500,000 rounds of stolen ammo? Delaware AG questions whether Christiana Mall Cabela’s store tolerated shoplifting scheme

Authorities say they have heard for years that stolen ammo from the store went to drug dealers and violent gangs.

The guns and ammo section of Cabela's

Ammunition is now kept below and behind a counter at the Christiana Mall Cabela's store. Until the subpoena was sent, ammo was out on the sales floor. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

A trio of Delaware police officers conducting surveillance at the Christiana Mall Cabela’s store hit paydirt in December — a discovery that now has prosecutors in a heated court fight with the retailer that specializes in hunting, fishing, and camping gear.

The cops say they watched 38-year-old Danielle Brookens emerge from a black Mercedes and walk into the cavernous store.

One officer followed Brookens inside and saw her pushing a shopping cart with merchandise covered with her coat, court records show.

Police say she left without paying or being stopped by store employees. But when a detective wearing a marked police vest approached Brookens, she ditched the cart and ran toward the Mercedes.

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Brookens jumped inside and told the driver to bolt, but the officer opened the door first and took her into custody.

Inside the shopping cart, however, detectives found what they were looking for — ammo.

Brookens, who has a conviction for oxycodone possession and is prohibited from having firearms or ammunition, had walked off with 18 boxes containing 2,100 rounds of 9mm bullets.

Brookens has since pleaded guilty to possession of ammunition by a prohibited person and was sentenced to a drug diversion program.

But it’s what she later told an investigator for Attorney General Kathy Jennings’s office that triggered the court battle between the state of Delaware and a company that bills itself as the “world’s foremost outfitter.”

Brookens said she’d been shoplifting at Cabela’s for more than a year, and had stolen large amounts of ammo more than 20 times, court records show. She also claimed that store employees and at least one supervisor knew her, but didn’t “typically confront” her about shoplifting, according to a court affidavit filed by state investigator Pat Malone.

Brookens claimed to have sold the ammo for about one-third of its value — netting more than $100,000 — to Delaware pawn shops as well as drug dealers in Philadelphia and Dover, the affidavit said.

Brookens’s estimate of how many rounds of ammunition she had lifted herself: about 500,000.

Ammo ‘shouldn’t be left on a sales floor’ to encourage shoplifters

A manager at the store who identified himself only as John told WHYY News he was not working there “before whatever was going on was going on” and Brookens was arrested, but nevertheless disputed the account she gave to Malone.

“That’s impossible,’’ the manager said. “I mean, that’s huge.”

He might have a point, based on her account. Even if Brookens had shoplifted at the store 50 times — she only said it was more than 20 — she would have had to steal  10,000 rounds each time to accumulate 500,000.

That’s nearly five times the 2,100 rounds she was caught with in December.

But her revelations, coupled with other information gathered by authorities, led Jennings’s office to try to determine whether Brookens could have pilfered a half-million rounds herself, if others shoplifted tens or hundreds of thousands more — and whether the store actually tolerated such massive financial losses.

Boxes of ammunition sitting on a shelf
Brookens told a state investigator she shoplifted about 500,000 rounds of ammo when it was kept on the sales floor. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Authorities had been hearing for years about the Cabela’s store off Interstate 95 which opened in 2014 — that it was a prime target for people looking to steal ammunition that sometimes ended up in the hands of drug dealers and violent gangs, and that it fueled a plague of Delaware shootings.

The state has since alleged in court records that shoplifting of large amounts of ammo was possible because security at Cabela’s was “lacking” and boxes of bullets were stocked on showroom shelves and tables rather than stored, even locked, behind a counter.

That allegation is part of a state subpoena, issued in February, for internal records about how Cabela’s stored, protected, and accounted for ammunition at its Christiana Mall store.

The subpoena seeks information such as:

  • Former and current policies on ammunition sales, placement and displays, loss prevention, security, and communications with law enforcement, from the Christiana Mall Cabela’s and other Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops stores within 100 miles.
  • Inventory records for ammunition at the Christiana Mall store, plus documents that can help investigators identify loss rates for ammo.
  • Video footage of suspected theft of ammunition and response by employees, and documents pertaining to any such footage that was later deleted.
  • Communications relating to ammunition that was stolen or unaccounted for, including internal investigations and reports, or outreach to law enforcement.
  • Names, addresses, email addresses, and phone numbers of all employees involved in security or loss prevention at the Christiana Mall store.
  • Personnel records of any loss prevention or security employee who was fired or allowed to resign.
  • Requirements for employees to get assigned to the gun and hunting departments.

