Pair distract shoppers, then snatch wallets, Largo police say

A woman leaned close to 67-year-old Johanne Prentice as she inspected a tube of Benadryl Anti-Itch Gel at a Publix grocery store.

The woman showed Prentice a rash on her arm and asked Prentice if the gel was any good for eczema.

Prentice, who usually uses the gel for mosquito bites, turned the tube over, and they examined the container together.

The woman said she'd take one, grabbed a tube and walked away.

As Prentice turned to her grocery cart, she noticed a man standing a few feet away.

"He just smiled at me. And I thought, 'nice young fella,' " Prentice said.

Not so nice, it turns out.

Prentice didn't know it, but as she and the other woman examined the tube, the man slipped his hand into her purse and swiped her wallet. Prentice noticed her wallet was missing when she tried to pay for her groceries.

Police think the two are working together. The woman distracts victims, usually seniors, and the guy grabs their money, they say.

Largo police have linked them to two Dec. 17 grocery store thefts. Store video captured the couple at two Publix stores, and one of those caught them in the act with Prentice.

And there could be more. Largo police Officer Lauren Bailey said there have been 13 similar crimes in the city since Nov. 4.

"I know if they're doing it in our city, they're doing it in other locations within the county," said Bailey, who responded to the Publix at Ulmerton Road and Seminole Boulevard in December, about an hour after Prentice had her wallet stolen at the Publix at East Bay Drive and Belcher Road.

Police need the public's help to find the suspects, Bailey said.

Bailey also offered advice for other shoppers. She said people should keep a close hold on their valuables. She also suggested that they bring into the store only the money or the card they need to purchase items.

Prentice, who is on vacation from Ontario, said she's having a hard time replacing stolen items, including about $50, a Canadian driver's license, health care card, birth certificate, social insurance card and credit and debit cards. She wishes she could have five minutes with the couple when police catch them, she said.

"I would ask them first if their mother would be proud," she said. "How would they feel if it was their mother that had been violated?"

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

How to help

Largo police are asking anyone with information about the suspects' identities to contact Officer Lauren Bailey at (727) 587-6730.

Pair distract shoppers, then snatch wallets, Largo police say 01/02/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 1, 2010 7:23pm]

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