Well b’ys, they got the meat robber. Sorry – alleged meat robber. Innocent till proven guilty, even if you’re caught red-handed with $700 worth of beef. Which is precisely what happened to one Newfoundland man last month, after police tracked him from a grocery store to his house. How you accidentally forget to pay for $700 of meat, I’m not sure. How you manage to flee with $700 of meat and elude pursuit, I’m even less sure. I only hope the cops didn’t pass up the opportunity to demand “Where’s the beef?” when they knocked on the meat robber’s door.

But reading the story reminded me of one of my ongoing ideas – you know, those get-rich-quick schemes to bring you fortune and glory that we all have, but usually wind up too busy to actually carry through. This particular idea was to produce a Pictorial History of Non-Violent Crime in Newfoundland and Labrador. I’m thinking a nice hardcover coffee table book, with snazzy glossy photospreads and warm, welcoming text. Perfect for post-Sunday dinner reading for the family. (if you’re interested in publishing it, get at me!)

Until I get around to the full meal deal, however, I thought this a good occasion to review some of the more classy – or at least interesting – less-than-legal schemes that have made the headlines in our recent history. Becuz, you know, everybody loves a good crime story. Especially when it involves…

The Great Cheese Robberies of 2004

2004 was a dark year for dairy aisles and pizzerias in the capital city, as many of us recall. Those of us perusing the cheese aisles during that long dark summer remember the sharp eyes of undercover officers watching us as we inspected our brie and sniffed at our gorgonzola. For that was the summer grocery shops throughout the island lay in fear of a sharp spike in cheese robberies. What began as minor cases of shoplifting eventually escalated to daringly diabolic daylight dairy heists. Cops knew things were bad when Big Bite Pizza in Churchill Square was struck by a theft of 10 blocks of mozza – a good $200 worth.

What do thieves do with cheese stolen from pizza shops? Why, sell it back to other pizza shops at a cut rate, according to the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, who attributed the thefts to drug users looking for quick and easy money to fuel their habits.

After all, who guards the gouda?

Well, things came to a head when a would-be cheese robber, making his daring getaway, was cornered in the parking lot of Sobeys by police officers who happened to be nearby (hint: don’t rob a grocery store that’s across the street from a Tim Hortons). After briefly wielding a hypodermic needle in an attempt to escape, he was taken down by officers who discovered 16 blocks of cheese in his possession.

The police were forced to issue a public warning that “cheese theft is a growing problem in our province”.

Well, I suppose it could be worse.

While things seem to have calmed down and the cheese aisles are no longer patrolled by security guards, the fine art of cheese-rustling is not dead yet. Late last year a Gander man capped a 22-page criminal record with a $6.22 block of cheddar from Sobeys. Moving quickly to deter other would-be fromage-filchers, the judge sentenced him to two weeks in jail.

Drug dealer for hire

Newfoundland and Labrador’s history is full of colourful characters and Brian O’Dea, one of the province’s premiere drug dealers, is one of them. After building quite an international smuggling enterprise in the 1970s and 1980s, he decided to quit the business in 1986 and in 1988 became, appropriately enough, a drug and alcohol addictions counsellor. By 1991 however, the US Drug Enforcement Agency had finally compiled a case and arrested him. Although sentenced to 10 years in jail, he was paroled in 1993 and became a venture capitalist. In 2001 he made his most daring move yet: publishing a full-length personal ad in the National Post highlighting the many career skills he’d gained as a drug dealer, and noting how his lengthy experience in the drug trade made him excellent corporate management material. It appears to have worked: he’s currently a successful film and television producer (Creepy Canada, anyone?). He also wrote a well-known book about his experiences: HIGH: Confessions of a Pot Smuggler.

5000 bottles of beer on the wall…

If you’re gonna go out, might as well go out in style (and with a nice cold one in hand). In 2009 three thirsty thieves decided to do precisely that, stealing not one, or two, or even a dozen cases of beer…but 200 cases from a warehouse in Baie Verte. 200 cases is, of course, lots of bottles of beer on the wall. Or in this case, the cabin. The stash was tracked down shortly thereafter “in a wooded area”. The thieves had only been able to get through 25% of it (!!) before they were caught. Tips from the public were, police say, instrumental in solving the case. (I’d say! You don’t clean out the local warehouse of beer in a small community and expect to get away with it, do you?)

