NEW ORLEANS – Just as Katrina’s receding waters revealed acres of ruined houses, flooded cars and pockets of bodies, the post-storm cleanup also raised the curtain on a trail of mass looting that left even the most jaded New Orleans police officers awestruck.

As search and rescue crews staged house-to-house searches for survivors over the past two weeks, they repeatedly stumbled upon stacks of merchandise – from large appliances still in the box to knotted tangles of hastily pilfered jewelry.

Much of the loot is being recovered from the drier areas of Uptown and Central City in New Orleans” 6th Police District.

“At first, we stored the stuff in the garage … but the stack grew too big, so we commandeered the trailer from the side of the road and started storing it there,” said district police commander Capt. Anthony Cannatella.

That 20-foot trailer rig was quickly filled back-to-front, floor-to-ceiling, so officers began putting everything into a 60-foot trailer until that was packed, too. They’re now easily on their way to filling a 40-footer.

A peek inside the trailers revealed the scope of the mass theft: bicycles, TVs, computers, printers, cameras, lamps, beer, wine, liquor, stereos, toys, clothes, bedding, diapers, power tools, vacuum cleaners, VCRs, DVDs, CDs, CD racks, clocks, an ATM machine, a digital metal detector, a meat smoker and a deluxe aquarium stand, for starters.

“C’mon,” Cannatella said. “Why would anyone take a deluxe aquarium stand? Some of this is just ridiculous.”

A large percentage of the goods are still tagged with bar codes from the Tchoupitoulas Street Wal-Mart, a store that was all but cleaned out during six hours of utter pandemonium the day after Katrina hit.

“That’s what shocked me most: the total devastation of Wal-Mart,” Cannatella said. “We had people who destroyed stuff just out of meanness. Bottles of mustard and mayonnaise, wine, just smashed up against the walls and floors. They cleaned out the building and they destroyed it. The only things left on the shelves were the books and the educational materials.”

The Wal-Mart was by no means the only breached store.

Sgt. Dan Anderson said he still can’t get over the futility of the lawlessness. People carted off electronics when there was no electricity, furniture for houses that ended up underwater and some piles of goods so unwieldy they were simply abandoned on the street.

“Talk about a lot of effort for nothing,” Anderson said. “When that (17th Street Canal) levee broke, they had to leave it all behind.”

Some looters, however, went to great lengths to try to protect their stash, Cannatella said. One group posted an armed lookout. A couple of others left their haul in abandoned houses guarded by chained pit bulls, one of which was shot by National Guard troops.

Cannatella said one clever looter rigged a fake bomb using PVC pipes, electrical tape, wires and a desk clock. The realistic-looking device was sitting atop a pile of computers and other boxed items, Cannatella said.

“It kept my cops at bay for two hours. You can’t take a chance that it might be real, so we called the bomb squad,” he said.

Cannatella said he has spoken with Wal-Mart’s loss-prevention managers on what to do with that store’s recouped merchandise. One idea in the works is a plan to donate the items to officers who lost everything in the storm.

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