On Dec. 12, Adrian Kramer hacked off Fred Meyer security guard David Morrison's left ear with a sharp hatchet. Kramer had been trying to make off with a shopping cart full of stolen merchandise. Morrison was trying to stop him.
The attack stunned Morrison, who had barely enough time to turn his head and keep the hatchet from sinking into his face. The community, too, was shocked by the brutality of Kramer's crime, which happened in a store crammed with holiday shoppers.
But in an interview last week, Morrison, who oversees the store's security department, said he's not entirely surprised to have encountered such an aggressive and violent thief. The business of stopping shoplifters has become more dangerous in recent years, Morrison said. In an effort to protect staff and avoid lawsuits, stores have put in place policies barring security from physically grabbing shoplifters, he said. At the same time, Morrison said, thieves, many of them drug-addicted and desperate, have become more brazen.
"I've had people try to shank me with screwdrivers," he said. "You expect it, but you just hope it's not going to happen to you. … You try not to worry about it and put it in the back of your head."
In fact, Morrison, who has worked at Fred Meyer more than five years, said he may still have his ear if the store's policies hadn't prevented him from being more aggressive with Kramer.
"When they take your tools away to do your job effectively, you expect something like this to happen," Morrison said. "I believe, looking back, had I been able to make physical contact, this could have been avoided. I would have been more on the aggressive side instead of passive with my hands down at my side."
Fred Meyer spokeswoman Melinda Merrill confirmed that the store has a hands-off approach to shoplifters. Asked if the store will consider changing that policy in the wake of the December incident, Merrill called the hatchet attack "an extraordinary, odd situation," but she said, "Anything like this always causes you to take a look at your policies."
Other local department stores did not immediately respond to requests to discuss their loss prevention policies.
A jury convicted Kramer, 31, of Longview, of first-degree assault with a deadly weapon and other charges Thursday. Kramer could face at least 26 years in prison when he is sentenced next week, prosecutors said.
Kramer's actions were among at least a dozen assaults on so-called "loss prevention specialists" such as Morrison last year, according to the Longview Police Department. There were 36 robberies in Longview in 2011, said Anita Hyatt, the department's crime analyst. Of those, she said, 14 — or 39 percent — began as a shoplifting incident and escalated to a robbery because the thief made some sort of an aggressive move against a security guard or other store employee.
On Jan. 31, for example, a 23-year-old man filled his pockets with watches and jewelry at the Seventh Avenue Walmart, then pulled out a collapsible baton as he scuffled with store security, according to a police report. The suspect waved the baton at two loss prevention officers, then fled.
A few days later, on Feb. 2, a shoplifter at the Ocean Beach Highway Walmart kicked an employee and threatened to cut him with a knife, according to a dispatch log. No weapon was seen.
Beyond Cowlitz County, a 17-year-old shoplifter stabbed a security officer at a Puyallup Macy's in late February. The Seattle Times reported that the injury was not life-threatening.
Morrison said that in roughly the past three years, Fred Meyer and other retailers have switched to a hands-off policy for shoplifters. Previously, he said, security officers could, within certain limits, touch and restrain suspected shoplifters. But Fred Meyer changed that policy, partly because of fear of lawsuits. Management, he said, also wanted to avoid making a scene in front of shoppers and wanted to prevent security staff from getting into potentially dangerous tussles.
But Morrison said the hands-off policy has, ironically, emboldened shoplifters and made the job more dangerous for security officers.
"Everybody knows we're hands-off," he said. "You take the element of fear from the shoplifter."
In recent years, Morrison said, he's noticed "more attitude" from shoplifters, many of whom come back to the store again and again to steal. The suspects recognize security staff and yell across the store to taunt them. The shoplifters also approach loss prevention officers, recite the store's rules and tactics, then continue to shoplift, Morrison said.
"You'll see this smug grin when they come in repeatedly," Morrison said. "They'll wave at you — 'Ha, ha, ha!'"
"It's gotten really bad," he continued. "It's kind of amazing at times."
"Things have definitely escalated," said Kellin Clark, a 35-year-old loss prevention officer who works for Morrison at the Longview Fred Meyer. "The suspects are just more aggressive. Period."
Clark, who has worked at the store for just more than a year, said she believes drug-use has fueled the aggression.
"The longer you're on drugs, the more crazy you get ... the more invincible you feel, the more you feel entitled to other things, such as the store's merchandise."
Shoplifters face misdemeanor charges if they're caught stealing less than $750 in merchandise. The charge carries up to 364 days in jail, depending on a suspect's criminal history. Many are sentenced to a few days or up to a month. The charges can rise to a felony level if shoplifters attack staff, have been banned from the store, are working in an organized group or are carrying cutters to disable security tags, Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor Michelle Shaffer said Friday.
None of these measures are much of a deterrent, Morrison said.
Within 15 minutes on a given day, Morrison said he can spot three people stealing inside of the Ocean Beach Highway Fred Meyer. During last week's trial at the Hall of Justice, Morrison said he was constantly encountering people he'd caught stealing from his store.
In fact, he said, only two other Fred Meyer stores in the area — both in Portland — have worse shoplifting rates.
"We get hit hard," he said of the Longview store.
The shoplifters often work in groups and communicate with their cell phones, Morrison said. Some are fulfilling orders on behalf of "dealers," who pay pennies on the dollar for certain stolen items.
In an effort to outsmart store security, thieves sometimes throw clothing and other shoplifted items over the fence of the store's garden center. They or their friends return later to get them. Some also use pruning shears in the garden section to cut off electronic security tags, he said.
To stop them, the store deploys a few security officers, who wear plain clothes and often wander through the aisles with shopping carts, Morrison said during an interview and in testimony during last week's trial. The store, he said, also has more than 80 cameras, which can pan and zoom in on suspicious activity. In addition, he said, some emergency exit doors have been rigged with a 15-second delay to keep running shoplifters from bursting through them with the merchandise.
Once security staff identify a shoplifter, they follow them out the doors and confront them. If they run, the staff try to recover the goods, but don't give chase.
Security camera footage shows that on Dec. 12, Kramer, who had previously been banned from the store for stealing, simply wheeled his shopping cart of stolen goods through a pair of the store's main doors — and readied a hatchet as he exited. He turned and swung at Morrison, then fled. Doctors were unable to attach Morrison's ear.
Morrison, who is married with four children, said he has had trouble sleeping and has had to live with lingering pain since the attack.
He said he took Ambien, the sleep aid, just 10 days after the incident, then injured himself while walking in his sleep and dreaming about the assault. Morrison said his wife heard him calling that night for a fellow security officer who had helped him confront Taylor. Then, still asleep, Morrison kicked a wall, he said. He said he recently had surgery on his foot to repair the injury and plans to return to Fred Meyer after he heals.
"My wife doesn't want me to go back," Morrison said. But, he said, "I got four kids. I can't just get up and leave a job.... You can't do what I do and not expect to deal with the bad things."