LCBO thefts surge in Toronto, often as staff stand and watch. ‘They’re literally just walking away’

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Two menacing thieves, four oversized backpacks — and zero worries, evidently, that this will end badly for them. This is what liquor theft in Toronto looks like today.

On a recent Saturday afternoon at a busy east-end LCBO, a brazen, broad-daylight heist begins. Two twentysomething men, faces shrouded beneath hoodies, hats and sunglasses, push their way through a crowd of customers to an aisle of premium vodka and proceed to strip the shelves bare.

The LCBO has confirmed “an increase in shop theft, with the majority taking place in urban areas.”
The LCBO has confirmed “an increase in shop theft, with the majority taking place in urban areas.”  (Keith Beaty / Toronto Star)

Clink, clink, clink go the bottles as the loot bags swell. And then, smash — a $75 bottle of Grey Goose slips sideways and shatters upon the floor in their frenzy to get the job done. One of the bandits shouts a warning, “Stay the f- away from us.” The pilfering continues.

The customers — some 40 eyewitnesses, including a Toronto Star reporter — are frozen in place, stunned by the close-up glimpse of high-volume larceny.

The staff — three on the checkouts, two more elsewhere in the store — are the only ones not watching. They’ve seen it before. Over and over. Now they avert their morale-battered eyes.

Tension rises as the thieves stumble toward the exit, each burdened by something close to their body weight in the people’s booze. So heavy is the bounty that as they pass within arm’s reach, even a slight nudge might send them tumbling, putting a stop to it. But then what? Already, the floor is littered with broken glass. Every single item in this store is a potential weapon for someone who wants badly enough not to get caught.

Nobody makes a move.

It all lasts barely three minutes. Outside, a stunned group of volunteer fundraisers with the nearby Crescent Town Swimming Club witnesses the final scene, as the bandits make their slow-motion escape west along the Danforth, toward Victoria Park Ave.

“They aren’t even running,” says one of the swim volunteers. “They’re literally just walking away.” The loot — at least $2,000 worth of premium liquor in this one instance — came straight out of your pocket, Ontario.


Inside the store, as the tension eases and business resumes, a clerk winces when asked whether he’d ever seen anything like it. “Every single day,” he fires back in frustration. “Sometimes twice a day.”

Is it really as frequent as that? The Star went looking for answers, and in a word, yes.

The sobering numbers look like this: more than 9,000 thefts at LCBO outlets in Toronto in the past four-and-a-half years (Jan. 1, 2014 to June 26, 2018), according to a crunching of Toronto Police Service data obtained by the Star.

That makes the Liquor Control Board of Ontario far and away the most targeted retail entity in the city. And though retailers as a whole have reported a major spike in shoplifting incidents in the city — 11,010 thefts in 2014, versus 16,667 in the first 10 months of 2018 — the spike in liquor theft appears to be the single biggest driver.

The LCBO declined a request for an interview on the Star’s findings. Instead, the provincially owned liquor retailer responded in writing to a summary of the troubling data, acknowledging, “We can confirm that the LCBO is seeing an increase in shop theft, with the majority taking place in urban areas.”

In response to Star questions, the LCBO said: "As is industry standard, we never encourage our employees to physically engage with the perpetrator when an active shop theft is taking place."
In response to Star questions, the LCBO said: « As is industry standard, we never encourage our employees to physically engage with the perpetrator when an active shop theft is taking place. »  (Keith Beaty/Toronto Star File Photo)

No single explanation unpacks the whole of the LCBO’s theft problem. And it is far from a Toronto-only phenomenon. Twitter is littered and Facebook is festooned with both Crime Stopper-style alerts from police and customer eyewitness accounts that reference thefts throughout Ontario.

But LCBO theft stings especially deep in Toronto, where some suggest overlapping policies — the LCBO’s “hands-off” instruction to staff never to intervene with thieves while they are in the building, coupled with the Toronto Police Service’s policy to rarely, if ever, dispatch officers to a low-priority theft scene after the thieves have left — has opened a pathway to friction-free larceny.

