LARGO — They hit grocery stores across Pinellas County over the course of a month, police said, in search of valuable white powder with a strong market for sale over the Internet: baby formula. They stole thousands of dollars' worth. Then they got caught in the act.
Last Saturday, just after 7 p.m., Largo police responded to a call from the Publix at 10411 Ulmerton Road. A woman dressed in black had tried to leave the store with reusable shopping bags full of baby formula she hadn't paid for, according to an arrest report. A Publix employee recognized the woman from a previous attempted theft, the report said, and approached her. The woman left the bags at the front of the store, then walked into the bathroom.
Jessica B. Gordon, 28, of Brandon, had tried to steal 13 cans of formula, police said. She wasn't working alone. In the parking lot, Brian L. Oliver had been waiting in their getaway car, according to police. In the trunk, police found more than 75 cans of formula, estimated to be worth about $2,500.
Oliver, 31, of Brandon, told police he and Gordon had been stealing infant formula from stores across Pinellas for a month, then selling it online, according to arrest reports. Largo police found several postings on Craigslist between May 15 and June 29 advertising baby formula for sale with Oliver's and Gordon's cell phone numbers.
The cans in the trunk represented both the couple's haul for Saturday, Oliver told police, and formula stolen earlier that they planned to sell. A few hours before, Oliver walked into the Publix at 5000 East Bay Drive and left with 36 cans of formula estimated to be worth about $900 in reusable shopping bags, according to an arrest report. That time, Gordon had waited in the car.
Gordon faces two felony charges of grand theft, one felony charge of dealing in stolen property and one misdemeanor charge of retail theft. Oliver faces felony charges of grand theft and dealing in stolen property and one misdemeanor charge of retail theft.
Baby formula is a popular target for theft, leading some retailers to put cans behind the counter or in places highly visible to employees. Retail associations frequently cite formula among America's most shoplifted goods, along with designer jeans and over-the-counter medication.
"It seems like an easy target for theft," said Largo Lt. Mike Loux, "and it's a high-dollar return when people sell it."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.