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Suds for Drugs

In his investigation, Thompson realized that since the supply of Tide would be hard to curb, he had to figure out how to stem the illicit demand. Working from leads provided by inmates and parolees offering to share details about their own Tide dealings in exchange for a good word with their judge or parole officer, he and his fellow officers pieced together a loose network of middlemen—barbershops, nail salons, and drug houses that were taking in bottles to either sell on the side to their clients or at a deep discount to willing corner stores and pawn shops.

Despite its popularity, Tide is not a big moneymaker for stores. P&G’s proprietary surfactants and enzymes are relatively expensive to produce, notes Bill Schmitz, a Deutsche Bank analyst, so Tide’s wholesale cost is steep. Only so much of that can be passed on to customers. “It’s so tight,” says Schmitz of the profit margin. In general, a retailer clears just a few percentage points on a Tide purchase. A store that charges $19.99 for a 150-ounce bottle might claim $2 in profit. But if it buys stolen bottles for $5, that jumps to $15.

It’s not just bodegas that hawk iffy product. Chain stores also wind up in resale schemes. Rather than stock large surpluses of popular items, those businesses often rely on so-called perpetual-inventory systems to electronically record sales data and relay it to manufacturers, which stagger deliveries accordingly. When a bottle of Tide is taken from a store without being rung up, a crucial step gets skipped, leading to shipment delays. And when that happens, some store managers place stopgap orders with local wholesalers who may be less than rigorous about where they obtain their products or from fencing rings that employ their own sales teams and maintain legitimate-looking websites. “Some stores might not recognize these goods as stolen, but others don’t really care,” says LaRocca. “There are [stores] who don’t ask questions about where the goods originated. Plenty are just looking to fill their shelves.”

To break that final link in the chain, Thompson and his unit needed to nail stores for buying and selling boosted product—and to prove they were moving enough of it to trigger sufficiently dissuasive penalties. Prosecutors have to base charges on the retail value of the stolen merchandise. In Maryland, if the total is less than $1,000, the crime is a misdemeanor. Above that threshold, it becomes a felony, and a perpetrator faces the possibility of years behind bars. After his team busted one area shop owner for taking in stolen Tide, the perpetrator struck a deal for a $250 fine and a form of probation—then turned around and raised the price his store charged for Tide by $3.

During a sting operation last June, Thompson tried a new tactic. On a muggy Friday, the sergeant, clad in a black tracksuit, pulled his unmarked cruiser into a run-down shopping center in Capitol Heights, a low-income neighborhood on the southwestern border of Prince George’s County and Washington, D.C. The previous week, one of his tipsters called about seeing people lugging Tide into his target today, a ­salon called Star Nails.

Thompson watched as his team, two undercover cops in a Jeep Cherokee, pulled up to the shop, where a handful of people in ragged clothing were loitering under a faded red-and-white marquee. While the driver kept the car idling, a heavily tattooed, spiky-haired detective named Alexander Mallari jumped out holding a laundry bag filled with a few bottles of Tide and lots of bonus items—a dozen pairs of Philips earphones, a dozen or so bottles of Victoria’s Secret perfume. Mallari’s mission was simple: He’d enter the shop, disclose that the items were stolen, and try to unload them.

Ten minutes later, Mallari emerged with an empty bag and a small wad of money in his pocket. He was offered just $30—a pittance by the standards of the Tide trade. “That’s a true crackhead price right there,” Thompson said. Mallari could have haggled for more, but that’s not the point, since it’s the retail prices of the merchandise that will be making the police report, and the headphones and perfume helped to boost the total value into felony territory. “As long as they pay me, as long as they accept the stolen item, that’s what matters,” he said. A few weeks later, the team raided the salon and two houses and a pair of cars associated with Star Nails employees, arresting five workers and recovering roughly $20,000 in stolen property. While they had the salon under surveillance, Thompson’s unit learned that the scope of Tide theft had broadened again. An officer overheard its employees talking about moving the Tide to stores “back home”—which in their case is Vietnam.