Shop Lifting 2
The modus operandi usually abbreviated to MO of the Duff sisters relied on the similarity in their appearance, despite the age range from seventeen to thirty two. They were of similar height and their hair was cut to the same length, almost grazing their shoulders, and was a dark blonde with silvery highlights. They were similarly proportioned, neither too overweight nor too slim, unless they were pregnant and they wore almost identical clothes. Each of them had at least one small child, and two of the children were mixed race; they would dress the children in very similar clothing. The family acted a lot like a pack of lionesses in the way they cared for their children; it was often difficult to know which one of the sisters was the mother of any particular child..
The sisters would go into the stores usually in a group and then split up as they wandered around looking at clothes, making a display of their selection, holding the items up and waving them around to distract the store detectives. Some of the items were then secreted in the back of a pushchair. The one who had taken the clothes would then switch her pushchair with child to another of the sisters, and take that one’s child.
Normally the store detectives would wait until the sister they thought they had seen take something from the shop and hiding it at the back of their child in the pushchair was outside the store. By that time she no longer had the stolen items and could look aghast at being stopped and accused of theft. Sometimes one or other of them would be caught but never all of them at the same time.
That is until CCTV…..
When I began my career at the Bar, I was instructed to prosecute a large number of cases of shoplifting for some of the large department stores in Oxford Street, London. The defendants were usually women and the items they stole ranged from expensive scarves to pairs of knickers. Often the women concerned were suffering from depression or had other problems and the thefts were largely a cry for help. They would appear at Marlborough Street Magistrates Court usually pleading guilty so that all I had to do was open the facts to the Magistrate. I would have about six or seven of these cases on each occasions and I always dreaded getting them mixed up and in outlining the facts would say the defendant had stolen six pairs of knickers and two bras instead of two pairs of knickers and six bras.
Later on I found myself representing a group of five young women for whom stealing from stores was a way of life. The five were sisters called Duff and, not surprisingly with that name, the family were Scottish by origin. They were travellers, moving from place to place following the horse fairs around the country. When I came to meet them they were living in the Buckinghamshire town of High Wycombe and had been there for several years after their father had an accident. He had tried to park the car and the caravan he was towing, by reversing into a lay by. As he did so the back of the caravan hit a concrete lamp standard. Mr Duff got out of the car to check the rear of his caravan at which point the lamp standard broke and part of it fell on to him. He did not survive.
I first became involved with the family when the partner of one of them was facing a charge of assault. The trial took place at Aylesbury Crown Court, a rather shabby building with inadequate facilities. At the end of one of lunchtime adjournments, I needed to visit the toilet before the afternoon session began. The only toilets female members of the Bar could sue were shared with members of the public. When I went into one of the cubicles I found a collection of clothing all with their price tags attached, clearly stolen from the local branch of Marks and Spencer. I spoke to the usher and she called a police officer who took one look at them, his eyes rolled upwards and he said. ‘Oh, the Duff sisters.’
Of course there was no evidence to link the clothes to any of the young women, only their reputation – they were banned from every Marks and Spencer’s store in the UK.
But that was just the beginning of my contact with these charming thieves.
More next week.