They have admitted to nearly 200 thefts from Winnipeg liquor stores, totalling more than $30,000 in stolen booze.
The cases of Charles Wood, Tamara Seaton and Jeffrey Hastings, which were heard in different Winnipeg courtrooms Wednesday, provide a snapshot of the city-wide epidemic that shows no signs of abating.
Wood, 33, pleaded guilty to 66 thefts from Manitoba Liquor Marts across the city from Jan. 20 to July 5. Wood, either alone or with assorted co-accused, targeted stores for multiple thefts, including one that was hit 11 times.
"This type of behaviour has become so prolific you can’t walk down the street without someone commenting on it," said Crown attorney Ashleigh Smith, who, with defence lawyer John Corona, recommended provincial court Judge Dale Schille sentence Wood to six months in jail.
Wood’s case – as well as those of Seaton and Hastings – illustrates a pattern of ‘catch and release’ before they were kept in custody pending sentencing.
Wood was initially arrested on April 22 and quickly released on a promise to appear in court May 6. He was rearrested May 3 after more charges came to light, and released on bail two days later. A warrant was issued for his arrest after he failed to appear in court for sentencing on July 23. He was taken into custody Aug. 4 after police arrested him returning to a downtown liquor store he had stolen from earlier in the day.
"It sounds to me like in the last year, his alcoholism has gotten completely out of control. He is clearly drinking to the point of blackout… He wants to get treatment. It’s time for him, given the volumes (stolen) and the drinking we are seeing." - Defence lawyer John Corona
None of Wood’s thefts involved violence or threats, court heard; he ignored all demands to pay as he walked out of the store.
Corona described Wood as an untreated alcoholic and said all the liquor was stolen for his personal consumption. Wood, who is Indigenous and whose family includes residential school survivors, was introduced to alcohol by an uncle at the age of 11, Corona said.
"It sounds to me like in the last year, his alcoholism has gotten completely out of control," Corona said. "He is clearly drinking to the point of blackout… He wants to get treatment. It’s time for him, given the volumes (stolen) and the drinking we are seeing."
Wood had no criminal convictions prior to his sentencing on Wednesday. While it is unusual to order custody for someone who is essentially a "first-time shoplifter," the "sheer volume" of offences demanded jail time, Schille said.
Schille credited Wood 1.5 days for each day served in pre-sentence custody, amounting to six months of time served. Schille sentenced Wood to an additional two years of supervised probation, during which time he is not to go to any liquor store. He must complete counselling as ordered by his probation officer, including residential treatment.
"Unless you make these changes in your life, you are likely to just end up back here," Schille said.
In another courtroom, Seaton, 23, pleaded guilty to 45 liquor store thefts from May 2016 to Oct. 26 of this year. Seaton and a variety of co-accused, including her ex-boyfriend, stole more than $12,000 worth of liquor, some of which was later resold, said Crown attorney Sarah Murdoch.
Seaton "doesn’t appear to care about consequences, doing it over and over again at the same stores where staff presumably came to recognize her," said Murdoch, who recommended provincial court Judge Sid Lerner sentence Seaton to six months in jail.
Surveillance video showed Seaton laughing and "appear(ing) to find it comical," Murdoch said.
“Not a day goes by without this happening… and the public is incensed, quite frankly.” - Crown attorney Sarah Murdoch
"Not a day goes by without this happening… and the public is incensed, quite frankly," she said.
Seaton was arrested in connection to 37 of the thefts on Nov. 9, 2018, and released on bail three weeks later. She was rearrested Oct. 26 and charged with eight additional thefts that were committed while on bail.
Murdoch said the prevalence of liquor store thefts is damaging the public’s confidence in the law and resulting in increased acts of in-store vigilantism, "which is a dangerous situation all around."
Defence lawyer Allie Derwin said Seaton appeared to do well after moving back to Lake St. Martin First Nation following her release on bail, but relapsed after she was evacuated to Winnipeg after the October snowstorm.
"She doesn’t know why she offended," said Derwin, who described Seaton as a follower. "People around her said it was OK, now she knows it was not.
"She knows she’s the person the papers are talking about… and wants to take steps to ensure this won’t happen again," Derwin said.
Lerner reserved sentencing.
Hastings, 22, was sentenced on Wednesday to 45 days in custody after he was arrested for stealing three bottles of vodka from a Portage Avenue liquor mart on Oct. 27. Hastings’ arrest came just three days after he completed a nine-month sentence for 71 liquor store thefts.
"We can get you some… help for your addiction issues, but ultimately, at the end of the day, you have to be the one to take advantage of that," provincial court Judge Sandy Chapman told Hastings. "I can’t force you to not drink… What I can do, of course, is lock you up to keep the public safe and to keep these thefts from reoccurring."
At his July sentencing, court was told Hastings had been identified in surveillance video as a suspect in nine Liquor Mart thefts, when a warrant was issued for his arrest in December 2018. In the months that followed, police would connect him to dozens more thefts before he was arrested on March 10, 2019, and released on a recognizance.
In April, Hastings failed to show up in court and a warrant was issued for his arrest. Police rearrested him on May 2 after he went to the same liquor store that was the subject of his October arrest and stole more than $200 worth of liquor.
A pre-sentence report provided to court shows Hastings grew up in Garden Hill First Nation, the son of a feared gang leader, and has struggled with alcohol and substance abuse since he was 11.
"He used to wake up as a child and drink alcohol first thing in the morning and pass out watching morning cartoons," a Crown attorney told provincial court Judge Dale Harvey.
"I always wanted to get high," the pre-sentence report quotes Hastings as saying. "I didn’t care what high it was."
"I think the best I can do is make the sentence of sufficient length to give the authorities at least the opportunity of getting him into some sort of program and thereby offer some hope to the public that the drain on resources and safety will be stemmed for a little bit longer." - Provincial court Judge Dale Harvey
Hastings shows all the signs of having fetal alcohol syndrome disorder, but a formal diagnosis cannot be made because his mother denies drinking alcohol while she was pregnant, said his lawyer, John Corona.
Hastings stole more than $12,000 worth of liquor, but likely resold much of it, Corona said. He told court that police sources told him Hastings would often steal several bottles from a Liquor Mart and sell half of them to people waiting outside.
"I think he sees (Liquor Marts) not only as a place to get alcohol, but also as a revenue stream of a sort," Corona said.
Harvey appeared to struggle to arrive at an appropriate sentence for Hastings.
"The sheer volume of instances is astonishing," he said. "I think the best I can do is make the sentence of sufficient length to give the authorities at least the opportunity of getting him into some sort of program and thereby offer some hope to the public that the drain on resources and safety will be stemmed for a little bit longer."
Harvey declined to make an order that Hastings pay restitution for his thefts.
"Quite frankly, I don't see the point of making the order," he said. "I know I probably should, but given the circumstances, it's a waste of paper."