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'Dark side of sneaker culture': High-end shoes draw collectors and thieves

A display of high end sneakers at the

A display of high end sneakers at the Sneaker Aquarium in Riverhead, Oct. 15, 2015. Credit: Johnny Milano

          An Editor’s Note published July 12, 2017, about Kevin Deutsch’s reporting appears at the end of this story. 

Caesar Moreno was walking home from his busboy job in Freeport, a new pair of $150 Air Jordans on his feet, when three robbers jumped out of a nearby car.

"Give me the Jordans," one of the men said, according to a police report of the August 2014 incident. Moreno handed over the iconic red and black sneakers; his prized possession, gone in an instant.

"People want the nicest shoes, the newest shoes, even if that means robbing you for them," said Moreno, 19, of Freeport, a self-described "sneakerhead" who continues to collect high-priced Nike models despite the robbery. "If they can't afford them, they'll grab them. That's kind of the dark side of sneaker culture."

At least 356 pairs of high-end athletic shoes like those worn by Moreno have been reported stolen over the past three years in Nassau, Suffolk and New York City, records show -- a 67 percent increase from the previous three-year period, when at least 213 pairs of high-end sneakers were reported stolen across the region.

A little less than half of the 356 pairs of shoes were reported stolen on Long Island, according to records, with the rest reported in New York City.

Authorities say the real number of sneaker thefts probably is higher than 356 since publicly filed law enforcement records don't always specify the kind of shoes stolen, or their estimated value, and some sneaker thefts go unreported.

To calculate the number of stolen high-end sneakers across the region, Newsday reviewed hundreds of court records and police reports mentioning stolen sneakers valued at $100 or more.

High-end sneakers have long held cultural cache among teens and 20-somethings in large cities and suburbs, with the newest, most expensive models -- often worn by star athletes -- among the most popular.

"These high-end sneakers, such as Adidas and Nike, are in great demand and are attractive to the younger generation, due to their being a status symbol," said Det. Lt. Richard LeBrun of the Nassau County Police Department. "It also becomes your basic theory of supply and demand."

New models fuel surge

One reason for the apparent recent surge in athletic shoe thefts: New, limited-edition models from companies such as Nike are hitting store shelves every week, experts say, causing demand to increase and, because of their rarity, increasing sneakers' values exponentially when purchasers attempt to resell them.

Nike has released dozens of Air Jordan models, along with other athlete-endorsed sneakers. Companies such as Adidas and Under Armour have followed with their own high-end models.

The priciest sneakers generally sell from $100 to $300 in stores but can skyrocket in value -- their prices sometimes quadrupling on the streets, sneaker collectors and salespeople said.

Lines at shoe stores on Long Island and in New York City sometimes grow into the hundreds when limited-edition models go on sale. Demand is so high that for some sneaker releases Nike has developed an online raffle system in which a consumer would sign up online and, if selected, the company would send that buyer instructions on where to purchase the shoes.

"It's insane, the passion and pride that goes into this hobby," said Connor Realmuto, a sneaker collector and salesman at Sneaker Aquarium in Riverhead, one of Long Island's largest sneaker shops. "People will get here at 7 a.m. and wait five hours for a shoe. There's such a craze for the shoes . . . it's definitely getting bigger" as a hobby.

Like dozens of other shoe stores across the region, Sneaker Aquarium has been the victim of theft. A man purchased more than $1,000 in sneakers with a stolen credit card there in May 2014, records show.

An increase in thefts

Jamie Brewer, an online sneaker seller from Manhattan who ships several dozen $100 pairs a year to Long Island, said he's hearing from customers about more shoe thefts than at any time since the mid-1980s, when Air Jordans first went on sale.

"It's bad . . . because there are so many hot shoes right now," Brewer said. "People are always going to be looking to steal them, so long as they maintain their value in the market and in the culture. But right now . . . it's happening more."

Another private sneaker seller and collector, Anthony Dalio of Brooklyn, said he's had more than a dozen pairs stolen in the 20 years he's been collecting.

"People broke into my apartment, my car, wherever the shoes were at," Dalio said. "They have a lot of cultural value -- it's not just about the dollars."

The thefts of high-end items, including sneakers, have spurred several municipalities to create public "safe spaces," locations where buyers and sellers can complete private transactions. Suffolk police are studying the feasibility of creating such locations on county property, officials said.

"They take them right off their feet, but no one's going to steal your sneakers if you're in a police precinct parking lot," said Legis. Tom Muratore (R-Ronkonkoma), a former Suffolk County police officer who has introduced legislation proposing safe spots.

Sneaker sales reached a record-high $34 billion in the United States last fiscal year, with Nike and its subsidiary Jordan Brand accounting for more than 90 percent of all basketball shoe sales.

An age-old problem

Sneaker-related crimes have been the subject of controversy since at least 1982, when Nike released its white Air Force 1s -- sneakers named for the presidential airplane and beloved by some consumers for their futuristic design.

The shoes developed a devoted following in big cities. They also became associated with inner-city violence, and were "touted as the sneaker of choice for drug dealers, whose ability to wear unscuffed sneakers signified both wealth and status," Elizabeth Semmelhack, curator of an exhibit on sneaker culture at the Brooklyn Museum, writes in her book, "Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture."

No organization keeps nationwide statistics on sneaker-related crimes, but news stories describing sneaker robberies have appeared in nearly every state in recent years, suggesting the problem persists.

On Oct. 19, a Hempstead Village police officer was injured during a high-speed pursuit of a car whose occupants were believed to have stolen two pairs of Air Jordan sneakers, following a planned meeting with the shoes' seller, officials said.

