BROOKSVILLE — Something about the two people cashing checks at the counter in a Spring Hill Publix store last week seemed suspicious to Tim Roth.
So Roth, an off-duty inspector for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, followed the pair to the parking lot, where they got into a car with three other people and drove to the Publix store on Cortez Boulevard in Brooksville, authorities said. Roth watched as two of the car's occupants entered the store and cashed more checks.
Suspecting fraud, Roth called the Hernando Sheriff's Office.
Roth's actions led to the arrest of a man wanted in connection with a multi-state check fraud ring that has racked up substantial losses for Publix, the Hernando County Sheriff's Office said Wednesday.
Leon Edward Stovall, 33, of Orlando is suspected of cashing several hundred fraudulent checks at Publix stores in Florida and several other states throughout the Southeast, authorities said.
Described as the planner and supervisor of the operation who printed checks and altered identification cards, Stovall was already the subject of an ongoing fraud investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement when he was arrested in Hernando County on Friday.
After Roth called authorities that day, Brooksville police arrived at the Brooksville Publix store in time to see the five suspects driving away. Officers stopped the car after witnessing a traffic infraction.
During interviews with a Sheriff's Office detective later that day, authorities say, Stovall and the other four suspects admitted to being involved in a scheme that used counterfeit checks with real business names and random routing and account numbers.
Three of the suspects used altered identification cards to cash at least six counterfeit checks for roughly $2,900 at several Hernando County Publix locations, according to the Sheriff's Office. Those suspects are Amanda Renee Berry, 22, Tammy Anette Duncan, 41, and Joshua Scott Hicks, 26, authorities said.
A fourth suspect, 40-year-old Walter Clinton Ingram, drove the car to the Hernando locations.
All of the suspects are from the Orlando area, and all five were charged with organized fraud.
Three days later, local authorities learned that Stovall was suspected in the multi-state ring, and FDLE officials came to Hernando to interview him. A department spokesman did not return a message from the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday.
Stovall has a lengthy arrest record in Florida, with convictions for offenses including drug possession, larceny, burglary and fraud.
Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten said the Lakeland-based company has been working on the case with law enforcement for more than a year. Patten said the bogus checks totaled "hundreds of thousands of dollars."
"We are always updating our procedures and upgrading our systems to help reduce our exposure to check fraud," Patten said in an email to the Times.
News researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Laura Herrera can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 754-6114.