ROYAL HIGHLANDS — A bright green sticker on the vacant house west of Brooksville warned potential thieves that authorities had employed a high-tech way to catch the culprits responsible for a rash of burglaries of empty homes in the area.
"WARNING," the sticker reads. "THIS PROPERTY MAY BE MONITORED BY GPS TRACKING DEVICE."
Michael Anthony Lander, a former teacher for Pasco County schools who would later tell authorities he was stealing to support his family, either didn't see the sticker, didn't believe it or didn't know what it meant.
Regardless, Lander, 37, was arrested on charges of burglary and grand theft Wednesday after deputies tracked a stolen refrigerator to his home using a global-positioning system, or GPS, device that had been attached to the appliance, according to Sgt. Donna Black, spokeswoman for the Hernando County Sheriff's Office.
Lander later admitted to burglarizing more than two dozen homes in the Royal Highlands area and specifically targeted kitchen appliances, authorities said. Lander told deputies he was selling the appliances on Craigslist.
On Tuesday, authorities say, Lander broke into a vacant home on Sandpiper Avenue and stole a refrigerator and stove. The refrigerator had been outfitted with a GPS tracking device.
Detectives didn't know it at the time, but Lander put the refrigerator on Craigslist and an unsuspecting buyer went to Lander's home at 4051 Longbranch Court on Wednesday. Deputies tracked the appliance to the home of the buyer, who told investigators he'd paid $225 and did not know it was stolen, Black said. He has not been charged with a crime.
Detectives went to Lander's house, found the stolen stove and arrested him.
Lander told detectives he had supported his family for at least the past year by selling appliances. Investigators checked Craigslist and found 35 appliances that Lander had listed this month alone.
He is cooperating with authorities and showing them homes he remembers burglarizing, Black said. He remained in the Hernando County Jail on Thursday in lieu of $40,000 bail.
Lander was charged in Pinellas County in 1994 with burglary, grand theft and dealing in stolen property, records show. He pleaded no contest, paid restitution and was placed on probation. He was charged again in 2001 in Pinellas for passing a worthless check, pleaded no contest and paid restitution.
In 2005, the state Department of Education denied Lander's application for a teaching certificate because of his criminal history, records show. Lander reached a settlement with the state to get the certificate — he had to pay a fine and officials put a letter of reprimand in his personnel file in Pasco County.
Lander worked as a teacher in Pasco until March 2008, according to the district's human resources department. A department staffer would not provide any more details about Lander's employment there Thursday afternoon.
The Sheriff's Office started the GPS program in September in conjunction with Hernando County Crimestoppers, which supplied the warning stickers, Black said. Sgt. Jeff Kraft and Detectives Ignacio Velez and Mike Little have been working the case.
"They've been brainstorming, trying to put a stop to these burglaries," she said.
Lander's is the first arrest as a result.
"(Thieves) hadn't picked one with the GPS until now," Black said.
She would not offer more details about the program, such as the size of the transponder placed on the appliances.
"Undetectable" is all she would say.
Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.