This story reminds me of my own encounter with crime (well, one of a few. I’ll skip the break-ins cuz those were just dastardly). It was on George Street, inside a bar the name of which eludes me (you know, one of those bars that changes name every six months). It was actually a fundraiser for a certain political party. The beer was flowing, the tunes were rocking, the place was quite packed and everybody was having a good time. I was in an animated conversation with several of the campaign workers at a table by the window overlooking the alley behind the bar when all of the sudden something caught my eye. Across the alley, somebody was climbing out of a window in the adjacent building. Curious, myself and the others at our table went over to the window to check it out. We quickly realized there was more than just one person climbing out the window. Here’s what was going on: the building across the alley was the back of another bar. The window the people were climbing out of appeared to be an office, or storage room, belonging to the bar. It wasn’t just one person: it was a small assembly line. Somebody inside the storage room was passing crates of beer to the person leaning half out the window. That person was passing them on up to somebody else on the roof of the building, who would quickly run them over and lower them down to somebody standing beside a van parked in the alleyway. That person would stuff the crates of beer into the large van.

So far as Fordist assembly lines go, this was a paragon of organizational efficiency, you had to admit. We concluded as much as we stood there watching and sipping our beer, while commenting on their style and technique. At the rate the crates of beer were disappearing out the window and into the van, this entrepreneurial crew could possibly have emptied out George Street in a night, given the chance (if I ever find out who they were, I’d recommend the City hire them to run its garbage or recycling collection service).

So far as Fordist assembly lines go, this was a paragon of organizational efficiency, you had to admit.

By this time quite a crowd had gathered on our end; I’d say half the bar was standing around watching the adjacent bar getting robbed clean. Somewhere a few rows back, some spoilsport had decided to call the cops, and was on a cellphone describing the scene to what I can only imagine were some incredulous RNC officers. Just at that moment, as they passed another crate of beer out the window and up to the rooftop crew, one of the…entrepreneurial beer heisters…happened to look our direction. His jaw dropped, as he realized a couple dozen people were watching him, cameras and cellphones in hand. He whispered a comment up to the crew on the roof, who also looked our way.

Not knowing what else to do, we all waved.

And not knowing what else to do, they all looked at each other for a moment, and then waved back.

And then both the thieves and the bar burst out laughing simultaneously.

To their credit, they didn’t seem panicked in the slightest. They realized they had better get going, but were quite calm and collected about it. One of them ticked their head at us with a smile, and then the last fellow to climb out the window made sure he turned out the lights in the office, and politely closed and latched the window too (it was raining). Then they all looked back up at us for a minute, smiled, and waved once more before driving away with their van-load of beer.

You know, it could be a lot worse. And soon, it might well be.

Crime and Punishment Community

This is not, of course, to glorify criminality. But it is to point out that we could actually do a lot worse than stolen beer and cheese, and robbers who smile and wave when caught in the act, rather than pull a gun.

Stephen Harper and his Conservatives are, as we know, poised to unleash an unnecessary and ill-advised ‘tough-on-crime’ bill which domestic and international crime experts alike have denounced as, well, quite patently dumb. In a country with a crime rate that’s dropped to its lowest levels since 1973, crime bills of the sort the Conservatives are planning have been proven to simply increase the number of people – particularly youth – in jail while doing nothing to prevent reoffending. The only ones who profit from the bill’s enormous public cost to taxpayers are the contractors and those companies involved in the prison industry, while it will only increase pressure on an under-resourced court and justice system, possibly at the expense of public safety. More to the point, here in Newfoundland and Labrador it will see more of our people removed from their homeland and sent abroad to mainland prisons, where they will be more likely to learn from worse characters in bigger jails and return as hardened, professional criminals of the sort we actually do not want.

While it’s right and just that violent crime requires a firm and quick response, a drug addict who charges a police blockade with 16 blocks of cheddar or $700 of beef could probably do better with some medical support, than being tossed in with hardened criminals. We pride ourselves on our colourful culture, but ought to think long and hard about the impact the Conservative “make-everything-a-crime” bill will have not just on criminals, but on our communities and culture too.