The story of Kelli Jo Bauer, one of Johnson County's most prolific shoplifters.
She was the trademark JoCo mom. Her shiny hair with faux blonde highlights glistened, giving her a halo of upper middle-class contentment that reflected off her well-moisturized and serum-infused face. The manicured, bejeweled hands spoke to years of practice clutching designer handbags.
Kelli Jo Bauer was a suburban housewife who had it all — married to an investment executive, mother to beautiful twin boys and living in an almost million-dollar Lionsgate home that loomed over a golf course as if shouting “look at me, look at me!”
At her last court appearance, the only remaining vestige of Bauer’s glory days were her gleaming white teeth that seem jarringly out of context with a bulky black-and-white horizontal striped prison jumpsuit and wrist and leg shackles that created an ominous clank each time she moved. Her face, once vibrant, appeared branded by stress with deep furrows around her mouth replacing smile lines. As for the glossy blonde mom bob? It was long gone. The only new highlights in her hair were gray.
Why would a woman whose very existence screamed Pinterest perfection choose to lead a double life as a thief? She was running, what local authorities call, the largest theft operation ever conducted in Overland Park.
Bauer had been a serial shoplifter for years. She has arrests in Johnson County dating back almost a decade. But it wasn’t until spring 2015 when undercover detectives, posing as buyers, infiltrated Bauer’s home and discovered a treasure trove — 8,000 items of shoplifted goods — that her seemingly spectacular life began to not just unravel, but shatter.
Bauer started out life as an average middle-class kid from Grand Island, Nebraska, a smallish city where the current claim to fame is being the home of the state fair and the “hot beef sundae.” She attended the town’s sole public high school, and after graduation joined her future husband, Joseph Bauer, at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Bauer graduated in 1992 with a degree in sociology. Fast-forward several years, and the couple was calling Kansas City home.
Bauer, after passing two entry-level security exams, began an almost decade-long career working at Citigroup Global Markets. It’s during this tenure that she also she became a mother to twins, moved into an exclusive Overland Park neighborhood, began volunteering and serving on a nonprofit board and started compiling a rap sheet for shoplifting.
Bauer’s first foray into the Johnson County court system was in fall 2007; records reveal she was charged with theft for stealing clothing and other merchandise from three stores within 72 hours. She pleaded guilty to two lesser charges of “criminal deprivation” and was placed on probation that mandated receiving mental health treatment.
For five years Bauer remained off the radar of law enforcement. But her career in the financial industry suffered as a result of her police record. According to SEC documents after leaving Citi Group, Bauer went to work for Morgan Stanley (the company where her husband is now vice president of wealth management) for several months before being released from employment and receiving sanctions from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.
It wasn't until spring 2013 that Bauer was caught shoplifting again, this time from an Olathe retailer. She copped a guilty plea to a misdemeanor theft, netting her probation for the second time. Her arrest record stayed clean until 2015, and then things hit the fan — big time.
The affluent neighborhood Bauer lives in is accustomed to landscape crews, not news crews, and certainly not a cavalcade of law enforcement vehicles. These grand homes with sweeping staircases perfect for prom pictures and dream kitchens with marble counter tops and Viking appliances were not designed to multi-task as a front for warehousing and selling stolen property. But according to police reports, that’s exactly what was happening.
Authorities say Bauer marketed her “resale” business through an online store called My Retro Baby and a members-only “Johnson County Swap and Shop” Facebook page where she touted that she had more than 1,000 pieces of “high-end” women’s clothing in a variety of sizes and from a wide range of designers.
Potential buyers were advised to make an appointment to come to her home, and in a seemingly ironic effort to avoid anyone shoplifting, people were instructed to come only with cash and a wallet. No purses were allowed. Women who had shopped at Bauer’s house described it “an upscale garage sale on crack” or “like a mini Nordstrom Rack” with items from Banana Republic, Coach, Ann Taylor, department stores and local boutiques.
One former shopper admits that she thought what was going on in the house might be a little “hinky,” but added, “You see all the new clothes and think it’s kind of weird, but then she’s got this huge, gorgeous home, and you tell yourself ‘she’s just another mom with a side business.’”
At least one person was skeptical about Bauer’s “side business” and tipped off the cops. That tip led to undercover police detectives knocking on Bauer’s French country-inspired front door on March 23, 2015.
Before the officers arrived to “shop,” they had done their homework. Bauer had been under surveillance. Police had tailed her as she stole an assortment of items ranging from women’s clothing to softballs from a Dick’s Sporting Goods. In a single day, detectives said they followed Bauer to five different Johnson County stores where she shoplifted from each one.