“The LCBO doesn’t want their staff getting into tussles with thieves inside the store, and I understand that,” said Mike McCormack, president of the Toronto Police Association.

“But when you couple that with a policing decision that says we just don’t have the resources to respond unless the thief is on the scene, you lose a lot of the deterrent.

“That’s where we are right now and it’s rampant, like a butterfly effect of unintended consequences. I’m hearing from LCBO people directly that they’ve seen guys come in and fill up duffle bags and walk right out the door and when they call 911, if these guys are not on the scene nobody is going to respond.”

What do actual LCBO workers say? One clue arrived recently at the Star’s doorstep — a typewritten, snail-mailed, anonymous plea for help purporting to be from a frontline liquor store staffer.

“What the public doesn’t know is the amount of theft that goes on and how our lives are in jeopardy because of it. Every day we lose thousands of dollars to theft and we can’t do anything about it,” the letter said.

“We have been threatened with knives, needles, guns, physical harm, we’ve been shoved into fixtures, our lives threatened to where they will wait for us after shift, and yet the public doesn’t know as it’s kept quiet from the media.

A scan of an anonymous LCBO plea the Star received via Canada Post. It purports to be from an LCBO worker talking about thefts/risks on job.
A scan of an anonymous LCBO plea the Star received via Canada Post. It purports to be from an LCBO worker talking about thefts/risks on job.  (Toronto Star Photo Scan)

“We are all fearful that something will happen to one of us and it’s scary. THE LCBO DOESN’T CARE. They barely support us and we barely see security once a month if we are lucky enough to have them in our store for a full shift.”

The Star has no way to independently authenticate the letter, which ended with “name withheld due to fear of retaliation.” But upon hearing its message, OPSEU president Warren (Smokey) Thomas, who represents LCBO’s unionized staff, responded: “That really disturbs me — but that is the mood of the workers and it captures it very well.

“I think most of the managers do care — but they feel as hamstrung as the front-line workers feel. They are telling us that theft has increased substantially in the past year especially. Verbal abuse is common, and while violence itself is rare, the threat of violence is there.”

OPSEU followed up with additional comment, noting that meetings between the union and LCBO to address surging theft are occurring “at various levels.

“We continue to advocate for greater security measures and do see improved measures of which our staff have been able to suggest,” OPSEU wrote. “Unfortunately, it seems the act of shoplifting has turned into a larger-scale enterprise as thieves are stealing higher-end products and larger bottles.”

Likewise, in response to a list of questions from the Star, an LCBO spokesperson sent a statement citing a series of measures it has taken to curb theft while maintaining a safety-first posture.

“Safe stores and the safety of our employees are our top priorities and the policies and procedures we have in place reflect that. The LCBO has taken appropriate steps to prevent shop theft through security investments and theft protection tactics. We have increased our guarding and investigator expenditures, as well as CCTV technology, in-store deterrents, and always collaborate with local police on active investigations,” the statement said.

A series of handout photographs of LCBO-theft suspects released by Ontario police forces in 2018 in Ottawa, top left, Burlington, top right, and Halton, bottom left and right. Despite more than 9,000 LCBO thefts in the past four-and-a-half years, Toronto police have a policy to rarely, if ever, dispatch officers to a low-priority theft scene.
A series of handout photographs of LCBO-theft suspects released by Ontario police forces in 2018 in Ottawa, top left, Burlington, top right, and Halton, bottom left and right. Despite more than 9,000 LCBO thefts in the past four-and-a-half years, Toronto police have a policy to rarely, if ever, dispatch officers to a low-priority theft scene.  (Handout)

“As is industry standard, we never encourage our employees to physically engage with the perpetrator when an active shop theft is taking place. Instead, the LCBO ensures employees are given shop-theft procedures and critical training.”

Stephen O’Keefe, an Ontario-based retail loss consultant, said that the LCBO is not alone in experiencing a theft surge. Companies across the Canadian retail spectrum, he said, are reporting rising rates of “shrinkage.”

Yet with no new studies of the issue since 2014, Canadian retailers have relied upon U.S. data to get a handle on the increase. O’Keefe’s company, Bottom Line Matters, is in the process of launching new research to gain a more comprehensive understanding of what’s behind the spike.