The victim had agreed to meet the suspects at a gas station in order to complete the sale. The suspects -- one of whom was later arrested -- stole the shoes instead, police said.

Moreno, the Freeport resident whose Air Jordans were stolen last year, said the prospect of being victimized again doesn't worry him.

"If you lose a pair once in a while," Moreno says of sneaker thefts, "then that's the price you've got to pay [for collecting]."


Notable sneaker-related crimes on Long Island


JUNE 1, 2015. Taykim Ross, 18, of Hempstead is arrested after he takes $200, electronics and $150 Air Jordan sneakers from one of two apartments in a Long Beach Road house, police said. He pleaded guilty to burglary and is awaiting sentencing, records show.

JULY 18. A group of men beat and rob a teen at knifepoint on a street in Uniondale, stealing his pink Nike sneakers and his wallet, police said.

OCT. 19.A Hempstead woman driving the getaway car in a high-speed police pursuit through several Nassau communities is arrested and two suspects are at large after they rob a victim of two pairs of Air Jordan sneakers worth $100 each and $500 in cash, police said. The chase ended in a crash, injuring a police officer, authorities said.

Editor’s note: Newsday undertook an extensive, four-month review of reporting by Kevin Deutsch, who covered law enforcement from April 2012 to September 2016. 

The review of the former Newsday reporter’s work began after The Baltimore Sun this year reported that law enforcement and other officials questioned the veracity of Deutsch’s nonfiction book “Pill City” about Baltimore’s drug trade. In addition, questions arose about individuals named in Newsday stories by Deutsch. Book publisher St. Martin’s Press and Deutsch have said they stand behind the book. 

We are dedicated to accurate, factual reporting, to the highest journalistic standards and to maintaining our credibility with Newsday readers. We also are committed to being accountable to our readers. Newsday undertook the detailed review in that spirit and because of the concerns that were raised.  

In late February, as our review was under way, The New York Times reported in an editor’s note that The Times “had been unable to locate or confirm the existence of two people who were named and quoted” in a Dec. 29, 2016, freelance article written by Deutsch. Deutsch “maintains that the interviews and the descriptions are accurate,” The Times wrote. 

Newsday reviewed 600 stories with reporting by Deutsch. We contacted officials in the police departments regularly involved in Deutsch’s coverage. They said they had not had problems with his work. We then focused our research and reporting on individuals who, as described in the stories, would not be considered officials, or well-known, public figures. 

The review found 77 stories with 109 individuals from Deutsch’s reporting whom Newsday could not locate. The main points of the stories were not affected. While two stories about the Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen were based on sources Newsday could not locate, other media reported the main points of those stories but with attribution from different sources.  In this story, Newsday could not locate: Caesar Moreno, Jamie Brewer and Anthony Dalio. Newsday is attaching an editor’s note to each story online that contains individuals we cannot locate.  

Here’s how Newsday conducted the review:  

Researchers and reporters searched local and national public records, sites providing nationwide people searches, databases of business, real estate and conviction records, social media sites including Facebook, LinkedIn and and nationwide news archives. They searched potential alternate spellings and other name variations. Their reporting followed potential leads they found through research, within stories and in information shared by Deutsch during the review. 

Finding people after publication, in some cases years later, can be difficult because of changes in residence, circumstance and contact information. Some may not have given their real names. 

On the law enforcement beat, reporters may encounter people who lead lives that are not reflected in public records or other sources of information that would help locate them. It is possible that some on our list were difficult to find or reluctant to respond to our review because they are undocumented immigrants, those battling or recovering from addiction or people involved in or around illegal activity.  

Some on our list were described discussing crimes in their neighborhoods, and others as relatives, friends or neighbors of victims or as individuals living near or knowing those accused of crimes. 

Others we have not been able to locate, though, are described as bystanders, neighbors, spectators, relatives of drug victims, witnesses to news events or related in some way to people in the news. Still others are described in stories as people actively engaged in public issues, such as activists, protesters and marchers. Many individuals on the list are described as local. 

Deutsch said in email exchanges with Newsday that “I have no doubt about the veracity of the claims of the sources I quoted.” He also said, “Not a single public official, source, or other interviewee has raised any issues with even one of these stories.” 

“It's impossible for any reporter to know whether the name given to him by interviewees on the street--or those reached briefly by phone or email-- is that person's full and legal name, rather than an alias or variation of their real name (maiden names and certain common nicknames/abbreviations for first names are often published by newspapers, including Newsday.). But every one of the names on Newsday’s list was the name given to me by that interview subject, verbatim.” 

During the four months of our review, Newsday shared questions and updates with Deutsch as we progressed in the search for individuals we could not locate. We requested notes and contact information. Deutsch sent us notes he said represented all individuals we were unable to locate and responded over the course of the review by email, sharing information he said was from his recollection and notes. 

Reporters followed up on all information shared by Deutsch. He did not provide contact information for those on our list. Newsday reporters and editors sought unsuccessfully several times to meet with Deutsch to discuss his reporting and to review his notes together to ensure we were not missing contact information or other details that might help locate individuals. Deutsch maintained that the notes he shared “serve as evidence of interviews” with each source.  

Deutsch said he kept contact information in a Rolodex he left behind at Newsday’s main office and in a company-issued cellphone he returned within a week after resigning on Sept. 6, 2016. Editorial staff did not find a Rolodex or other notes at our office, but found notes left at Newsday’s desk at a courthouse pressroom where he worked. We shared them with Deutsch and he confirmed they were his. As per company policy, the contents of the cellphone had been deleted immediately after Deutsch returned it to Newsday. 

Maintaining the trust of our readers is essential to our mission.  If we are able subsequently to locate any individuals, we will update our stories. 

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