As female detectives pretending to be enthusiastic bargain shoppers roamed the 4,500-plus-square-foot home, they looked at items that were primarily clothing, makeup and accessories. Many still featured their store price tags but also had tags with Bauer’s “discounted” price. Bauer chatted with the undercover officers, telling them she was a “compulsive shopper” who had lost weight.
The officers bought a couple of items, including what Bauer told them was a fake Lois Vuitton handbag that she sold to them for $50.
A week later, April 1, law enforcement came back, and this time it was with a search and arrest warrants. The quantity of stolen items found in the home was shocking. It took trucks to haul it all away.
According to Johnson County Assistant District Attorney Sara Walton, “the sheer magnitude of stolen merchandise was highly unusual.”
Police called it one of the largest cases they’ve ever had in terms of recovered property. They spent two days searching Bauer’s home and weeks cataloging the items while at least one neighbor, who said her house had once been robbed, erroneously speculated that Bauer may have been the culprit.
Bauer was charged with felony theft, and her mug shot that looked like more like a picture for a junior league directory than a police photo was picked up by media outlets as far away as Europe. The most common headline featured the four words “Chronic, Affluent, Kansas Shoplifter.”
Bauer spent hardly any time in the Johnson County Detention Center. She was arrested on a Wednesday, and by 5 p.m. that Friday she had bonded out of jail and headed home. Bauer took with her a GPS house arrest tracking device, instructions to follow mental health recommendations, including taking prescribed medication, a court order to not use illegal substances or alcohol, to submit to drug testing and to not enter any retail establishments.
For more than a year the district attorney’s office worked on settling up the criminal case against Bauer. Meanwhile, the topic of why a woman who seemingly had everything would so voraciously steal items she could afford to buy became the topic du jour at everything from elementary school drop-off lines to cocktail parties. Theories abounded, from entrepreneurial criminal to kleptomaniac.
Barbara Staib with the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention (NASP) says the real answer may be much more complicated, especially when dealing with a “chronic shoplifter.”
Local therapist Susan Horen agrees. She calls shoplifting an obsessive compulsion disorder. For some shoplifters it’s all about not only the rush that stealing gives you, but the thrill of getting away with it.”
Horen also says shoplifting can be a sign of unmet needs.
“Affluent woman a lot of times feel guilty because their lives are set financially, but that doesn’t mean all their needs are being met cognitively and emotionally. Sometimes they’re coming from a place of emotional deprivation, and stealing helps feel that void.”
Bauer’s friends, who have stood stalwart in defending her, hint that her shoplifting is a serious mental health issue, but they won’t elaborate beyond that. Staib says there’s a humiliation factor associated with shoplifting that makes being open about the addiction and the treatment hard to talk about.
“I had one woman tell me she wished she was an alcoholic instead. Because she said if I told my friends I was an alcoholic, they would be proud of me for getting treatment, but if I tell them I’m a shoplifter, they’re ashamed of me.”
Drug therapy can help. Psychiatric studies on the best pharmacology practices for treating the addiction show that the most effective meds are Lexapro, which reduces depression and anxiety, along with Naltrexone, a drug used to treat alcoholism that seems to suppress the urge to steal in some people. According NASP, the single largest psychological factor found in approximately one-third of shoplifters studied is depression.
Staib says no meds can solve the problem that shoplifting is easy to do and get away with, which can fuel the compulsion to steal. Currently, 1 in 11 people have shoplifted, and according to crime statistics, shoplifters are caught only 1 in 48 times they steal. They are turned over to the police only half the time.
Now add in that there is no shoplifting stereotype, and Staib says it makes it particularly complicated for retail stores to profile just who is shoplifting. A security consultant familiar with the Bauer case, who prefers to stay anonymous, says the reason Bauer was able to get away shoplifting for so long and do it on such a large scale was that she had the perfect cover — attractive, upper middle-class, suburban woman.
“Nothing about her appearance would make any retail employee think, ‘Hey, we need to keep our eye on her.’”
Not even setting off store alarms would be much of a deterrent.
“So many things can set off store alarms these days, including cellphones, that a lot of retail employees just ignore them, especially if the customer who set off the alarm looks like they can afford to shop there. And there are many, many ways to get around the clothing sensor tags. Basically all you need to do is go to the Wikihow page.”
Staib adds the more shoplifters get away with the more brazen they become. “They learn and test the waters and decide the risk is worth the reward.”
Horen says there’s also a rationalization process going on in the mind of a shoplifter.
“They may tell themselves it’s a victimless crime and take what I call the Robin Hood leap, where a shoplifter thinks it’s not like they’re stealing from another human being.”
Staib says in diversion groups for shoplifters the No. 1 question that gets asked the most is, “Who was I hurting?”
