TAMPA — Agents arrested 21 people accused of accepting food stamp money for items including beer, cigarettes, condoms and, in one case, oxycodone, state law enforcement officials said Thursday.
Four of the stores involved in the suspected fraud are in the Tampa Bay area — three in Tampa and one in Port Richey — the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said. On Wednesday, six bay area clerks were arrested and charged with food stamp fraud.
One of the suspects, Curtis Raymond Walker, 51, the owner of Big Daddy's Quick E Drive By in Tampa, was found dead in his home this morning, Tampa police said. There were no signs of foul play or forced entry, and an autopsy has not been completed. He left behind a wife and two teenage children, family friend Lamont Walker said.
Earlier this year, undercover FDLE agents visited about 30 convenience stores and bought ineligible items from 15 of the stores. In some transactions, the stores made money by swiping the government-issued Electronic Benefit Transfer card for an amount more than the purchase and keeping some of the excess cash for themselves, said FDLE special agent Jim Madden.
He said the undercover agents often simply asked, "Do you have cash today?" and were able to get money from their EBT cards, which work like debit cards and allow users to access funds for approved food staples through the federal food stamp program.
The agency estimates that nationwide, this type of fraud accounts for millions of dollars of misused taxpayer money. About 2.5 million people in Florida get food stamp benefits through the Department of Children and Families.
"These benefits are intended to put food on the table for those in need," FDLE Assistant Commissioner Ken Tucker said.
Before the undercover operations started in January, FDLE agents analyzed dozens of convenience stores and focused on about 30 that were doing an unusually high amount in sales using the EBT cards.
In some cases, the stores were doing $20,000 to $30,000 of business with the EBT cards, compared with nearby stores doing just over $1,000 a month.
At Big Daddy's at 5229 S MacDill Ave. in Tampa, an undercover agent was able to buy beer, cigarettes and condoms. In addition to Walker, store clerks Wayne R. Stumbo, 46, and Tabitha Z. Wood, 34, were arrested.
At Hawkins and Bell's Grocery at 4020 E Osborne Ave. in Tampa, an undercover agent was able to get about $290 using an EBT card. The store kept about $300, the FDLE reported. Tracy Lamar Burr, 22, who works at the store, was arrested.
At Checkers Mini Mart at 6521 Ridge Road in Port Richey, an undercover agent bought beer and cigarettes. Teoman Markal, 46, who works at Checkers, was arrested.
And at MZ Food Store at 5247 S MacDill Ave. in Tampa, an agent bought cartons of cigarettes. Mohammad Ali Abukhder, 33, who works at the store, was arrested.
The remainder of FDLE's arrests took place throughout the state. Those arrested were charged with food stamp fraud, a third-degree felony.
The department now plans to launch phase two of its food stamp fraud crackdown. Agents will focus on arresting those who use their EBT cards to buy ineligible items.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.