Milwaukee man accused of leading organized theft ring

NOW: Milwaukee man accused of leading organized theft ring

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Hardware stores in at least eight area cities were victims of a coordinated theft ring that ended in criminal charges for a Milwaukee man Wednesday. 

Alberto Rodriguez-Bernal, 33, is accused of leading a coordinated effort to steal tools, heated jackets, and even a masonry saw from a handful of Home Depot and other local hardware stores.

“It kind of caught us by surprise. We’ve never really had any theft problems in the past," Kevin Mifflin, owner of Esch Power Equipment said.

But now the Oak Creek hardware store is part of an organized-theft investigation by Milwaukee County authorities.

Mifflin said thieves visited his store three different times, and stole chainsaws and blowers on two occasions. 

“We were standing at the parts counter, and just saw two guys just walk in and grab equipment and run out the door and jump into a waiting vehicle.”

According to court documents, Esch and Home Depot were two of at least five area businesses the thieves targeted.

“Organized retail crime is a growing problem for all retailers," Home Depot Spokesperson Christina Cornell said.

In the criminal affidavit, a woman named Melissa Rodriguez, 37, told detectives she and others would steal merchandise from stores and sell it to Rodriguez-Bernal.

Rodriguez-Bernal he had a different story.

He told police he was a self-employed handyman, not working due to an injury. And now, he was being forced to buy the stolen goods from a group of men who’d sold him tools before. Rodriguez-Bernal claimed he found the men via Facebook Marketplace, and said they followed him home and threatened him after his first purchase from them.

Rodriguez-Bernal said he bought from the group six different times and paid the men $3,500. He said he'd planned to sell some of the tools on Facebook.

Milwaukee authorities seized 55 stolen items from his home worth more than $14,000.

He’s now charged with receiving stolen property, a felony. His preliminary hearing is Jan. 7.

Rodriguez, the woman who turned Rodriguez-Bernal in, is charged with three felonies, and one misdemeanor, for retail theft. She was bound over for trial and has a scheduling conference on Jan. 23.

As for Mifflin, the holiday thefts are making him more aware of his store.

“Basically you have to probably watch your merchandise more than ever, especially this time of year," Mifflin said.

CBS 58 reached out to Milwaukee and Oak Creek police about other possible suspects, arrests and charges.

Stay with CBS 58 for updates.

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