According to court documents, Bauer was hurting local retailers to the tune of $100,000, and that figure is in wholesale amounts, not what the merchandise was selling for in stores. Thirteen months after her arrest, on the day after Memorial Day, May 31, 2016, a blonde, seemingly sun-kissed Bauer was back in court to address that charge. Wearing a stylish black suit accessorized with a drop necklace and a large ring, Bauer plead guilty to a felony charge of theft between $25,000 and $100,000, as well as two misdemeanor counts of theft of less than $1,000, as part of a plea agreement.
It took six more months to work out what Bauer’s sentence would be. During that time, she stayed ensconced in her Lionsgate home. By November 2016, things were looking up for Bauer. It appeared that she might escape serving any jail time for her 2015 arrest. The door would soon be closed on that horrific chapter of her life. All she had left to do was attend her scheduled sentencing hearing right before Thanksgiving.
But things went catastrophically wrong. On her 47th birthday, mere hours before the sentencing on her big shoplifting case, Bauer was charged with theft — again.
She had been brought down by bras.
On a sunny November day, with temperatures that felt more like spring than late fall, Bauer walked into a Kohl’s in Lenexa that was prepping for its upcoming Black Friday sale and worked her way to the lingerie department with its racks of Maidenform and Playtex bras.
According to a loss prevention officer’s report, Bauer was seen selecting several bras, putting them in a Kohl’s bag and then taking them to the dressing room. After that, she was observed stopping at the customer service counter, where an employee exchanged the bras without receipts. The officer reported that Bauer then left the store without paying for five bras that had a total value of $178. A warrant for her arrest was issued.
When the district attorney’s office heard about the arrest, they were shocked. “Oh my gosh, in so many different ways we were disappointed, and it meant we had to start all over again,” Walton says.
The DA’s office asked the judge in the case to release them from their plea agreement and now consider a heavier sentence. The new theft charge would change everything. First and foremost, Bauer’s days of getting house arrest were over. She would remain in the Johnson County Detention Center until sentencing. This meant Bauer spent the holidays locked up, started 2017 behind bars and missed her twin boys’ birthday. Her life, as she knew it, was now over.
At her sentencing hearing in late March, it was a much different Bauer than the one who went before a judge just 10 months ago. Gone were the clothes and accoutrements of a well-heeled, middle-aged wife and mother. The woman who hobbled into the courtroom that morning trussed up in chains and wearing generic black Crocs and prison garb was almost unrecognizable.
Her only smile was for six girlfriends who had shown up for her final court appearance. Each of these women represented a “before” picture of who Bauer used to be. Her husband was absent. At the exact same time his wife was receiving a prison sentence, his father’s funeral was being held back in Nebraska.
Before the judge announced Bauer’s fate, she was asked if she had anything to say. Bauer wanted to talk. She shared that she felt “very remorseful” about what she had done and added that she had “struggled for years.” Her voice got weak when she talked about her 12-year-old sons and how she “felt terrible for embarrassing them.” Bauer assured the judge that she was going to work hard, saying she “never wanted to be in this position again.” She also vowed that this time she would stay on her meds.
The judge, while sentencing Bauer to 19 months in prison and restitution, remarked that maybe this would be “a silver lining” for her and that prison would be able to provide Bauer with the help she needed.
Today, the woman, who seemingly was living the American Dream, is incarcerated at the 749-bed Topeka Correctional Facility, the only female prison in the state. It’s a dingy, multi-storied brick building built in the 1970s with a façade that would be at home in a Stephen King novel. The prison’s inmate safety record in the past decade has been dubious, at best.
A 2011-2012 investigation by the United States Department of Justice said the Topeka Correctional Facility was failing to “protect women prisoners from harm due to sexual abuse and misconduct from correctional staff and other prisoners in violation of their constitutional rights.”
Bauer, prisoner 0115973, is living in an open-dorm setting with a group toilet and shower area and sleeping in a military-style double bunk bed. Every day, she wears “scrub-like” garments color-coded to her current status. (Newbies wear red scrubs and then graduate to blue and maroon.) Her days are spent doing a combination of work, risk-reduction and educational programs, and she’s allowed visitors only on the weekends.
This is a far cry from her life of luxurious suburban splendor. But perhaps the perfect world Bauer appeared to live in was also a prison. One of her last comments to the judge on that fateful sentencing day was the uttering of a secret almost every upwardly mobile, suburbanite mother knows and attempts to camouflage with Botoxed foreheads and Restylane smiles, new cars, bigger homes and social media posts of vacations:
“From the outside looking in, it’s great, but it’s been very difficult.”
Bauer is slated to be released from prison next year.