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Rickie Latham’s hands shook as he sat in the Erie County Holding Center in an orange jumpsuit. It’s not that he was nervous. He has, in fact, been sentenced to jail more than 90 times.

He shook because he’s going through withdrawal. He needs cocaine.

Latham is a professional shoplifter. Since 1978, the Buffalo man has been arrested 131 times in Buffalo and nearby suburban communities.

Latham’s eyebrows, goatee and stubble on his head are almost all gray. But his warm brown eyes and smooth-skinned face make it easy to imagine a younger Latham rather than the 60-year-old man in the orange jumpsuit.

He has been stealing small items – cologne, bedsheets, phones, dresses – since he was 24.

Why does he steal?

“Drugs,” said Latham, who acknowledged being addicted to cocaine.

He then sells these small items on the street to buy cocaine. His thefts are petit larceny, a misdemeanor when the value is under $1,000. This way, if he gets caught, he winds up in jail for less than a year.

Drug users across Erie County survive on such small thefts, said Paul S. Piotrowski, the Cheektowaga town justice who last month sentenced Latham to jail.

Many drug addicts such as Latham become professional shoplifters, the judge suggested, and they know what they’re doing. They steal items valued less than $1,000 because if they steal anything more, it’s considered grand larceny and they can go to state prison for more than a year. They also know that there’s no limit to how many times they can be charged with petit larceny.

So as soon as they get out of jail, there’s nothing law enforcement can do to stop them from continuing to steal.

“For as surprising as it may seem that someone could have been arrested that many times, that is not an uncommon occurrence,” said Piotrowski, who sentenced Latham to jail multiple times during his 2½ years as a judge. “There are a lot of individuals who are career criminals. … Many of them are homeless – where they stay with friends and acquaintances and don’t live anywhere – and steal to support a drug habit.

“It is amazing that it can go on as long as it does.”

Cheektowaga Assistant Chief of Police James J. Speyer Jr. has seen Latham get arrested time and again since he began working for the department 27 years ago.

“This guy’s well-known everywhere,” Speyer said. “He’s not the only one; there’s quite a few of them. They’re professional shoplifters.”

Last month, Latham pleaded guilty to a charge of petit larceny after he stole a $76 Calvin Klein cologne gift set from the Macy’s department store at the Walden Galleria on April 28. Piotrowski cited his past charges and sentenced him to six months in jail.

Here is a sampling of Latham’s shoplifting through the years:

• Sept. 20, 2013 – Stole $55.84 worth of men’s underwear at Walmart in Thruway Plaza, Cheektowaga

• May 5, 2013 – Stole $100 worth of sheet sets and purses from Family Dollar on Genesee Street, Cheektowaga

• May 18, 2001 – Stole two cordless telephones from Radio Shack in University Plaza, Amherst. Police also charged him with possessing a stolen warm-up suit from University Medical Bookstore in the same plaza.

• Jan. 23, 1992 – Sentenced to nine months in jail for shoplifting at the Dress Barn, Cheektowaga.

Latham’s Erie County records show 131 different cases with 180 separate charges. Often, he has been arrested on multiple charges, such as stealing from a Walden Galleria shop and being in the mall illegally (he was banned years ago) or resisting arrest. His 131 cases don’t include the ones that are sealed.

And Latham’s 131 arrests are only the instances in which police caught him. It’s estimated that only one in every 40 incidents of shoplifting are caught or identified, according to Speyer. Latham could very well have stolen thousands of times in the Buffalo area since 1978.

People such as Latham, who spend their lives in and out of jail, aren’t a big problem for society, Piotrowski said. They cause more harm for themselves than anyone else.

“Many of them are not violent, which is a good thing,” Piotrowski said. “Many of them go to the stores and steal a lot of merchandise, such as several bottles of expensive cologne that can be sold on the street to support a drug habit, or sometimes, in fairness to them, sometimes they buy food with it because they don’t maintain a conventional lifestyle. … They do things to survive. So consequently, they’re not doing heinous crimes.”

When Piotrowski was chief of the Narcotics Bureau for the Erie County District Attorney’s Office 2½ years ago, he worked with a many addicted people. He began to understand that they were “trapped in this culture” of stealing to survive.

And now as Cheektowaga town justice, he recognizes shoplifters who come before him on regular basis. He started his career in law in the Erie County Holding Center when he was 23.

“So as a young man, I see people today that I saw in 1977, when I started in the Erie County Holding Center,” Piotrowski said. “Now it’s 2014, and both myself and the people that I interacted with in the Holding Center, our paths have crossed again 37 years later.”

The criminal-justice system offers a possible solution to frequent shoplifters who want to stop their habit: Drug Court.

There are about 100 participants in Cheektowaga Town Drug Court currently, and many were never arrested on drug charges. Most come in because they were charged with theft, Piotrowski said. Typically, the Drug Court team helps 50 percent of its clients turn their lives around, according to Piotrowski.

“The Drug Court won’t help me,” Latham said, but Piotrowski said that as long as an arrested person wants the help, the Drug Court offers treatment programs.

Latham is dependent on cocaine, but many Erie County shoplifters are addicted to heroin, Piotrowski said.

Just last month, Erie County’s health commissioner, Dr. Gale R. Burstein, said heroin addiction is a “huge problem” throughout the county, particularly because prescription drugs are harder to find on the streets since the 2012 state enactment of the Drug Reform Act Internet System for Tracking Over-Prescribing, or I-STOP.

There have been at least 17 heroin-related deaths in Erie County this year, according to Mary C. St. Mary, the medical care administrator for the Erie County Department of Health.

And theft to purchase drugs is on the rise.

“We are making more arrests for petit larceny in the local malls than we have in the last couple of years,” said Scott M. Joslyn, chief of police services for the Erie County Sheriff’s Office. “The increase partially could be attributed to the rising drug use.”

The Buffalo News asked Latham if he’ll continue to steal after he finishes his six-month jail sentence in the fall.

“No,” he answered.

But if he does, he’ll keep getting the same sentence.

“When you get someone who is, say, 60 years old and in and out of jail 100 times or more and has been in and out of prison, that usually doesn’t change,” Piotrowski said. “They’re deeply entrenched in a lifestyle and a mindset that they can’t get out of because that’s all they know. Many of them were born into these kinds of problems.”

email: lkhoury@buffnews.com