Jennings now charges that Cabela’s has been “stonewalling” by refusing to comply with the subpoena, except for producing three pages of documents, one of which was heavily redacted. The documents Cabela’s provided have not been made public.

Cabela’s has raised several objections in court, including the argument that the subpoena is “overbroad as it requests documents and information” that the store doesn’t have.

While the parties fight their dispute in court, Jennings noted that the subpoena did prompt the store to move ammunition off the showroom floor and behind a counter.

“Ammo isn’t candy,” Jennings said. “It shouldn’t be left on a sales floor without a meaningful effort to deter shoplifting. Our team has already gotten results and led Cabela’s to store its ammunition more safely, but our investigation isn’t over.”

A sign near the rear of the 110,000-square-foot store points to a long glass “AMMO” counter. Behind and below the counter are stacks of various ammunition brands such as Winchester and Remington.

The gun counter at Cabela's
Firearms and ammunition behind a counter at the rear of Cabela’s. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

John, the manager, said the store made the decision in March, after the subpoena was issued, “to put the ammo behind the counter.”

Prior to that, John said, “It was on the sales floor. That was a tradition since the store opened.”

2022 Del. law lets state sue firearms dealers for negligence

The probe is being conducted for possible legal action under a law the General Assembly passed in June 2022 that Gov. John Carney signed into law.

The law repealed the firearms dealers’ immunity from liability for negligence in how they conducted their business.

The statute also allowed for civil lawsuits against firearms makers and dealers who “knowingly or recklessly create, maintain, or contribute to a public nuisance’’ with a “firearm-related product.” The law also requires dealers such as Cabela’s to “establish reasonable controls’’ on firearms and ammunition they sell.

Since November — nearly a month before Brookens was arrested — Delaware’s new law has been the subject of a federal lawsuit brought by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade association for firearms dealers such as Cabela’s and its corporate parent, Bass Pro Shops. Those two companies are subsidiaries of Great American Outdoors Group.

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The filing claims the law is unconstitutional and the foundation wants a federal judge in Delaware to issue a preliminary injunction to forbid the state from enforcing the law until the case is decided. A federal judge in New Jersey has issued a preliminary injunction that has held up enforcement of a similar law there.

Wilmington lawyer Francis G.X. Pileggi, who is representing Great American Outdoors Group on behalf of Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops, said he could not comment on the subpoena fight.

He referred WHYY News to attorney Shelly Rosenfelder at the company’s corporate offices in Springfield, Missouri, but she did not respond to a request for comment.

In court filings, however, Pileggi argued that Delaware should halt enforcement of the new statute until a U.S. District Court judge in Wilmington rules on the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s motion for a preliminary injunction to suspend it until the full case is decided.

Jennings’s office has countered that the state is also investigating under other laws, including second-degree reckless endangering, disorderly conduct, and criminal nuisance.

Pileggi also wrote that some documents cannot be shared because they constitute trade secrets or confidential, proprietary information.

Other subpoenaed documents are protected from disclosure by the attorney-client privilege, work product protection, or any other privileges, the lawyer wrote.

Still more would constitute an invasion of privacy, he argued.

For those and other reasons, Pileggi wrote, the company “will not produce documents in response to this request.”

Jennings has ratcheted up the fight, however.

She’s going to Delaware Superior Court in an effort to convince a judge to order Cabela’s to produce the information that can help authorities determine just how much ammo was stolen and whether the company was negligent with a deadly product.

The Cabela's parking lot.
American flags adorned the storefront and its parking lot before the Fourth of July. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

A judge will hold a hearing on the dispute on Aug. 11 in Wilmington.

“Businesses need to be responsible members of our community; that includes gun dealers taking reasonable steps to prevent gun violence,” Jennings said. “Unfortunately, Cabela’s casual storage, and their stonewalling of this investigation, tell us that they still aren’t taking that responsibility seriously. We’re asking the court to step in so that we can ensure our neighbors are being kept safe.”

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