Thousands of stolen baby formula tins shipped to China
A Sydney woman raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars exporting baby formula stolen in an industrial-scale shoplifting operation to China before the racket was smashed by police.
Detectives secretly watched Lie Ke, 50, meet with a network of thieves who targeted supermarkets in Sydney, the Central Coast and Newcastle to steal infant milk formula using a common modus operandi of hiding tins beneath mats in trolleys.
Ke, who lives in Carlingford after moving to Australia from China in 2001, bought the stolen tins cheaply from the shoplifting teams before onselling them to customers in China at inflated prices.
One thief told police she would regularly steal between 50 to 100 tins of baby formula a day and Ke would pay her around $4000 per week for the goods.
Often the formula was exchanged in brazen rendezvous in public carparks at shopping centres and Bunnings stores.
Unbeknown to Ke, who claims she did not know the tins were stolen, a police strike force set up in February 2018 was listening and watching her every move and arrested her in August 2018.
The inside story of the operation can be revealed after Ke and her husband Yueqi, 53, pleaded guilty to recklessly dealing with the proceeds of crime.
They will be sentenced in Parramatta District Court next month.
Ke was originally charged with knowingly directing the activities of a criminal group but the Crown dropped the charge because it could not prove she knew the goods were stolen.
According to an agreed fact sheet, police identified at least 10 baby formula thieves who used a similar method to steal tins by hiding them underneath mats or similar items in trolleys in Coles, Woolworths, Chemist Warehouse and IGA stores between November 2017 and August 2018.
"One of the offenders would act as a lookout within the store throughout the process," the fact sheet states.
"The offenders would attend the self-service checkout and distract staff whilst another offender exited the store without paying for the trolley of goods."
After police swooped six thieves gave statements that they would regularly sell the stolen baby formula to Ke, the fact sheet states.
Police surveillance captured images of Ke receiving trolley loads of big boxes and on other occasions her husband Yueqi would meet with the mules.
Police also saw Ke, Yueqi and her son Jian Feng unloading boxes of formula at a Carlingford home, which was owned by Ke's daughter-in-law.
Prosecutors do not allege she or Jian Feng were involved in any criminality.
Ke would meet the shoplifters in a rear laneway behind her business One Stop Nature at Bankstown City Plaza during business hours and also car parks and railway stations after hours in Carlingford and Berala.
Police recorded mobile phone conversations between Ke and her suppliers including one in which Ke switches a meeting from Bunnings to Carlingford Court shopping centre because "(Bunnings) is many people. This way safer than Bunnings".
With enough information gathered, the strike force officers raided Ke's Carlingford family home in August 2018, uncovering more than $215,000 in cash in her house and 4000 tins of baby formula in her daughter-in-law's house.
Investigators also found business records relating to the purchase of baby formula from legitimate wholesalers., but checks revealed none of the purchases were made during the period in which the baby formula was stolen.
The court documents state prosecutors cannot prove all the money located in the raid was the proceeds of sales of baby formula.
However, the documents state that between November 2017 and August 2018 Ke moved $394,000 into accounts controlled by her partner which was "partly proceeds of the sale of stolen baby formula".
Ke bought tins for $16 to $25 from the thieves depending on the type of formula and who she was buying from. Sometimes she texted photos to the shoplifters of a specific formula she wanted.
Tins sell for $30 in Australia but in China they sell for more than $80.
Police seized Ke's phone and found "thousands of transactions of baby formula between customers in China and Lie Ke between November 2017 and August 2018 - these customers were Chinese individuals".
After being arrested, Ke told police she did not know the formula she was purchasing was stolen and that "she only purchased formula from persons who would call her and tell her that they have formula at a cheap price".
Demand for infant milk formula in China spiked after local supplies were contaminated in 2008. Six babies died and 54,000 were hospitalised.
The theft and hoarding of Australian baby formula to sell overseas has led to supermarkets rationing customers to only two tins each.
In relation to its organised theft Robbery and Serious Crime Squad Detective Superintendent Daniel Doherty has said police will continue to pursue those "who seek to make a quick buck at the disadvantage of others."
Originally published as Thousands of stolen baby formula tins shipped to China