ORLANDO — Suspects old enough to be grandfathers face statewide charges of shoplifting millions of dollars of merchandise from Publix supermarkets across Central Florida — crimes that law enforcement officers said they carried out consistently over the past decade.
Playing on his age, one of them repeatedly duped clerks by hobbling into stores and asking for a motorized shopping cart.
Over the past 10 years, ring members stole razors, vitamins and hygiene items worth to up to $60,000 a week. They hit as many as 60 stores a week, the Brevard County Sheriff's Office and the Florida Department of Law of Enforcement said Tuesday.
Ranging in ages from 53 to 68, the five worked with a 22-year-old accomplice and sold their bounty on Web auction site eBay and through flea markets, authorities say.
An investigation began in March when the Brevard Sheriff's Office noticed unusually large numbers of costly toiletries being stolen from a Publix on Merritt Island.
When investigators met with Publix security officers, they learned similar thefts plagued the grocery chain's Central Florida stores.
The inquiry focused on Gary Powell, a gray-haired Orlando resident, after security cameras filmed him loading his pockets in the health and the beauty aisles, according to interviews Tuesday.
"When he'd go in, he'd get a little motorized shopping cart and pretend to be elderly and handicapped," Brevard County sheriff's Sgt. Kent Sellers said. "It's amazing how much he could steal."
In some instances, the 56-year-old felon shoplifted as many as 75 packs of Gillette Fusion razor blades. Each pack is worth about $22, Sellers said. Powell hid the stolen items in his clothing or Publix shopping bags, he said.
Powell is the only one of the six suspects with an extensive criminal history. He has used at least 10 aliases and served eight terms longer than six months in Florida jails and prisons since 1982, the state Corrections Department said.
"He pretty much said stealing is all he knows how to do, and that's pretty much his trade," said Agent Robert "Wayne" Ivey, head of FDLE investigations in Brevard and Volusia counties. "Powell orchestrated all of the thefts and told the others, 'We're going to hit this store, this store and this store.' "
Introduced to an undercover officer, Powell led the investigation across county lines to Orange, Osceola, Lake, Sumter and Highlands counties. Working as a single crew with lookouts and a driver, the thieves rarely stole from other supermarket chains, investigators said.
All the suspects knew exactly where they would find what they wanted to steal, Ivey said: electronic toothbrush heads, vitamins, Oil of Olay, computer memory sticks and DVDs.
Their routine was to leave the stores quickly without confronting anyone if challenged, he said.
The others charged with shoplifting were Sam Lamport, 48, Stephen Walton, 53, and Walton's son, Aaron, 22, all of Orlando, records state. All spent most of their earnings on drugs and were arrested in the past week, Ivey said.
The stolen goods were sold to Kenneth Struve, 66, and Warren Goldman, 68, who were charged with trafficking in stolen property, investigators said. The most successful was Struve, who lives in Palm Bay.