Okehampton has fallen victim to a spate of shoplifting crime, several stores reported this week as the police confirmed they are working to identify and arrest the culprits.

Several shops including Waitrose, the Co-op and Boots have reported experiencing multiple shoplifting attacks recently, sometimes seeing the culprits walking past the premises with the stolen goods on show.

Sam Riley, manager and pharmacist at the Okehampton Boots branch, said: ‘We’ve had problems going on for years. We know who they are and see them casually walking down the street. There’s a lot of shoplifting in Okehampton. It’s terrible.

‘More police presence in the town would be nice so they can respond more quickly when we call 999. At the moment, we call 999 but by the time the police come the shoplifters have gone.’

The news has come to light following the public announcement by antiques shop owner Nicola Bentley-Lovell who posted a note outside her shop at the end of January this year to let customers know that she was temporarily closing due to frequent shoplifting incidents which included the theft of a ring worth £5,000. 

She previously said of the closure: ‘The shoplifting has demoralised me so much that I had to walk away from my shop and the situation, so I decided to close it while I consider my options and to decide whether to resume trade or just sell up.

‘My shop is my livelihood, not a hobby, collection or fad. It is how I pay my bills and supports my family, so when someone steals from it, it takes money from me directly. 

‘I have owned my shop some twelve years now and over those years I have suffered three break-ins, 14 shoplifters, been harrassed over a two month period and seen a man who thinks it’s acceptable to actually defecate on my shop window.’

At the time, police reported that they were working to catch those responsible and believed the shoplifters were part of a gang travelling across the country. 

Police confirmed they were working in partnership with police in Hampshire, where two more shoplifting incidents believed to be carried out by the same group, took place. 

Mrs Bentley-Lovell, who owns NBL Antiques in the Red Lion Yard, re-opened her shop three weeks ago but does not think that the situation has improved since January.

Though the group previously targeting her shop has not returned, she said that, since opening, she has experienced three shoplifting incidents, including one that happened only hours after she first opened.

She said: ‘I’ve been vigilant and I’ve been watching my CCTV as customers look around and have caught some trying to steal but I’ve missed others. One man took a cane and I saw him walking past my shop on the CCTV later with the cane in his hand.

Mrs Bentley-Lovell has reported the incidents to the police and now has a crime reference number as police officers start searching for the culprits.

PC Matt Hawke, who is investigating the shoplifting incidents, said: ‘We are currently working with two of the supermarkets Co-op and Waitrose to collate evidence, identify and deal with a person who is potentially responsible for a number of thefts from these two locations.

 ‘I would urge any other shops in the town to report any incidents surrounding theft of items to us so we can robustly deal with the suspects. We believe that the main suspect and possibly associates of this person are operating in the town and I would urge shop staff to remain vigilant.’

Devon and Cornwall Police statistics show that between November 2021 and October 2022, there were 1,750 reports of shoplifting in North, East and West Devon - a rise of 52.4 percent on the previous year when 1,148 shoplifting incidents were reported to the police.

This is in contrast to Cornwall where shoplifting incidents rose by 33.6 percent between 2021 and 2022 and South Devon where shoplifting cases fell by nearly ten percent between 2021 and 2022.

Nationwide, the Office for National Statistics reported that police recorded a 15 percent rise across all theft offences, including a 21 percent increase in shoplifting, in the year ending March 2022 compared with year ending March 2021