Dr. Phil, Shoplifting Confessions & Federal Charges

By Caleb Groos on September 25, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Matthew and Laura Eaton tearfully confessed their years long shoplifting and eBay selling spree to Dr. Phil and all of us last year. The good doctor queried: "I'm no lawyer or a cop, but isn't that a federal crime?" "Yeah, it is," responded Mrs. Eaton. She was correct. The couple has now been indicted for what federal authorities term "e-fencing."

Though lately we've been seeing many criminals bust themselves via Facebook, Twitter, or whatever, the Eatons reminded us that good old fashioned network TV is not dead.

"In the hall of fame of dumb crooks, these people will have a prominent position." Solemn words from former San Diego District Attorney Paul Pfingst about the Eatons. From one Secret Service agent who worked the case: "In 20 years of fraud cases, I've never seen anything like this: a taped confession before a national audience."

The couple allegedly engaged in what has been dubbed "e-fencing." What is "e-fencing"? Stealing stuff and selling it online. Or taking stuff other people stole and selling it online.

The actual federal charges are the same as pre-internet federal fencing charges: transporting, transmitting, and transferring merchandise worth over $5,000 in interstate commerce when you know the goods to be stolen. The internet simply allows one to do it from home.

The Eatons were arrested Friday and face up to 5 years in prison.

They pleaded not guilty.

Last November, the Eatons told all of us that they had stolen over $1 million worth of stuff over 6 or 7 years. Said Laura Eaton: "We steal diapers, wipes, shoes, socks, clothes, food.... This scanner, desk, the lamp, swords, filing cabinet, TV, this computer, trash can, cabinets, movies, paper shredder." Sometimes the stuff went into their pockets (we assume not the swords). Other times, the bold walk-out. Often with their toddlers (who the Eatons say made awesome decoys) in tow.

Then, according to the allegations against them (and their world-wide televised confession), they sold the loot on eBay, where their seller rating was quite high.

As reported by the LA Times, the Eatons knew that San Diego police were interested in them before they approached Dr. Phil. What brought the Eatons to the attention of the local cops? One Lego Star Wars Millennium Falcon allegedly stolen from Target.

Tough to resist indeed, but it proved the thread that would unravel the sweater.

In an unorthodox strategy to outflank the fuzz, the Eatons offered their story to the Dr. Phil show, where they laid bare a multi-year, multi-state shoplifting escapade. (In their defense, through their lawyer, they claim the Dr. Phil show promised bail money and a legal defense fund if they were indicted. The Dr. Phil show does not remember it that way.)

The bad news for the Eatons is that the show added the attention of federal investigators, and likely prosecution's Exhibit A, to what had perhaps only been local cops' interest in a shoplifted Lego Millennium Falcon.

We all know that if the storm troopers get the Millennium Falcon, they jig may well be up. But a full blitz TV confession? That's a bold maneuver even Hans Solo wouldn't dare.

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