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String of heists targets New York City’s coldest, sweetest goods

NEW YORK >> A particular wave of crime has yet to crest, a pattern of theft in Manhattan that has penetrated the safest of neighborhoods.

I scream.

The thieves know just where to strike, entering stores and making their way through the aisles, past the diapers, the formula, the razors and deodorant.

You scream.

In response, stores have put in place all manner of security measures. Cameras. Alarms. New locks. Security patrols.

We all scream.

But nothing has stopped the thieves from taking the very specific item — one of life’s enduring, sweet pleasures as summer takes a bow — that they have come for.

For ice cream.

The police have asked the public for assistance in identifying four suspects in a string of ice cream thefts since at least November. The suspects have stolen 1,249 cartons or bars of ice cream and gelato in 11 thefts, the police said. All the thefts took place in chain stores like Duane Reade, CVS and Rite Aid.

“They come at night, like two or three of them, with bags,” Gabriel Rosario said, stocking shelves last week at a Duane Reade near Washington Square Park. “They fill them up and run out of the store.”

They generally favor Ben & Jerry’s, Talenti, Haagen-Dazs. On one day in January, thieves made off with 256 pints of ice cream — including 100 pints of Haagen-Dazs and 100 more of Talenti — in three heists.

“Summertime, they do it all the time,” said a worker in the cosmetics section of a Duane Reade in the Kips Bay neighborhood.

“Two guys came in with duffel bags,” said Jason Valentin, an employee at a Duane Reade five blocks away, recalling a recent encounter. “I saw them and they saw me. They dumped the ice cream on the floor and ran out.” There was only one thing he could do. “Pick it up,” Valentin said. “Put it back.”

Deputy Chief Joseph V. Dowling, with the Police Department’s grand larceny division, said detectives were investigating businesses that may be acting as fences for the stolen ice cream, paying about 25 cents on the dollar.

“They go and resell it to local mom-and-pop stores, bodegas, delis, things like that,” he said. “They transport it in freezer bags with dry ice or those frozen packs. You’re traveling to sell it.”

Thefts got so bad in recent weeks at the New York City grocery chain Gristedes that its owner, John A. Catsimatidis, announced a $5,000 reward for information leading to the apprehension of thieves who had targeted his stores. And on Aug. 21, the police arrested a man and a woman on charges of stealing ice cream from a Gristedes.

Catsimatidis paid the reward to a worker at a bodega who had flagged down the police after the suspects tried to sell stolen ice cream — hot ice cream, as it were — to him.

“They were selling it to anybody they could sell it to,” Catsimatidis said. And selling it as quickly as possible, which is often not quickly enough, given the nature of the goods. “When you buy it from a place like that, you get half-melted Haagen-Dazs,” he said.

He said his stores no longer displayed Haagen-Dazs in stacks. Too easy to shove several pints into a bag quickly. “We put it in only one high, so you have to take them out one at a time,” he said.

When cashiers at a Duane Reade in the Flatiron district see someone behaving suspiciously, they play a recorded warning over the public-address system: “Security, walk the floor.” A large screen near where the ice cream is kept shows the surveillance feed from the camera trained on the cooler. It has not deterred thieves, who have raided that store four times since December — twice on one day, 90 minutes apart.

“It was a guy in a blue shirt,” said an employee of the store, Issa Sow, recalling a recent theft. “The manager came and said, ‘Oh, he stole all the ice cream!’”

At a CVS store nearby, an alarm has been installed on the ice cream cooler, alerting employees whenever anyone — a regular customer, a happy child, a desperate criminal — opens it. Other CVS stores have put locks on their coolers as well, and customers must ask an employee to open them, Dowling said.

“A lot of people are, ‘Oh, it’s only ice cream,’” the chief said. “It’s not. It’s a product. You’re looking at profit loss.”

To Rosario, of the Duane Reade near Washington Square Park, it is more than that.

“It’s sad,” he said. “To resort to stealing ice cream.”

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