Local Police Work Leads to Alleged Retail Theft Ring Arrests

LOWER POTTSGROVE PA – Two alleged leaders and three additional members of a “high-volume, organized retail theft ring,” which primarily targeted Lowes and Home Depot stores to steal seized merchandise valued at almost $100,000, have been arrested and face a long list of charges, Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele and Lower Pottsgrove Police Chief Rick Bell said Friday (June 3, 2022).

The thefts spread across Montgomery, Berks, and Lehigh counties. The potential of a crime network was discovered last December, when Lower Pottsgrove’s police department determined that local thefts seemed to be part of a bigger operation.

Arrested and preliminarily arraigned Thursday (June 2) were Joseph A. Payea, 67 (at top left), and Penelope L. McClain, 49 (right), both of Macungie, Lehigh County. Steele said they led “the corrupt organization.” Also arrested on felony charges related to the theft ring were three other defendants, whose names have not yet been announced.

The township department’s work prompted an ensuing investigation that ultimately also involved the Montgomery County and Lehigh County detective bureaus, Pennsylvania State Police, and assistance from loss prevention units of Home Depot and Lowes where the bulk of the goods were stolen.

Steele claimed Payea used social media or text messages to provide “shopping lists” of desired merchandise to a group of individuals who suffered from substance use disorders. They obtained the merchandise by stealing it. The goods included Milwaukee- and Dewalt-branded power tools, generators, and electrical wire.

Payea and McClain paid their “sub-operators” in cash, at roughly half or less of retail value for the stolen merchandise, the announcement stated. Once in hand, it was then re-sold at a slight mark-up but still at well below-market value. Facebook Marketplace, personal sales, and high-volume “mud sales” served as venues, according to authorities.

The investigation found the lower-level individuals “would then purchase illegal drugs such as heroin (and) fentanyl with the cash, furthering their addiction.” Steele declared that act as “unconscionable.”

The theft ring “caused the targeted businesses to suffer significant losses, both through the thefts themselves, and through the loss of customers who bought the stolen merchandise from the defendants,” Steele reported. “At one point, the two main defendants made more than $50,000 in one day’s sale of stolen items at a mud sale.”

Under search warrants executed when Payea and McClain were arrested, Steele said investigators uncovered “a large quantity of tools, mostly new, in unopened, store-packaged boxes. More than 500 tools and tool components, approximately 50 chainsaws, and 67 spools of electrical wire, as well as other stolen merchandise were seized.

Loss-prevention experts evaluated the seized merchandise, scanning their universal product codes to determine retail price and originating store. They estimated its total retail value to be $99,721.53. Law enforcers also seized an additional $88,444 in cash. It included some marked bills that were used by authorities during a controlled purchase of stolen merchandise, Steele stated.

Beyond the undercover buys of stolen items, the joint statement noted, the roughly six-month investigation also included the use of physical surveillance, fixed surveillance, cell phone call detail records, cell site analysis, and search warrants.

Both Payea and McClain were charged with operating a corrupt organization, conspiracy, dealing in the proceeds of unlawful activities, organized retail theft, criminal use of a communications facility, receiving stolen property, criminal solicitation to commit retail theft, and related charges.

Magisterial District Justice Edward Levine set bail at $500,000 unsecured for Payea, and $250,000 unsecured for McClain. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for June 15 (Wednesday) at 10 a.m. before Magisterial District Justice James P. Gallagher. The case will be prosecuted by county Assistant District Attorney Kelli McGinnis.

Photos provided by the Montgomery County District Attorney’s office