REI’s Complaints About Shoplifting Are Echoed in Court Documents

A rumor persists that retail employees can’t touch shoplifters.

Questions mounted after REI announced plans last week to shut down its flagship Portland store at year’s end. The outdoor gear company said negotiations with its landlord had broken down after it sought to make “significant investment” in the space on Northwest Johnson Street in the Pearl District.

In an email to customers, it cited increased crime. But an employee later told Oregon Business magazine that the store had been cutting hours and was in the midst of a union drive. Meanwhile, John Hallstrom, the managing member for the property owner, Brolin Co. LLC, said it was negotiating a 10-year lease, but “external factors that we are unable to control caused REI to decide to leave at the end of the current lease term.”

It’s difficult to say which of these reasons was the primary driver of the announcement—or if REI will really leave. But it is certainly true that REI and other businesses in central Portland have been struggling with shoplifting in recent years. WW reviewed several recent prosecutions to understand why outdoor retailers, like REI, are frequent targets, and why theft has proven so difficult to stop.

Here’s three things we learned:

Camping Equipment Is In High Demand

It might seem too obvious to mention, but one reason camping supply stores struggle with shoplifting is that they carry items of immediate utility to people sleeping outdoors.

That means serial shoplifters have a ready customer base. When police finally caught up with one such repeat offender, a man named Patrick Leever, on April Fools’ Day in the parking lot of a Northeast Portland Marshalls, he admitted he often traded lifted goods for drugs and cash on MAX station platforms.

Those goods: more than $2,000 in REI gear. A “senior asset protection officer” for the company gave police that figure in February, after an encounter in which Leever allegedly shoved a company security guard into a coat rack on his way out the door with a coat. The criminal case against him was later dismissed.

Shoplifters Sell Stolen REI Goods Under Interstate 405

A source in the mayor’s office tells WW there’s a resale market for REI goods under I-405 where it passes overhead near the store.

A man living near the highway, who declined to give his name, confirmed that account. He told WW that camping gear, particularly large tents, were a hot commodity on the streets. He recently stole a flashlight from REI, which he sold for eight “blues”—fentanyl pills. The pills are as good as cash, he added.

A Rumor Persists That Retail Employees Can’t Touch Shoplifters

One clue to why shoplifters operate with such confidence is included in a recent probable cause affidavit for a man named Colby Nutter.

After Nutter walked out with around $300 in camping equipment from Next Adventure, an outdoor gear store in Portland’s Central Eastside, he was surprised to see an employee following him.

The two got in a scuffle, and the employee returned to the store—with the goods. Nutter didn’t feel it was fair for the employee to follow him. He returned to the store, threw a punch, and said he’d be back with a gun.

Police were waiting for him when he returned. According to an affidavit later filed by prosecutors, he told them that “he did not feel employees were allowed to use reasonable physical force to get stolen items back.”

The assumption, though false, is not unreasonable. Loss Prevention Magazine found in a 2017 survey of retailers that nearly half had a “no physical touch” policy when confronting thieves. Based on its handling of Leever, REI appears to be one of them. Next Adventure, clearly, was not.

After failing to show up in court after being booked on theft charges, Nutter is now in jail.

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.