Jonesboro-- 'Tis the season for giving! Right? Well, one local charity doesn't find that to be the case. On any given day, Abilities Unlimited in downtown Jonesboro may find more "takers" than givers. They wage a constant battle over theft of their donations. And we think you'll be surprised as to who is stealing in our special report, "Whose Gift Is It?"
They come to shop and take what is not theirs. Looking through donation after donation to Abilities Unlimited...people pilfer through items intended for the severely disabled and handicapped. We watched as car after car on a recent Sunday afternoon pulled onto the parking lot. A few people brought donations for this charitable organization to sell or reuse. But, within minutes of their departure, someone else would latch onto the donations....as if the items belonged to them. Others acted as if they made a rare find--and hurried off with their prize.
"We've had people walk up and take stuff," said Kathrine May, Human Resources Manager for Abilities Unlimited. "We've had people on bicyles take stuff. People say, 'my uncle says that stuff's just for free for the taking. I can just come over here and get it.' There was some nice shoes over here for me to look at...this one lady told us."
"It's stealing, explains Lt. Nathan Oliver, an officer with the Jonesboro Police Department. "That's what it is."
Lt. Nathan Oliver says taking donated items is a crime and thieves can be prosecuted.
"It's donated property and once it's dropped off," said Lt. Oliver, "It becomes the property of Abilities Unlimited for their use."
Even with two surveillance cameras mounted outside and signs saying specifically that you are being videotaped, people continue to steal here week after week.
"We've had people sit in their car and let their kids get out and get stuff for them," said Penny Pickrell, Abilities Unlimited store manager. "We've had people with their kids in their car and them in their care while they're stealing."
"We've had people with National Guard plates driving through doing it," said Kathrine May. "It just floors me that they're gonna serve our country and then steal from a non-profit agency."
Every donation fills a need. When people steal from Abilities Unlimited and the donation drop-off site, they steal from these people: the clients. People who are developmentally disabled in some way.
Cut out a donation due to theft and you cut off opportunity.
"It proves a job for somebody," explained Darren May, Manufacturing Manager for Abilities Unlimited. "Cotton t-shirts, clothing goes into wiping rags for the local industry. Clothing that may not get sold here is bailed and sold by the truckload to other agencies or brokers who sell that in Mexico or West Africa for people who have less than we do."
"Everything that comes in here has to be sorted to see if something is sellable," said Lorene Gibson, Assistant Director for Abilities Unlimited. "If its stained or ripped or torn, we can't use it. So that has to be sorted through initially. Then the items are hung, sized and tagged and that's all done mainly at our North Church Street facility."
Around 400 severely handicapped men and women are served by Abilities Unlimited in Northeast Arkansas --be it through a job, housing, or services.
"What this does is shows them that they can be a productive part of society," said Gibson. "That they have a purpose in life."
As for the other half of society... local people greedy enough to steal from the handicapped-- they just keep getting more and more brazen in their efforts. It's as if they see this donation drop-off site outside the Abilities Unlimited downtown store as a trading center, or place where items are free for the taking.
Check out that guy-- and other would-be thieves wait to see what's being dropped off.
"Before we added onto the building, we had a fenced in area with drop boxes on it," explained Darren May. "We had people that would get inside the fenced in area. We had cameras on both areas. We had one lady one day spend 40 minutes inside the fenced in area and then we had people outside stealing that didn't know she was inside stealing."
And what about those folks who say... "I'm just looking to see what's here. I haven't taken anything."
"It's really not OK for them to even be back here going through the items," said Lt. Oliver. "You know this would be considered private property back here. It's not their property to go through to search through until they've been given permission by somebody from Abilities Unlimited."
So imagine what happens when we watch and approach people --caught in the act-- taking donations.
"It's not yours and you're taking it," questions Diana.
"Yes," said an unidentified woman in a red SUV.
"That's called stealing, isn't it?" asks Diana.
"No, it's a donation."
"You're taking their donation? So it's OK for you to do that? I don't understand?"
One couple that we watched take things on one Sunday returned the next Sunday. The only difference this time is that we were waiting and watching....
"It's not shopifting from some major retailer," said Darren May. "We're non-profit. Everything we do goes back into our program to support people with severe disabilities. These are people who need the work, need the help, need the services that we provide and when they steal from us, they steal the good stuff from us a lot of times."
A computer scanner, a heavy duty wire rack, even a woman's purse. One Sunday we watched as person after person took donated items. The following Sunday, Darren and Kathrine May, both Abilities Unlimited employees--along with video journalist Keith Boles and Diana Davis returned.
Within less than five minutes of our setting up a camera, a man pulled up to make a donation... But, then he did something else. He picks up a bassinet and loads it into his truck. It's as if he's trading one donation for another.
"Sir, what are you doing?" asks Diana.
"Unloading these clothes," the unidentified man responds.
"Did you put anything in the back of your truck?" questions Diana.
"I put that in there," he says.
"Is that yours?"
"No, I'll put it back."
"Are you aware that's stealing?" asks Diana.
