The shopkeepers thought nothing of her.
Brighton collectibles, those baubles with a signature silver heart, are a favorite of well-groomed, stylish women. When loyalists buy one piece, they typically buy another.
Like any customer, she knew her stuff. She was wearing it.
"She knew names as well. She was asking me for a specific pair of earrings," said Jodi Schutz, manager of Warren's Gifts in Clearwater.
Later, they noticed the barren racks. They watched the security video. The chill washed over.
"She's right underneath the eye of the camera, and you can just see sparkle," Schutz said. "Silver shining down in her purse."
Police charged a woman with that crime and others just like it. The arrest record suggests a serial shoplifter who spanned three counties and hit stores from an Ace Hardware to a hotel gift shop.
She's 63. She wears an ash blond bob and pantsuits. She looks like someone's aunt.
Her name is Judith Crookston.
• • •
The economy, in its epic journey down the tubes, may be breeding these tales.
National shoplifting rates have soared 36 percent in two years. And in the infancy of 2009, they're up another 12 percent.
Reason says that people desperate for money might do strange things.
"People who shoplift know shoplifting is wrong, but they have ways of justifying and rationalizing their behavior," said Barbara Staib, communications director for the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention.
There's no stereotype for a shoplifter. Most people steal on a whim, and they're not particular — department stores, supermarkets, mini marts, thrift shops. They'll slip something into a bag or a stroller, walk out wearing a new pair of shoes.
It all amounts to $35 million of stolen goods every day in America. And shoplifters are turned over to police only about half the time, according to the association.
In Tampa, more and more thieves cropped up at the end of 2008 at hot spots like Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Target along the Dale Mabry corridor.
"We stepped up our police presence in those shopping areas, had extra patrols, had officers making rounds," said Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy. "It has been effective at driving down the number."
It makes sense. Because for shoplifters, it's usually not about the stuff.
"It's about the act for these people," Staib said. "It's about getting away with it."
• • •
Judith Crookston lives in St. Petersburg and is married to John Crookston. Her profile on classmates.com says she met her spouse in 1980 while working in broadcasting management. Another blog profile says this:
Have lived a long and interesting life trying to stay "outside the box." Have loved and been loved. Both are wonderful.
Crookston and her lawyer, James Beach, declined to be interviewed. Department of State records show the Crookstons own a company called Compass Quest, which offered seminars through chambers of commerce, associates said.
Crookston booked professionals like Christine Corelli, a well-regarded writer and public speaker. Crookston was a nervous personality, she said, but hard working and friendly. Corelli had a soft spot for her.
"She is a person who is basically a good human being with a good heart, and at one time was successful at what she did," said Corelli. "But the business model she had for her business was no longer working. You know, the world has changed, the economy has changed … what I'm trying to say is, E for effort."
At the beginning of 2008, Corelli estimated, Compass Quest dwindled.
That's when the record begins.
In January 2008, Crookston pleaded no contest to stealing about $70 of merchandise from Publix. She got probation. In May, she took a button-front shirt from the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel gift shop, Seminole Tribe authorities said.
Crookston admitted swiping a pair of sunglasses and earrings from Marion's in St. Petersburg in November. Eleven days later, she hit Warren's, making off with about $2,500 worth of jewelry, police said. Employees saw a man waiting near the door.
In January, she came to Victorian Village in Temple Terrace, again accompanied by a man, said store owner Cathy Statz.
"She was a casual but average middle-aged woman, nothing special, nothing out of the ordinary, very chatty," she said.
When the store alarm sounded, employees held Crookston. Police found $3,402 worth of jewelry in her purse, as well as 22 Paxil pills, an antidepressant.
It wasn't over. Two weeks later, she was arrested in Bradenton at Crowder Bros. Ace Hardware, charged with funneling more than $3,000 of Brighton jewelry into her purse from the store's attached gift shop.
Cue store alarm.
"She turned around … and booked into the hardware store faster than my staff member could say anything," said co-owner Jina Crowder. "It was quite obvious that something was wrong with her. … She went up and down every aisle and pulled out wads of jewelry and threw it onto different shelves."
If the charges are true, Crookston's documented take from all the stores was around $10,000.
• • •
It starts small.
"Shoplifting is absolutely a gateway crime," Staib said. "That's the problem with allowing petty shoplifting to continue and slapping it on the wrist and not being proactive."
Occasionally — just 3 percent of the time — the slippery slope creates a different beast. Someone who steals to resell.
Organized shoplifting has increased, for one, at Target stores. The company staffs security guards and keeps employees on the floor to deter the crimes.
"As our technology evolves, criminals will evolve right along with it," said Target spokeswoman Erika Svingen. "It can be anything from a diversion tactic where it's a group of people trying to distract team members … to other things. Anything to get their merchandise out."
After they steal, professionals pop up on the Internet. At resale shops, they try to pass off armloads of brand-new clothes.
"One actually was trying to sell dresses," said Kathy Stearns, manager at Off the Rack, a cash-for-clothes resale store in Largo. "That was a big red flag to us because they were in mint condition. Another kid, probably in his early 20s, came in with new tags and said, 'My grandma buys me these shirts.' "
In Crookston's case, the boutiques she's charged with stealing from are tight knit. The owners watch out for each other.
"Why would a lady from St. Pete be hitting my store?" thought Statz of Temple Terrace. "That's a long way. That's when my Brighton representative was standing here and said Marion's got hit, Warren's got hit."
The owners e-mailed each other. Some hung her picture in the back room.
They went online. They Googled. They discovered her business name.
They found an eBay page.
Seller name: compassquest.
Location: St. Petersburg.
Content: lots of Brighton.
• • •
Crookston has pleaded not guilty on charges stemming from Victorian Village, Crowder Bros. Ace Hardware and Warren's. The cases are all still pending.
"You know, they can blame a lot of things on the economy … but this lady just goes out and about and continues this," said Statz. "How does this happen?"
Crookston doesn't belong in jail, said Corelli, one of Crookston's former clients. She needs professional help. As a business expert, she has seen others lose livelihoods in this economy. Staying focused is the key, she said.
"When I hear stuff like this, people who have failed businesses who resort to crazy things to keep going it's just …
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy and staff writer Colleen Jenkins contributed to this report. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8857.