For more than 20 years, Bill Jones made his living stealing merchandise.
He made a very good living actually — typically raking in more than $100,000 annually for what he describes as “just a few hours of work a week.”
“I lived a pretty good life — at least I thought it was a good life,” he told a packed crowd of retail shop owners and law enforcement officials Feb. 13 during a Retail Crime Forum in Farragut Town Hall.
“I traveled, and spent money. You could fill up football fields with [all that I stole].”
Jones turned his life around about four years ago in a very dramatic fashion and has worked to right those years of wrongs ever since.
Last week’s meeting is just one of many Jones addresses on a regular basis, typically with Glenn Alred, Organized Retail Crime Manager for Kroger and president of ALERT Mid-South, a non-profit that helps officials and business owners combat theft.
Jones sees it as a way to make up for his past, although Alred said he believes Jones “has more than repaid his debt.”
“It is a privilege and an honor to stand in front of you guys today — a group of people that, for a long time, I fought against,” a visibly emotional Jones said.
“I am not proud of who I was. I did a lot of bad things.”
Jones started slow, stealing CDs, which in the beginning he sold at flea markets, which “are filled with stolen merchandise,” he said. But he soon realized if he sold items to others, for them to sell, he could make money without any long-term responsibility for the property.
Blockbuster was one of his prime targets.
“You can talk about how things have changed, that contributed to them going out of business, but really, it was because of guys like me,” he said.
Not only was the money good — and easy to come by — but Jones said he justified his theft by thinking he was really getting back at retailers for “ripping off the little guy.”
Eventually, his conscience demanded a dramatic change, and he contacted law enforcement officials, offering to “return” a truck-full of stolen merchandise he had gathered from a storage building.
That odd-but-heart-felt event led Jones to Alred.
“I got a phone call from a law enforcement friend, who said he had someone I needed to meet,” Alred recalled.
“They had Bill, who [decided to stop stealing and] had a truck load of stolen merchandise that he wanted to return. No one was sure how to go about that, and they called me.
“I talked to him for about an hour at an abandoned gas station, just getting to know him, and hear about his story, and we both agreed it was time for him to stop.”
“I have heard that a million times,” Alred said, describing thieves who claim to have reformed. “And, just like with all the others, I thought he was full of crap, and I would maybe get to use him to help us a time or two, and he would go right back to what he had been doing.
“But, he proved me wrong, and has continued to try to repay his debt.
“I know I have learned from Bill as much, if not more, than he learned from me,” he added.
Jones’ life was initially difficult since he decided to change it. He said at times he was homeless and lived in a shelter.
“I went from having everything, to literally, having nothing,” he said. “I could have given up and gone back to a life of crime at any point, but I had made the decision to stop, and kept going.”
“I think he felt like he owed all of us, [too],” Alred said.
Life is much better for the reformed Jones today. In addition to his speaking engagements, Jones works out every day and heads up a ministry he started.
Alred and Jones travel together frequently as part of an ongoing program to help retail store owners and law enforcement lessen the impact of rampant merchandise theft. Alred said “people are learning all the time” from Jones’ talks.
Merchants are in a difficult position to combat theft, as their focus is on customer service and they already have a monetary amount built into their budgets for anticipated shoplifting, Alred added.
“But they are learning,” Alred said, commending Kroger for consciously hiring former law enforcement as part of its organized retail crime management teams. That detail applies to Alred, too, who had more than 17 years in law enforcement before joining the company.
Knox County is part of Alred’s territory, saying East Tennessee “is the worst” area for these types of crimes, and blamed the raging drug problem.