One factor, he suspects, is that with Canadian retailers now in a race to allocate resources to digital commerce, many companies simply can’t afford to obsess on the bricks-and-mortar reality with the intensity they once did. “This, unfortunately, means that the risk appetite for shrinkage due to theft has grown, and loss-prevention resources have been strained,” he told the Star.

The spike in liquor theft, if especially acute in Toronto, has also triggered a rash of headlines recently in Manitoba, where officials cite the opioid crisis as a factor driving increasingly brazen, violent and frequent heists. One stopgap solution being tried in Winnipeg that has yet to take hold in Ontario is the outright removal of premium liquors from display shelves.

The $26,000 bottle that walked out the door in 2013.
The $26,000 bottle that walked out the door in 2013.  (LCBO)

Instead, expensive vodkas and the like are kept in a more secure space out of public view, and retrieved upon request to customers one bottle at a time, in a bid to strip the “lowest-hanging fruit” from temptation, a spokesperson for the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union told the Star.

In April 2018, Toronto police sent a letter to the security sections of the LCBO, said police spokesperson Meaghan Gray. The letter indicated that unless there is a public safety risk, certain crimes could now be reported online.

“Calls that require an immediate police presence would still be responded to,” Grey said. “The online reporting allows the security personnel at the LCBO to enter the information for investigation by TPS. This is one of many initiatives the Service is undertaking through its modernization process of ensuring we are where the public needs us the most.”

At least one Toronto police jurisdiction, meanwhile, is trying something else. The Community Response Unit at 14 Division, in response to a rash of public complaints, last month launched a multifaceted pilot project that includes circulating plainclothes officers at several LCBOs in the area.

“I can’t speak to all of Toronto, but in our patch we’re trying hard to find a new way to deal with the LCBO theft problem,” said Sgt. Nelson Barreira, who is leading the effort.

“I don’t want to give too much detail but we’re raising our presence. We’re averaging about one arrest a day involving LCBO theft. Basically we’re seeing two types of theft — on one hand you see brazen repeat offenders coming in pretty much daily and taking a single bottle and those cases usually involve addiction issues, either alcohol or drugs and sometimes mental health issues,” said Barreira.

“And then we see the big-bag approach — large quantities are being taken and resold at a discount. Our team is predominantly on bicycle but we mobilize a police car for this project to transport suspects. The approach is intelligence-led policing, acting on what the community shares with us as smartly as we can.”

Do you have any stories of LCBO shoplifiting to share? Write Mitch Potter mpotter@thestar.ca or share stories on Twitter with the hashtag #LCBOtheft

On Dec. 19, Barreira’s team led a bust of two people involved in an alleged 12-person shoplifting ring that targeted Toronto LCBOs. Police estimate the value of goods stolen by the group at over $200,000.

One point of agreement for the LCBO and everyone else: whatever else you might say about liquor theft, the cameras never lie. In the store on the Danforth the day the Star bore witness to a four-backpack heist, 13 ceiling-mounted cameras caught it all.

Sgt. Barreira of 14 Division emphasizes those high-quality images “never blink and they are there forever — and once retrieved, the LCBO screenshots circulate to every officer in the division, often forming the basis for future arrests.

“In the short term they get away with the bottle,” he said. “But in the longer term, because every theft is captured on video, the chances are good they are not gonna get away with it.”

Mitch Potter is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @MPwrites

Patty Winsa is a Toronto-based data reporter. Reach her via email: pwinsa@thestar.ca

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Lawyer calls for expanded SIU mandate after video shows Toronto officer firing at man who was walking away

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A lawyer is calling for the province’s Special Investigations Unit to look into incidents where police fire at — but don’t injure — individuals after his client’s impaired driving charges were dismissed in part because a Toronto police officer fired a shot in the direction of the unarmed man as he was walking away.

Const. Anita Watton is facing disciplinary charges under the Police Services Act for excessive use of force and failing to comply with police training standards for firearm use, following an investigation by the Toronto police Professional Standards Unit. According to the disciplinary tribunal documents, it is alleged that she fired in the direction of Sanchayan Rajasingam, though he posed no imminent threat to her or the public. A tribunal hearing is scheduled for next year. No criminal charges were laid.

