Police believe a Langley man is behind 28 thefts of cigarettes worth about $100,000 that were stolen from people he followed from Costco stores.
“It’s definitely an unusual case,” said Sgt. Gary Schenk of the Regional Crime Unit on Friday.
Schenk said a man lurked in the parking lots at Island Costco outlets and then followed those who purchased large quantities of cigarettes — all small business people — to their destinations.
The cigarettes were then stolen from the victims’ vehicles. Ten of the 28 thefts occurred on Vancouver Island.
The first case came to the attention of police in June 2012 when a large quantity of cigarettes was stolen from a vehicle parked on a Saanich street. Police then discovered there had been similar thefts of Costco-purchased cigarettes from vehicles in Greater Victoria and Nanaimo.
“From there, we found offences in Kamloops, a total of five, and offences in the Lower Mainland,” Schenk said.
Investigation of the thefts brought to light a suspect vehicle — a brown Pontiac Montana van using a variety of stolen licence plates. One of the plates was stolen from outside the Long Lake Inn in Nanaimo where a witness saw the theft, and saw a Montana van matching the one police were looking for. The witness gave police a portion of the stolen licence plate number.
Investigators had already deduced their suspect may be from the Lower Mainland because the Island thefts were occurring every one or two months “and when there was an offence in Nanaimo there would almost always be an offence in Victoria either the day before or the day after,” Schenk said.
A search of Lower Mainland vehicles matching the description came up with seven vehicles. A cursory search of the vehicles’ owners turned up a man with a criminal history.
The man was placed under surveillance. On Tuesday, police watched as the man stayed in his parked vehicle at the Nanaimo Costco for six hours. He was there until closing time and there again the next morning when the store opened.
“In about the middle of the day, the officers watched him follow a vehicle ... to a residential neighbourhood in Parksville,” Schenk said.
No theft occurred. The man returned to Costco at 3 p.m. and followed a vehicle to a nearby restaurant. The vehicle owner went in the restaurant, and officers watched the man break into the car and steal $3,200 worth of cigarettes, said Schenk.
The suspect’s van then headed north to the Courtenay Costco where the driver was arrested by police.
Christopher Sharafi, 46, is charged with 13 offences including four counts each of mischief under $5,000 and theft under $5,000, two counts of possession of stolen property and possession of break-in instruments.
Several charges of theft over $5,000 are pending, said Schenk.
Sharafi was remanded in custody and will appear in Western Communities provincial court on Monday.
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