A shoplifting investigation at a Vermont Wal-Mart revealed that a Rhode Island man had been forcing women to steal from stores across New England, police say.
Vermont State Police reports written by troopers out of the Middlesex barracks describe that their investigation began at a Wal-Mart store in Berlin. In documents obtained Tuesday by necn, police accused 41-year-old Johnnie Hammond of Providence of forcing women to shoplift for him, and intimidating them with threats of beatings.
Police said Hammond was the leader of a theft ring targeting Wal-Mart stores across New England, from the Boston area, to southern New Hampshire, Maine, and the Berlin store.
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Items stolen from one location would be returned to another for cash or credit, police said.
Some of the stolen merchandise, which troopers said they recovered from a vehicle Hammond was using in his travels, included a haul of bed sheets, school supplies and bike parts.
All told, police said they recovered $4,000 in merchandise believed to be from several northeast Wal-Mart stores.
Beyond the alleged thefts, police affidavits filed with the Vermont Superior Court this week painted a disturbing picture of who troopers say did the stealing.
Police accused Hammond of strong-arming several women into being his thieves.
The suspect denied the accusations against him in a court appearance Monday.
Police said they caught up with Hammond Sunday, along with another man and four women he was traveling with. The encounter with police followed reports from the public of erratic driving in the southbound lane of Interstate 89 in Williamstown, according to court documents.
Troopers said they found a gold Toyota Camry parked at the Vermont Agency of Transportation garage in Williamstown. The occupants, who police said told conflicting stories and provided false names, appeared to be having car trouble.
"I began to suspect that [two of the women in the car] may be involved in something that they did not want to be a part of," Trooper James Vooris wrote in his report.
One of the women, whom necn is not identifying because she is described in police paperwork as a victim, told police she was in Vermont against her will.
Police said another woman told them that Hammond , or "Poopie," as she knew him, would threaten to beat her and others if they didn't shoplift for him.
"She also advised she only eats when Hammond buys her food and the last time she ate was the day before in Nashua, New Hampshire," Trooper James Vooris wrote in his report.
That woman said Hammond gave her orders on what to steal. She said he hit her with an electric toothbrush and that she was "very afraid" of him, Vooris wrote, adding that she reported being a "10" on a scale of 1-10 of her fear of Hammond.
That 20-year-old woman was discovered through a police database search to be a missing person from Rhode Island, Trooper Brandon Degre wrote in another police report filed with the court.
Court documents showed a third woman told police she, too, was afraid of Hammond, because she "witnessed him assault girls in the past," including the two other women in the car.
The alleged leader of the theft ring pleaded not guilty to felony charges of retail theft and unlawful restraint.
Hammond also denied a third charge, a misdemeanor, of lying to a police officer, according to court records.
The investigation is still ongoing, Vermont State Police said Monday in a news release.
A check of Hammond's criminal record Tuesday revealed a lengthy rap sheet, which included a past case in Albany, New York, of sex trafficking involving the use of a substance to impair the judgment of the person.
According to the Vermont Superior Court, as of early Tuesday afternoon, Hammond was listed as being jailed at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans for lack of bail.