At least this man willingly agrees to put the donation back. The next couple arriving on the scene isn't quite as willing to do so. Watch as they start loading up. Notice the damaged passenger side mirror. Video journalist Keith Boles remembers seeing this vehicle a week before. Same car. Same people. This guy even hangs out the window trying to get a better view of the donation pile. This week, he'll get a view of himself caught red-handed. Watch his friend take off the minute we open the door to say hello. Over and over they insist the didn't take anything, despite our cameras showing they did.
"You didn't put anything into your car?" asks Diana.
"I did not put nothing in there," responds the unidentified woman.
"Can you tell us how you are?"
"What's your last name?
"Do you live here?" asks Diana. "Do you come here quite often?"
"No." the woman says from her driver's seat. "We were driving by and we seen it and we stopped and there was nothing good."
"It's amazing that you say you didn't take anything because we saw you put something in your car."
"I did not take nothing."
"Sir, did you take anything?"
"He doesn't speak English."
Now remember they were here last week. It's Keith's turn to ask questions.
"What about the box of shoes from last week?"
Woman looks over her shoulder to the back of the car.
"What about those headphones you were trying on and the stuff you got from the pile last week?" he asks.
Busted! No comment on that one.
"Are you aware that there's a sign right there that says you're stealing from the disabled?"
"See, I didn't read that." says the woman. "I didn't read that. I'm sorry. I didn't know. I won't be back here."
"Why don't you put it back?" Keith asks.
"You want to go to jail for it?"
"Put that out there, Juan," the woman instructs her passenger to pass clothings out the car window.
"Why did you say you didn't take anything?"
"I did not take it."
Videotape doesn't lie. But for all those who take, there are those who give and never take anything. We found several throughout the day. One in particular caught our eye. He brought a working television set complete with remote and even tried to cover it up for protection.
"I don't need it," explained Tim Harris who donates frequently to Abilities Unlimited. "I've brought other stuff out here."
Tim was not surprised to hear there was a good chance his donated TV might be stolen before the day was through.
"People don't care," said Harris. "Most of them that steal don't need it to start with. They just steal to be stealing."
And not long after that watch what happens.. This man drops off a space heater, checks out the goods--then minutes later comes back with a vehicle. He's just about to get that TV all the way inside when...
"What are you doing?" asks Diana.
"I'm just putting this TV and stuff over here," states the unidentified man.
"We just got you on camera where you took that and you wer about to put it into your vehicle. "
"No, I was just putting this over here."
"So this is your TV?" asks Diana.
"No. this is."
"So why did you pick that up?"
"I just moved it over here," he gestures.
"You were about to put it into your vehicle," said Diana. The video shows him placing it into the back of his SUV.
"Isn't that stealing?" asks Diana.
"I wasn't stealing," he says as he quickly walks away from the camera and drives off.
Remember it didn't take him long to go get his vehicle. That's because as it turns out, he apparently lives just yards away from Abilities Unlimited. That's where we saw his car the rest of the day. And he wasn't the only one just "trying to move" that TV set. Check out this pair. Once they load the TV, we're out the door.
"What are you doing?" asks Diana. "We were just watching you and I saw one of you take a TV."
"Huh, that TV's no good," responds the elderly man.
"Well, is that your TV?" asks Diana.
"That belongs to James," says the man. "He said it wouldn't work."
"This TV? This TV was sitting right there. It is the property of Abilities Unlimited," states Diana.
"Well, James said it didn't work."
Meanwhile, this man's partner in crime appears to be trying to leave him.
"Who was the gentleman with you?"
"He was just up here?"
"He didn't come with you?
"No, he just jumped up."
"Wasn't he in the car with you?"
"He was down here and I picked him up."
"So you just let a man you don't know ride in the car with you?"
"I know the boy. I've known him for years."
"Well, who is he?"
"Well, I don't know."
Now back to that TV.
"I don't want it." insists the man.
"Well, why did you take it?" asks Diana.
"I didn't take it."
"These are proceeds for the disabled."
"James says that I could have it and fix it because they may not want it."
"Sir, I'll tell you something. This TV works just fine. It's a working TV. So I don't know who James is. But, that doesn't make sense."
"I come here to buy stuff all the time."
"If you buy stuff, why wouldn't you go in the store and pay for it?"
Proceeds from donations to Abilities Unlimited help to provide jobs, housing and services for the disabled and handicapped. That's why many people drop off items here.
"I bring stuff here all the time," said Peggy Havdala. " All of our children's used books and used clothes and used toys. I love to bring it here. I myself have a son with a disability."
Time after time, we found that folks taking items from Abilities Unlimited had handicapped license plates themselves.
"Gentlemen, what are you doing today?" asks Diana.
"We were dropping off some clothes."
"Did you take some things too?" No response.
Are you stealing from the disabled?" No response.
"I just saw you load a box in the back of your car. Is this your car? Did you come in this car?
It's at this point they start unloading.
"I notice that you brought things in," said Diana. "But you also took some things. That's not right is it?"
One of the two men shakes his head.
"It's stealing, isn't it," asks Diana.
"Yeah, well. We put it back."
And that's just the thing... so many people think the donations made outside the Abilities Unlimited building over the weekend are free for the taking.
They just don't read the signs... And don't pay any attention to cameras pointing right at them.