Sixteen years ago, Winona Ryder went into a Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, stole more than five grand in merchandise, and got caught. And, as the court proceedings unveiled, it was apparently not her first time using her five-finger discount. Later, prosecutors would argue she'd had an ongoing relationship with the compulsive criminal behaviour. At the time, she was America's beautifully dark sweetheart, and was making millions of dollars a year.
It's an all-too-familiar anecdote—the privileged wind up damaged and develop less-than-flattering tendencies. And if you're reading this and you live in the Western world, you're probably part of that (at least, to some extent) privileged population. We all have vices. We all have issues. We also all judge.
According to Merriam-Webster, the term kleptomaniac is derived from the Greek word kleptein—which means "to steal"—and is often a word pinned on those who steal when they don't need to (i.e. the opposite of Temple of the Dog's "Hunger Strike"). The word itself conjures up convictions and opinions: Is it an illness? Is it a scapegoat? Is it a term used by people who aren't sure what the hell it is?
Regardless of how, when or who uses the word "kleptomaniac"—there are countless accounts of people being caught or coming forward with compulsive, adrenaline-seeking behaviours buried deep in no-reason theft.
According to Statistics Canada, there were 504,113 non-motor vehicle theft violations in 2015—or, about 1.4 percent of the country's population—but that's only representative of those who have been caught. I decided to pick the brain of someone who's still on the run.
VICE: Why do you feel the compulsion to steal?
Brandon*: No clue, it started when I was a kid. Earliest I can remember would be elementary school. I stole a Charizard Pokemon card from a kid in my class. Then secretly slipped it back in his bag because I felt like a piece of shit.
How often do you feel and act on those compulsions?
It's very situational. As a teenager, I would act on it 90 to 100 per cent of the time, but these days, I've learned to control it quite well. There [were] some bad times where it was almost every day that I had to get my "fix"—even if it meant stealing something I had absolutely no need for. These days I rarely feel or act on the compulsions.
You have a good job and a good family—why do you think you grew up with the desire to steal?
I wish I had the answer to that. I think it's as simple as: it started so small then the urge grew as I did. It really didn't help that I always got away with it.
Behind closed doors, you self-identify as a kleptomaniac—do you think you have a disease or are you just a criminal?
I think it's a mix between both. There have been instances where an opportunity arises and even without wanting to, I've committed a crime. That makes me think I'm a kleptomaniac. Other times, I had spent days or even weeks planning how I'm going to pull something off—[and] because of that, I will agree, I'm a criminal. As a side-note, I do have a conscience and would always try to stray away from stealing from regular people, usually just major businesses that wouldn't be as affected by it.
What's the highest-stakes thing you've ever stolen?
There's been an occasion where myself and a few guys had something come up and we needed some heavy equipment, so we stole a loader. Not one of those small dinky ones someone may have in their yard—this thing was easily worth $200,000 or more. It turned out to be a pretty stressful situation because the controls were all jimmy-rigged—there weren't even any keys.
It didn't take us long to figure out the sequence of buttons to get it started, but we didn't even think about how we would get it turned off. We spent at least an hour trying to get the engine off. We tried stalling it on hills, beating the shit out of parts of the motor with a fire extinguisher, then one of the guys just started pulling and pushing everything he could in the cab. Pulling back the gas pedal killed it.
I consider that high stakes because of where we were and who we suspected owned the machine—if the owner showed up, he likely would have dealt with the crime himself. If the police did get called, we could have been facing jail time.
Is the rush of being a thief worth the risk of landing up in jail?
Not at all. There's a lot of other ways to get your heart beating than stealing, but this was something I was good at, and, unfortunately the more I did it, the better I became.
Do your friends know you steal as often as you do?
Of course. Growing up, I would often just do it for the thrill, so a lot of what I stole would end up being given away. I would rarely steal something and keep it or sell it for profit. I just enjoyed the rush or challenge of pulling off a job. Sometimes I would go so far as to take orders and steal what my friends needed, but couldn't afford at that point in their life.
When was the last time you stole something and what was it?
I shoplifted. It was a shirt on sale for $15.99 and I still stole it. I can't say whether or not this was the kleptomania or criminal in me, but I had about 10 different other items draped over my jacket, then when I got to the cash and put everything down, there was one T-shirt that tucked into a groove in my jacket, so I just went with the flow and dropped $200 instead of $215.
Will you ever stop?
Here's to hoping—I'd like to turn it into a gift instead of a curse. There's hackers out there —which Motherboard has written about—who contact major corporations and warn them of how easy it is to breach their cybersecurity. I'd like to do that, but for bettering businesses' means of stopping people like me, because in most cases, it's like taking candy from a baby.
What's the most dangerous situation your addiction has put you in?
I tried to stay away from anything too dangerous. But I did make counterfeit money for a little while. That was when I was a minor, so it wasn't too sketchy.
I also had a system set up at one of my jobs where I dealt with major corporations like Coke, Pepsi and a Canadian telecom. They were purchasing thousands of dollars worth of product on a regular basis, and their employees would sometimes throw in a few products for themselves on the company's dime. So I decided to get in on the action myself. I'd overcharge or increase quantities on sales on accounts that were too big to pick up on it, then at the end of the day, balance sales of goods sold with the money that came in that day. Somedays I'd go home with hundreds of dollars.
That isn't exactly dangerous, but it went on far too long, and, had we been audited, it wouldn't have been a happy ending for myself or the businesses reputation.
Do you think having kleptomaniac tendencies makes you more vulnerable to other psychological disorders, like pathologically lying or sociopathic tendencies?
You'd have to ask a psychologist if those things correlate. All I can say is that to do what I have, I had to lie and deceive people, and that sucks. I don't consider myself a pathological liar and I don't think I'm a sociopath considering I have a conscience and I care about people and their feelings. Everyone sees things differently—some days I feel like Robin Hood, and other days I feel like a wannabe anarchist that's really an arrogant egotistical thief.
So to answer your question, I don't buy that it makes me more vulnerable to other psychological disorders, I think sometimes i just don't give a fuck.
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