TAMPA — Hillsborough County Sheriff's deputies have arrested four people they say are responsible for stealing more than $1 million worth of lawn care equipment.
Deputies recovered almost $303,000 worth of equipment, including tractors, weed trimmers, ladders, rakes and a pressure washer.
"The real tragedy here is that the victims in these cases were mostly small-business owners that were uninsured," Sheriff's Maj. Clyde Eisenberg said at a news conference Monday. "Their lives were undoubtedly significantly impacted for a very long time."
In August 2012, detectives recognized a pattern of lawn equipment thefts related to stolen trucks and trailers that were being abandoned along the Interstate 4 corridor, Eisenberg said. The trucks were pulling trailers containing commercial lawn equipment, usually belonging to small-business owners. A majority of the thefts occurred at night in residential areas in Pinellas, Pasco and Sarasota counties.
Corinne Shaw and her husband's company, KC Lawn Care in Tarpon Springs, were targeted.
The Shaws woke up one morning this month and found their truck, trailer and equipment stolen.
"Walking out and seeing it gone, you don't know what to do," Shaw said. "You're lost. That's your business. Gone."
Deputies recovered the stolen material after a pursuit. The truck was totaled, but the equipment was salvageable. The Shaws now have their equipment insured.
Deputies arrested four suspects in Hillsborough counties linked to the Shaw theft and more than 50 others: Anthony Jerome Woods, 25; Kenneth Javon Pride, 31; James Julius Flucker III, 27; Frank Edwards Jr., 51.
All four suspects are being held without bail. Eisenberg said authorities hope to arrest a fifth suspect within the week.
The suspects each have a significant criminal history for similar types of offensives, said Diane Croff, chief assistant statewide prosecutor in Tampa.
Woods and Pride are charged with first-degree grand theft and could face up to 30 years in prison, Croff said. Flucker faces a charge of second-degree grand theft, and Edwards was charged with third-degree grand theft, officials said.
The suspects would scout out trailers parked outside homes in other counties, then come back at night and steal them, Eisenberg said.
In November 2012, deputies searched a storage location in Tampa and recovered 17 pieces of equipment from 12 different thefts in addition to 20 pieces from a Dover location. The different thefts were from 2009 to 2012.
About 10 percent of the stolen lawn equipment was returned to its owners, Eisenberg said. As the case moves forward, the sheriff's office will put the other recovered items on display and allow victims to look at the property and see if they can identify theirs.
"This is somebody losing their complete job," Eisenberg said of the theft victims. "They probably owe money on these items, and if they're uninsured, there's no way they can recover them other than starting from scratch again."
Eisenberg encouraged people who own commercial lawn equipment to consider putting an alarm on the trailer or a GPS monitor.
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.