How to Catch A Criminal: Self-Made Millionaire

March 28, 2024
This month, a series of small-time crimes balloons into a highly lucrative criminal empire.

Every officer with a decent amount of time on the job knows the unexpected turns that an investigation can take. Seeing a major case through to completion often involves giving up on a theory and taking your investigation in a different direction as new information becomes available. In How to Catch A Criminal, we look at the many ways not-so-perfect crimes are solved. This month, a series of small-time crimes balloons into a highly lucrative criminal empire.

In some states, social trends in recent years have seen lawmakers reduce certain felony offenses to misdemeanors or even petty misdemeanors. As of 2014, shoplifting under $950 in California is considered a misdemeanor offense rather than a felony, unless it can be proven to be part of an organized theft ring. Due to the misdemeanor level of this offense, those caught and charged generally receive a citation and are released. California state law allows for a maximum fine of $1,000 or six months in jail to punish these misdemeanor offenses. Unfortunately, the threat of a citation and $1,000 in fines for $950 in theft has not dissuaded many thieves. In fact, in some places, such as San Francisco, shoplifting has spiked in recent years. This increased crime rate has greatly increased the caseload for officers, resulting in many shoplifting offenses not being adequately investigated, making shoplifting even more alluring to would-be criminals. As enforcement shrinks, crime inflates. Also in California, the Los Angeles County District Attorney has outlined a list of minor offenses which his office will not prosecute, instead dismissing many cases in favor of diversion programs which hope to prevent repeat offenses. As other states adopt similar policies regarding minor crimes, they all do so with the hopes of lowering crime rates and reducing recidivism, as well as preventing the mass incarceration of impoverished and mentally ill people. While well intended, this stance implies that these offenses are insignificant and don’t do much damage to society. In truth, a person can easily make a mountain out of a molehill of small crimes.

In May 2012, employees at a Boynton Beach, Florida, Toys R Us store noticed several LEGO sets had gone missing. Retail theft from toy stores isn't uncommon, as children have been known to occasionally procure the toys they want, but don't have the money to pay for. This particular instance, however, was a bit different from that sort of shoplifting. Sixteen of the same LEGO set were gone in one swipe, and these sets were valued at around $900 in total. That high dollar amount drew the attention of the company's loss prevention investigators. The best lead they had was a description of a man whom employees had noticed loitering in the LEGO section on the day of the theft. Security camera footage showed this man didn't simply walk out the door with armloads of the toys. He actually stopped at the cash register and made a purchase like any other customer, and he even had a customer loyalty card. The man exited the store with one toy in a large box, which he paid for full price for. The video also showed him picking up the LEGO boxes from a shelf before making his purchase, but they were not brought to the register and were now missing.

The obvious explanation here is "box stuffing", which is a shoplifting technique that involves finding an inexpensive product in a large package, removing the contents without being seen, and then filling the empty box with smaller, costlier items. You then pay for the large, cheap item, and leave with potentially thousands of dollars worth of merchandise for a fraction of the cost. Turn around and sell those expensive items online, and you have your very own black market enterprise. With rare and collectible toys, independent online sellers can jack up the prices and make a killing even if they paid the full retail price. Obviously, avoiding paying for the items altogether can greatly boost your profits. Some people turn product flipping into full-time jobs, and others turn it into a life of crime. In the case of the stolen LEGO sets, the latter was the case.

The man's loyalty card showed it belonged to 46-year-old Michael Pollara of Tamarac, Florida. Identifying the suspect was the easy part, but figuring out what else he had stolen was a much bigger hill to climb. 20 different Toys R Us locations in Florida had been visited by Pollara. Assuming he pulled the same box-stuffing scheme at each location, the collective losses could be in the tens of thousands. Unfortunately for investigators, Pollara liked to travel. His customer card had been used at locations in multiple states. The company's investigator reached out to the Broward County Sheriff’s Office to help tackle the rapidly expanding case.

Detectives were able to use this information to obtain a warrant to place a GPS tracker on Pollara's vehicle. Unaware he was being tracked, Pollara carried on visiting stores in Florida and eventually traveling out of state. Detectives tailed him all the way to Minnesota, stopping at numerous Toys R Us stores along the way, as well as various other stores, pilfering items as he did so. In the weeks they followed him, Detectives noticed an interesting technique Pollara used to get his five-finger discount. His 70-year-old mother, Margaret Pollara, often tagged along, acting as a lookout while Michael stuffed the big ticket items into larger boxes.

Between the customer loyalty card usage and the Broward County detectives' painstaking stakeouts, Pollara was tracked to 139 stores in 27 states. A subpoena of his financial records determined Pollara's online toy sales had netted him a total of $910,000 during his 11 years as a professional shoplifter. An accomplice of his in Maryland, who helped him fence additional stolen items, had racked up $700,000. In total, Michael Pollara's shoplifting empire cost retailers nearly $2 million in merchandise. He was arrested in August 2012 and agreed to speak to detectives about his crimes. He explained he used his ill-gotten money to travel the world, visiting China and Africa, among other places. He even thanked drug store chain CVS for financing a vacation he took to Hawaii the year prior. Pollara stated that since he began shoplifting, he had stolen an entire store's worth of goods. He managed to build a million-dollar criminal enterprise on the foundation of shoplifting, a crime typically viewed as a minor offense.

Michael and Margaret Pollara faced numerous counts of grand theft and conspiracy. Margaret accepted a plea deal and received two years of house arrest followed by 3 years of probation. Michael also faced a count of dealing in stolen property. Eventually, he was sentenced and served two years in prison. Sadly, he was apparently not reformed by this sentence, as he was arrested in Illinois in 2015 and charged with burglary and retail theft. In that case, he received a 5-year prison sentence.

About the Author

Brendan Rodela is a Deputy for the Lincoln County (NM) Sheriff's Office. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice and is a certified instructor with specialized training in Domestic Violence and Interactions with Persons with Mental Impairments.

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