When reached by the Star, Watton’s lawyer, Gary Clewley, refused to comment.

Surveillance video obtained by the Star shows the shooting, which took place shortly before 11 a.m. on March 29, 2017. In it, Watton can be seen to fire in the direction of Rajasingam as he had his back to her.

Before Watton could testify at Rajasingam’s trial, which began Monday at the Scarborough courthouse, the impaired driving charges were dismissed by Ontario Court Justice Frank Crewe at the request of the Crown.

Rajasingam’s defence lawyer, Aghi Balachandran, told the court that there should be an external investigation into the case and measures taken to prevent such a thing from happening again. He added that while Watton received medical attention following the shooting — a police witness testified she was “rattled, shaken up from the whole incident” — his client did not.

“The psychological effect of this whole experience has been great on him,” Balachandran told the court.

The SIU is an independent body which investigates incidents involving police where there is serious injury or death — a near miss from a gunshot does not qualify. However, an extensive review of policing oversight conducted by Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Michael Tulloch recommended that the SIU mandate be expanded to include all firearm discharges at a person by police.

Tulloch specifically noted discharging a firearm is the most serious use of force an officer can use and the “unjustified discharge of a firearm, regardless of the severity of any resulting injury, could constitute a serious criminal offence. For instance, even if a police officer shoots at a person and misses, it could constitute attempted murder.”

The recommendation was included in Liberal legislation that would have overhauled and strengthened police oversight mechanisms in the province. The portion of the legislation that would have expanded the SIU’s mandate was put on hold by Premier Doug Ford in July, the day before it would have gone into effect.

“If the reason the individual was not hit is a matter of (the officer’s) arm moving to the right or to the left one or two inches, then that’s a matter of luck,” Balachandran said in an interview. “Luck should not be the factor that stops an (SIU) investigation from occurring.”

Balachandran said trust between the public and the police remains a problem, but independent, thorough investigations that are “not limited to only the most serious transgressions against the public would do a lot to mend those fences.”

Rajasingam allegedly fled on foot from a “party bus” after a traffic stop conducted by Watton in Scarborough near Markham Rd. and Eglinton Ave. E.

The video obtained by the Star, which does not include audio, shows what happens immediately before and after the shooting.

It shows Rajasingam enter into the frame, running into a parking lot at 140 Adanac Dr. Watton chases him holding her gun in her left hand. He stops, she catches up to him and they stand a few metres apart. He takes five steps toward her and she takes two steps back.

Rajasingam then turns away from her and begins to walk away. She walks after him and fires the gun as he takes his fourth step, still holding it in her left hand with her right hand near her left shoulder, appearing to operate a radio.

It is impossible to tell from the video where the shot goes or how close it came to Rajasingam.

After Watton fires, she takes another step toward Rajasingam. He turns to face her, takes a step forward then stops and turns around to lie on the ground. About forty seconds later, another police car arrives and a different officer appears to handcuff Rajasingam.

“There are a lot of issues in this case,” said Crown James Dunda in court, requesting the charges be dismissed. “It is a unique case, one I’ve never seen in my years here … It is my evaluation that this case is bound not to succeed.” He cited “too many gaps in evidence because of the nature of the way events unfolded.”

Retired Toronto Police officer and use of force expert Mark Valois viewed the video at the request of the Star. His first thought was “wow, what the hell are you doing,” he said.

“I don’t understand why she did what she did,” he said. However, he stressed that there may be many variables that are not evident in the video and that he does not know what was going on in her mind. He said it is unclear what information the officer had about the suspect at the time, what happened before the video starts, and whether it could have justified her actions. It is also not possible to know what they are saying to each other from this video.

It is also unclear whether Watton had a Taser with her.

Officers are trained to fire their guns one-handed and to fire at “centre mass” — the largest area of the body the officer can see, Valois said.

