The thieves focused on self-improvement items — Crest teeth whitening strips, Rogaine hair growth products, Alli weight loss pills — the moderately pricey stuff they could grab and steal easily and sell quickly to buy drugs.
The Pasco County Sheriff's Office says detectives have been working to bust this theft ring since they got a tip about it in November. Sgt. Chris Beaman of the property crimes unit said four suspects have been arrested and more arrests are coming.
He said the ring operated for about six months in Pasco, Hillsborough, Pinellas and possibly Hernando, focusing on these self-help products in stores such as Target, Walgreens and Publix. They stole about $200,000 worth of products, authorities said. The stolen items — hidden in shopping carts, concealed in their bags or clothes — were then sold to someone who then sold the items on eBay and Craigslist.
Beaman said all of the suspects said they did it because of their addiction to prescription drugs.
"Like the majority of crimes we investigate, these were fueled by prescription pill addictions," Beaman said.
Sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll said the investigation led to one alleged member — Patrick Nierwinski, 25, of New Port Richey — who bought $1,450 worth of Crest Whitestrips, Rogaine products and Alli pills from an undercover agent in January for $320. Nierwinski's bust led to finding other participants in the theft ring, Doll said.
The other suspected ring members are Shaun C. Loree, 32, of Port Richey; Dawn M. Coley, 31, of St. Petersburg and Damian Watson, 38, of New Port Richey. Coley and Watson are on felony probation with the Florida Department of Corrections: Coley for grand theft and Watson for petit theft. Loree served 21/2 years in prison for burglary, credit card fraud and robbery, according to the state. He was released in January 2010.
Nierwinski is charged with dealing in stolen property. He was arrested Wednesday and released Thursday on $10,000 bail.
Loree has been in the Hillsborough County jail since April 27 on charges of possession of a controlled substance, possession of drug paraphernalia and petty theft. Doll said Loree is in the process of being transferred to the Pasco County jail to face charges in the theft ring.
Watson was arrested Thursday and released that same day on $2,000 bail. He is charged with grand theft.
Coley has been incarcerated in the Pasco jail since April 7 when she was picked up on a violation of her felony probation. She is in the process of being charged in the theft ring, authorities said.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.