After finding a warehouse full of stolen shoes, police struck on a “Cinderella solution,” letting the public claim shoes that fit.
Published: March 6, 2010
SEOUL, South Korea — In South Korea, where people often remove their shoes before entering homes, restaurants or funeral parlors, it is a nagging problem: people walking off with others’ shoes, either by mistake or, sometimes, intentionally.
Still, Detective Kim Jeong-gu’s jaw dropped recently when he opened the warehouse of an ex-convict in Seoul and found 170 apple boxes packed with 1,700 pairs of expensive designer shoes, sorted by size and brand, and all believed to have been stolen.
“Shoe theft is not unusual here,” Detective Kim, 28, said. “But we gasped at this one.”
The 59-year-old suspect, a former convict identified only by his last name, Park, was a onetime used-shoe vendor who had been convicted twice in the past five years of pilfering shoes and operated around funeral homes, the police said.
Attached to major general hospitals, such facilities have 20 to 40 rooms where grieving families receive guests who bow on the floor in a show of respect for the deceased. They usually arrive in their best shoes and invariably leave them outside. They also linger for a while, eating, drinking and catching up with relatives, old friends or colleagues who have come for the same service.
For Mr. Park, the police said, stealing shoes was a case of if the shoe fits, take it. Last month, Mr. Park, disguised as a mourner dressed in black, strolled into the funeral parlor of the Samsung Medical Center in Seoul, took off his cheap footwear, paid his respects and then slipped on an expensive pair and left.
He hid the shoes behind a tree and returned in sandals. He repeated this twice before he was caught by Detective Kim. The hospital’s security staff members had been scrutinizing images from security cameras after a guest complained about losing a pair of shoes, and they alerted the police when they found Mr. Park behaving oddly, said Chung Jae-hong, a hospital spokesman.
“He admitted stealing three pairs that day,” Detective Kim said. “But he insisted that he had bought the rest of the shoes from used shoe dealers and had intended to resell them. But he could not explain how a jobless man like him, living in a small rented room, could buy so many designer shoes. We believe he stole them all.”
Mr. Park, now behind bars, was not available for comment. Police records showed that he was sentenced to one and a half years in prison in 2005 for stealing shoes, but that the sentence was suspended. In 2008, when he was arrested again and fined $4,300 for the same crime, he was found with 1,200 pairs of shoes.
He was allowed to keep most of them because no one claimed them, and the police could not prove that they all were stolen.
While few shoe thieves operate on the scale of Mr. Park, his is by no means an isolated case. Losing shoes, either to thieves or to drunken people who mistake others’ shoes for their own, has become such a common problem here that many restaurants have shoe lockers for customers or hire “shoe arrangers,” part-timers who keep an eye on the customers’ shoes.
Some places hand out black plastic bags so patrons can keep their footwear with them while dining. Still, most restaurants do not take such precautionary measures, simply putting up a sign: “We are not responsible for lost shoes.”
“It’s distressing when you have a good meal and come out, only to find your brand-new boots gone,” said Weon Yeun-suk, 48, a homemaker in Seoul, who has lost her shoes twice in recent years. “Once, I was all dressed up for Sunday and yet had to cancel everything and walk back home, wearing a pair of oversize men’s rubber sandals provided by the restaurant owner.”
Many people who take others’ footwear while drunk do not bother to return them, said Cho Chang-hyun, 53, who owns a restaurant in Seoul and recently blogged about shoe-snatching.
“This happens quite often in my place,” Mr. Cho said. “Customers who lost their shoes demand compensation, and they overprice their lost shoes. It’s part of the restaurant’s business to negotiate a settlement.
“The worst are customers who came in dirty sneakers and now claim that they have lost expensive leather shoes.”
Mr. Cho recently installed a closed-circuit camera to fight shoe theft.
After catching Mr. Park, officers at the Suseo Police Station in southern Seoul faced a new problem: how to find the owners of the shoes recovered from his warehouse. Few people, or shop owners, take the trouble to report stolen shoes to the police.
Finally, the police came up with what they called the “Cinderella solution.”
For four days last month, they spread out Mr. Park’s footwear on an outdoor basketball court and let anyone who claimed to have lost shoes drop by and try them on — all 1,700 pairs, if they liked. But before doing that, a claimant was required to write down his or her shoe size, design, color and brand to limit the chances of a person’s taking someone else’s pair.
About 400 people showed up, but only 95 found their shoes.
The police said there was a decent chance that Mr. Park would eventually keep most of those unclaimed shoes.
“But we hope our crackdown will scare away shoe snatchers for a while,” Detective Kim said.