Retired Moose Jaw police chief and long-time Calgary police officer Terry Coleman, who is now a public safety consultant, would not comment on the specific case. However, he noted that in general officers tend to pull out their guns far too soon. “I understand officer safety but once a gun is drawn it tends to be fired even inadvertently,” he said.

Police officers are not trained to fire warning shots or shots to wound a suspect, he said.

Watton was previously investigated by the SIU for the fatal 2013 shooting of Malcolm Jackman outside the same building at 140 Adanac Dr. Then SIU-director Ian Scott found that Watton’s use of lethal force was justified in that case because Jackman was using a knife to hold a person hostage and had refused to drop the knife despite multiple commands.

Alyshah Hasham is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and court. Follow her on Twitter: @alysanmati

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Man dies after falling from airplane while wing walking near Westwold – BC

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A person has died after falling from an airplane while filming a video in B.C.’s Interior on Saturday.

The person was reportedly wing walking near Westwold, B.C., around 4:30 p.m. when the plane lost control and he fell off the wing, RCMP said. The plane was too close to the ground, and he did not have time to deploy his parachute. He plunged into a farmer’s field.


READ MORE:
Transportation Safety Board investigating after helicopter makes hard landing near Pitt Lake

The plane landed safely.

The Transportation Safety Board and B.C. Coroners Service have been notified.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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Fewer children walking to school, Metrolinx report finds

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The number of children walking to school in the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area has declined, again, according to a new Metrolinx report.

The report incorporates data from the Transportation Tomorrow Survey, conducted every five years going back to 1986, and aims to visualize trends in active school travel, namely rates at which children and teens are biking or walking to school.

It found the rate at which 11- to 13-year-olds walk to school decreased to 36.9 per cent in 2016 from 39 per cent in 2011. For 14- to 17-year olds, rates of walking dropped to 25.5 per cent in 2016 from 28 per cent in 2011.

In 1986, kids who walked to school made up 55 per cent and 36.4 per cent in those age groups, respectively.

And, though rates of children being driven to school changed only slightly over the last five years, it has more than doubled since 1986. And “the distance at which people would prefer driving (their kids to school) is getting shorter,” says Ron Buliung, a professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga and lead author of the report released Wednesday.

“(That’s) kind of concerning, because we’re getting into driving at distances that are entirely walkable,” says Buliung, noting “walkability” is relative based on factors such as disabilities and work schedules.

With the school commute making up 20 per cent of morning traffic, the overall trends are affecting road congestion, according to Metrolinx.

“Some parents want to drive their kids because they have the perception that it’s not safe to walk,” said Anne Marie Aikins, spokesperson at the transit agency. That decision in turn increases the number of cars on the road, she said.

A recent Star story about the effects of walkability on kids’ health suggests these fears may be unfounded. Experts say walkable streets and other amenities that encourage more physical activity in children are not only what kids want, but what they need.

Metrolinx’s Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) envisions 60 per cent of children actively getting to school by 2041, a statistic which would require a significant increase from the current rates.

Buliung says the report is meant to get parents thinking more critically about how their kids are getting to school.

“We’re not going after families and blaming them for not encouraging or participating in active travel,” Buliung says. “Rather, we want to try to understand why that’s not happening.”

The report also shows disparities in the way children travel based on time of day and gender.

While 35.3 per cent of 14- to 17-year-olds in 2016 were driven to school in the morning, only 21.5 per cent were driven home. Meanwhile, the rate of walking increased from 25.5 per cent in the morning to 33.4 per cent in the afternoon. The report also found, in 2016, boys were more likely to walk or bike to school, while girls were more likely to be driven.

Buliung, who walked his eldest daughter to and from school for several years, encourages parents to examine the reasons for these differences when thinking about how their children commute.

“If you’re OK with your child walking or biking in the afternoon, maybe just ask, ‘Why is this not happening in the morning?’” he says, adding it’s important for families to consider transportation methods across their entire household. “Are there ways in which we’re privileging certain ways of moving for some of our children and not for others?”

Despite the slump in strolling to school and the desire to drive, cycling is on the rise — with the overall rate in 2016 nearly double that of 2011 — though rates remain under 2.5 per cent in all age groups.

