relief for the retailers, no doubt. However, baby formula is a commonly stolen item. Michelle Ahlmer, executive director of the Arizona Retailers Association, said the bust only represents the proverbial "tip of the iceberg."

Got a tip? Send it to: Ray Stern.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.