NEW PORT RICHEY — The sheriff spotted something strange.
It was after midnight on July 27, 2009, and Bob White was headed home from a meeting with his agency attorneys at Longleaf. He saw two trucks lugging trailers of lawn equipment exit the woods at the east end of Town Avenue. They headed north on Starkey Boulevard.
"It's hard to cut grass that late at night," White figured.
White followed the trucks and called dispatch. The suspects ditched the trucks, but deputies chased them down. Shawn Baker, 25, and Jessie R. Johnson, 20, were charged with stealing five vehicles and three trailers with lawn equipment, worth a total of $50,000.
That incident led to an eight-month investigation dubbed "Operation Alabama Slammer" by the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and other agencies. At a press conference on Thursday, the agencies mapped out a $1.5 million burglary ring with cases throughout the Tampa Bay area and Alabama.
We were "blessed to be at the right place at the right time," White said.
White announced federal indictments Thursday for Baker, Johnson and 10 other men accused of stealing everything from leaf blowers, weed eaters, pickup trucks, Bobcat tractors, racing boats, high-end lawn mowers and prescription drugs and driving them to Alabama for sale.
Six of the suspects were already in custody when the indictments were unsealed Thursday. Authorities arrested four others. Two are still at large — Mickey Lemons, 41, identified as the group's leader, and Jesse Reiling, 19. Both men are from New Port Richey.
White said Lemons is considered armed and dangerous and has told people "he is not going to go quietly." Lemons has served three stints in prison — totalling 51/2 years — for numerous convictions of burglary, grand theft and trafficking stolen property, as well as aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. Anyone who spots the suspect is asked to act with caution and call authorities, White said.
"We are on the hunt" for him, White said.
The indictment said the group targeted "mom and pop" pharmacies and cut the power lines outside the businesses before smashing their way inside with crowbars. They stole oxycodone, morphine, methadone, amphetamines, hydrocodone, Viagra and high blood pressure medication, authorities said.
Fifty of the thefts were in Pasco, 48 in Hernando and 12 others scattered in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
Sheriff White's casual attire on the night he stopped the suspects earned a light-hearted label around his department — the Flip Flop Caper. He usually wears cowboy boots, but on that night he sported black and white Nike slip-ons.
He gave full credit on Thursday to the detectives who worked the case.
The others indicted are John Maddox, 29, Jesse James, 30, Floyd Miles, 22, Daniel Johnson, 23, and Ernie North, 30, all of New Port Richey; Joshua North, 24, of Clearwater; and Richard Crain, 22, and Darrell Sedilko, 24, of Hudson.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6229.