Rhianna Jackson-Kelso is a breaking news reporter, working out of the Star’s radio room in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @RhiannaJK

Stefanie Marotta is a breaking news reporter, working out of the Star’s radio room in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @StefanieMarotta

With notes from Emerald Bensadoun.

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‘I belong to all of Hamilton now’: What 1 woman learned by walking every street in the city

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Anita Joldersma says she’s lazy.

But if you ask, she’ll roll out a battered transit map of Hamilton covered in purple and black squiggles that trace just about every street in the city. 

Over the past four years she’s walked them all — highways and private industrial roads excluded. All told, she’s covered an estimated 3,200 km.

Not bad for someone who says she’s not some « marathon chickie » and makes no claims of being an athlete.

« I’m just a frumpy housewife who decided to get off her couch and explore her city, » she says.

 Getting out of the car and onto my feet gave me a chance to examine the city in a very special way.– Anita Joldersma

Joldersma already knows what you’re going to ask before you say it. Why?

For the 56-year-old the answer is simple; she wanted to see more of her neighbourhood, but when she started walking she had trouble tracking which streets she had travelled.

So she started marking them on a map. She admits to being « a little OCD » and said those lonely lines soon started bugging her. She became determined to finish the map.

« My husband says I’m stubborn. I call it determined, » she said with a laugh.

Joldersma kept track of the ground she covered by tracing the streets in purple and black permanent marker. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Travelling with her own two feet didn’t come naturally to the mother of six who said before she started walking she was the type of person who considered a trip to the mailbox worthy of hopping in her car.

In fact, after her first-ever stroll she was tempted to throw in the towel.

« I hated it. I came back almost crying because I had worn the wrong shoes, I had blisters, I was thirsty and it was just terrible… and I had only walked around the block. »

Waking up a walker

Two days later she tried again, and as she huffed and puffed along Acadia Drive, she says a woman driving by told her to « keep it up. »

That was all the motivation she needed. The next morning, Joldersma says she woke up a walker.

Her journey covered all the streets within Hamilton’s historic city limits, before amalgamation it 2000.

It started on the Mountain before leading her through overgrown trails where she dodged poison ivy, into blinding snowstorms that froze her phone and along Barton Street the night after police taped off a section of the road to investigate a violent incident.

Joldersma said she never felt unsafe, but added walking past a crime scene the morning after and seeing the residents were just regular people taking their kids to school taught her not to stereotype.

While walking, she wore through a pair of shoes while meeting interesting characters and curious kids children who asked her about her mission.

The 56-year-old plans to keep walking in Dundas, Ancaster and some parts of Stoney Creek. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The effort was never about weight loss, but she burned a lot of calories along the way. That said, Joldersma did discover she « cannot out-walk my fork. »

She also learned a little bit about the city she calls home.

« On main streets people don’t say ‘Hi,’ everyone just goes about their business, but once you get into a neighbourhood they think you belong and you start to feel like you do because they nod at you and acknowledge you, » she explained. « You start to feel like a friend almost because you’re in their neighbourhood. »

On September 29 Joldersma completed her four years of walking with a trip down Carrick Street along with Mayor Fred Eisenberger who just so happened to be politicking at the Tiger-Cat game nearby.

As she crossed a finish line made of colourful pennants strung around a parking sign she was hugged by friends and family.

« You can’t do this without it touching your heart, » she said. « Getting out of the car and onto my feet gave me a chance to examine the city in a very special way.

I feel like I belong to all of Hamilton now. »

After completing her project, Joldersma said she finds herself enjoying more stamina and walking to the store or the bank, trips she never would have considered before.

Confessions of a Streetwalker

The map may be filled in, but Joldersma isn’t finished. She plans to keep walking in Dundas, Ancaster and some parts of Stoney Creek.

She’s also working on a short story about her wanderings called Confessions of a Streetwalker — a suggestive title with pun fully intended.

Joldersma speaks fondly of her journey and what she learned along the way, but as she sketches out her next steps she stops.

« I was about to say I’d do it again, » she laughs. « But I don’t know that I would. »

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