Police search for diaper thieves as replacements flood Durham nonprofit

akenney@newsobserver.comJune 5, 2014 

— The Diaper Bank of North Carolina has survived the worst and possibly only heist in the diaper-donating community’s recent history.

Since Monday, kind hearts and corporate do-gooders have replaced, several times over, the 13,000 nappies that a thief reportedly cleared out of the Durham nonprofit’s office.

Still reeling from the theft and an international surge of attention, the Diaper Bank was preparing to accept a donation Friday morning of some 40,000 diapers from Procter & Gamble, the maker of Pampers.

Police investigators, meanwhile, were working away at the case’s most difficult questions: Who steals 800-odd pounds of diapers, and why?

Diaper Bank founder Michelle Old didn’t believe what she saw on Monday morning. She’d come with her three kids to the church that houses her nonprofit, hoping to run a large donation to a partner charity.

“Did I leave the room this way?” she thought as she saw the strewn diapers and half-assembled packages.

Then her 9-year-old daughter pointed to the bare shelves. The nonprofit’s supply of its most-demanded diapers – sizes 2 through 4 – had been wiped away. The storage unit upstairs, little known to volunteers and clients, had been robbed, too.

It felt “like I had been punched in the stomach,” Old said Thursday.

This, after all, was her baby. The idea for the Diaper Bank came to her about 2-1/2 years ago, as she and her husband fostered a baby boy with a terrible diaper rash.

Running through pack after pack of diapers for the boy – who is now her son – she wondered how someone less affluent could handle such a bill.

By June of 2013, she was accepting the first donations for the Diaper Bank of North Carolina, joining the ranks of about 260 such organizations nationwide. She has collected about 140,000 diapers since.

With the weekend theft, Old saw her operation slam to a stop. She had to tell all the nonprofits that have come to expect her deliveries that she wouldn’t be coming.

“We had to cancel all of our distribution,” she said.

Donations piling up

The Diaper Bank asked for help on Facebook, and supporters, including Carolina Parent magazine, brought the message to manufacturers like Procter & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark, maker of Huggies.

Between individuals and large companies, the donations were piling up within days.

“I’m at my house. and I can’t get in,” Old said by phone. “I cannot get in because of all the diapers on my porch.”

Stories have appeared in news outlets as far abroad as Sweden, and the Los Angeles Times reported its own version.

With that attention has come a reminder, Old said, of the widespread demand for services like the Diaper Bank.

“We are getting calls from all over the United States of people needing diapers,” she said. “The word is out. I don’t think people realized, this is a need everywhere and a majority of counties across the United States do not have diaper banks.”

The rarity and scale of the crime also guaranteed attention.

“Certainly, I’ve never heard of a significant theft like this from diaper banks before,” said Joanne Goldblum, founder of the National Diaper Bank Network.

High-dollar items

The crime, however, may be similar to previous outbreaks of retail theft. Diapers are ubiquitous, compact and easy to sell, just like laundry detergent and other household goods that have been the target of thieves in recent years.

“Basically what we’re talking about is organized retail crime,” said Detective Mike Lusk, who helped bust a ring of diaper thieves in Puyallup, Wash.

“They were skimming from our local grocery tires, high-dollar items – name brands that were preferred by most people, the Huggies, the Tide, the Clorox, the jumbo packs – taking them to smaller stores and reselling them,” Lusk said, citing drug addiction as a nearly universal factor among the suspects.

Wake County, similarly, was once found to be a stop in a black-market trade route for baby formula, according to Capt. Don Hamilton of the Cary Police Department.

In Durham, Old already is hearing rumors that packages of diapers with her nonprofit’s labels are showing up for sale on downtown streets. The retail cost of diapers varies by brand and size of the pack. For example, Walmart sells a 50-pack of Pampers Baby Dry for $25.

Old said she is investing in a stronger set of locks, but most of her concern is getting the influx of new donations to her group’s nonprofit partners.

Besides Procter & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark, the Diaper Bank’s new benefactors include the owner of the Fayetteville wholesale distributor FreeCo and dozens of individuals.

In all, the bank expects to receive more than 80,000 diapers – but that’s only a few months’ supply.

The Durham Police Department has declined to comment on its investigation.

Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC

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