Prosecutor: Riverton Walmart Has One Of The Highest Theft Rates in Nation; Criminals Say They Don’t Care If Caught

Longtime prosecutor in Fremont County Ember Oakley said there is a big increase in organized retail theft at Riverton's Walmart and offenders have admitted that a few days in jail is a small price to pay for all the shoplifting they get away with.

Clair McFarland

February 05, 20235 min read

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Wyoming’s legislative Senate Judiciary Committee was unanimous Friday in advancing two proposed laws tightening the state’s criminal justice system – one punishing repeat thieves, and another punishing people who keep fentanyl near children.  

If it becomes law, House Bill 112 would let state prosecutors charge convicted thieves with felony – as opposed to misdemeanor – theft after four prior convictions. The new felony charge would be punishable by up to 10 years in prison and $10,000 in fines.  

Repeat Offenders

A top prosecutor in Fremont County, Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, was the key sponsor on the bill.  

She said repeat misdemeanor thefts are a significant issue in Fremont County and her hometown of Riverton.  

Riverton’s Walmart has one of the highest theft rates in the nation, Oakley said. Small businesses also suffer.  

“We’re seeing this big increase in, like, organized retail theft,” she said, describing how some offenders will steal large quantities of high-end meat, cosmetics or electronics and re-sell those items.  

Some offenders have admitted as much during their sentencing hearings and have said a few days in jail is a small price to pay for their livelihood, Oakley said.  

If it passes, HB 112 would cement into law a remedy that Fremont County law enforcers have sought for years via a workaround: police who encounter a shoplifter at a store will encourage the store manager to have the person trespassed from the store.  

Once that trespass order is in place, a repeat shoplifter at the same store can be charged with felony burglary. 

Cheyenne, Casper Overwhelmed Too 

Dale Steenbergen, president of the Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce, encouraged the committee to pass HB 112, saying theft is on the rise in Cheyenne and law enforcement reports being overwhelmed by it.  

He said the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reported about $50 million cost-of-business losses in the past year due to theft.  

“Let’s be tough on these guys and let’s deter this into the future,” said Steenbergen.  

Committee Chairman Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, said thefts are growing more frequent in his community as well. He said it’s also a safety issue for retail employees, particularly if they’re elderly.  

‘They Want To Feed Their Babies’ 

Tyler Lindolhm, a former state Representative who now is the Wyoming director for Americans for Prosperity, testified against the bill in its current form because it doesn’t have a time limit for those five convictions. 

The felony conviction for the fifth offense could come decades after someone’s crime years when that person’s mostly reformed but slips up, he said.  

Lindholm gave a hypothetical of someone being convicted for four separate thefts for stealing four ribeye steaks, but they cleaned up their lives after that.  

“Ten years down the road, they want to feed their babies,” said Lindholm. “Theft is not right, theft is not OK – but I worry there might be unintended consequences for something like this.” 

Oakley later countered, saying that if a case is too “silly” for a felony trial, no prosecutor is going to hazard his time and a district court judge’s consternation by taking it to that level.  

Don’t Have Fentanyl Around Your Kids 

Rep. Barry Crago, R-Buffalo, presented another of Oakley’s bills, House Bill 111 for Oakley before she arrived at the meeting, emphasizing that fentanyl crimes have been a challenge for prosecutors.  

Though he mostly works in civil law, Crago, like Oakley, works for a county attorney’s office.  

House Bill 111 would make it a felony to have illicit fentanyl in the same room, home or vehicle as a child. 

Methamphetamine is now the only drug that falls under that felony child-endangering category. The charge is punishable by up to five years in prison and $5,000 in fines.  

The committee voted unanimously to advance HB 111 to the Senate floor, where it must survive three votes and the governor’s potential veto to become law.  

“We’re having a hard time getting our arms wrapped around the problem, and this would be another tool for us to use,” said Crago.  

Crago said methamphetamine can cause health issues for anyone who’s around it, and fentanyl can too, “In fact, it can be much more deadly.”  

The bill has provisions for people who have been prescribed methamphetamine or fentanyl.  

Kevin Bohnenblust, executive director of the Wyoming Board of Medicine, supports HB 111 because of those provisions.  

“The board is very happy with this bill,” he said, noting that there are legitimate uses in the medical profession for both methamphetamine and fentanyl. 

Meth can be prescribed to treat ADHD, which Bohnenblust said is counterintuitive, but works. 

There are about 40-60 methamphetamine prescriptions filled in Wyoming a year, he said.  

Fentanyl is a painkiller for severe instances such as burns, orthopedic issues and long-term cancer pain. 

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Clair McFarland

Crime and Courts Reporter