Jim Ostojic figured right off this was no garden variety shoplifting case when he arrived at a Publix Super Market in Mulberry last June.
"They had a getaway car and made off with $4,000 worth of health and beauty products," said the Polk County sheriff's detective. "Those are big clues."
Little did he realize that seven months later the theft would lead to the arrest of 18 people linked to an organized theft network that allegedly swiped up to $100-million in goods from Central Florida stores over the past five years. At the National Retail Federation annual loss prevention conference here Monday, it was hailed as the biggest retail theft bust any Florida store detective can recall.
Organized thieves have plagued retailers for decades, but rings are becoming more commonplace. Now they're using the Internet, auction sites, flea markets and independent dollar stores that supposedly trade in closeout goods to fence their ill-gotten goods. Had Ostojic simply given up after making an arrest a few days later — like so many other similar shoplifting cases — that would have been the end.
Instead, with the backing of Sheriff Grady Judd and willing retailers, he joined a state task force that used surveillance video, vehicle tracking and stakeouts to infiltrate the ring and see how retail theft has evolved.
They found an organized team of snatch-and-grab shoplifters who would hit four and five stores a day from Port Charlotte north across the Tampa Bay area to Jacksonville. They targeted health and beauty sections and over-the-counter drugs. They would use their whole arm to rake the shelves clean into big bags, then dash out of the store. At one Sarasota Publix, a getaway driver even drove directly at Publix workers chasing in the parking lot.
The five leaders from Tampa, Lakeland and Lake Mary were dealers who filled warehouses – one a nondescript building near Busch Gardens – and resold goods at the Big Top Flea Market in Tampa and eBay sites. Prices were one-third full retail. Leaders even placed orders with underlings for specific items. The big sellers: Gillette razor blades, Prilosec, Crest WhiteStrips and "any cosmetics like Oil of Olay."
"Who are they?" mused Sheriff Judd. "The five leaders (Theresa Parrish, 49, and husband Ron Parrish, 41, of Tampa, Vincent May of Lakeland and Steven Coburn, 40, and his wife Kerry, 39, of Lake Mary) had no criminal record. But the ones who did the boosting all had records ranging from sexual predator to armed robbery and attempted murder."
All 18 pleaded innocent to charges of racketeering and conspiracy. Each count has a maximum 30-year sentence. When 92 deputies and retail agents made the arrests in January, some charged were already in jail on other charges.
The charges filed, all part of Operation Beauty Shop, cover thefts from Publix and Target, but Wal-Mart, CVS, Walgreens, Sweetbay and Albertsons were hit, too, and there are more.
Mark Albright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)893-8252.