The men took items meant for a Tampa food bank and resold them, pocketing the proceeds, officials say.
For six years, Ramon Antonio Martinez drove a truck to Lakeland, filled it with donated food and delivered it to a Tampa food bank that supplies 10 counties.
Many times, investigators say, Martinez took detours.
State officials say he and two other men diverted more than $2.5-million in donated goods and sold them for profit, mostly through a scratch-and-dent store in one of Tampa's poorest neighborhoods.
"It really saddens me," said Sherryl Herbert, executive director of the Divine Providence Food Bank. "When you work with someone for six years, you come to know them and care about them. And he knows how much something like this could hurt us, how much we needed that food."
The statewide prosecutor's office has charged the three men, all arrested Monday, with numerous counts of fraud, racketeering, conspiracy, grand theft and dealing in stolen property.
"These people were preying on people who are in the worst position to lose," said Joseph Larrinaga, chief assistant statewide prosecutor.
Investigators say Martinez, 56, of 5421 Eagle Blvd. in Land O'Lakes often was assisted by Gary W. Nash, 53, of 235 W Brandon Blvd., No. 107, in Brandon. The third man, Robert A. Faedo, 29, of 11405 Brancato Lane in Riverview, owned the Price Is Right store in Tampa, where investigators say most of the stolen donations were sold.
The three were held Monday night at Hillsborough County jail. Bail for each was set at $425,000.
FDLE agents, employees of Publix Super Markets and Tampa police officers confiscated truckloads of goods from Faedo's store Monday. Faedo made a healthy profit selling the stolen items while Martinez and Nash each collected a cut, agents said.
Investigators don't know when the scheme started or who approached whom.
But in November 1999, Publix spokesman Lee Brunson said, an employee in the Loss Prevention Center at Publix headquarters in Lakeland began to notice donated items turning up in flea markets.
The employee, Joe Williams, could tell because Publix marks each one with a special white sticker, Brunson said. He notified the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the investigation began.
When investigators compared records from Publix's reclaimed items section and records at Divine Providence Food Bank, the discrepancy was clear, said FDLE Special Agent Supervisor David Waller.
"Publix had given 450 truckloads of those items to Divine Providence (since April 1999)," Waller said. "Only 91 actually made it there to the people who need it."
In January, agents contacted Herbert of the Divine Providence food bank and told her of their investigation and suspicions.
"We're trying to help people here," she said. "They didn't steal from us, they were stealing from hungry people, less fortunate people, people who were having problems."
The food bank channels food through more than 200 other charities.
Publix is Divine Providence's biggest donor, Herbert said, and provided more than a quarter of the 4.5-million pounds of goods the charity collected last year.
Publix gets credit from its suppliers for damaged-package items, then donates them to charity because the food inside is still okay.
Individual stores send their damaged or unsellable items back to a Publix warehouse in Lakeland, where charities such as Divine Providence send trucks.
Even with a significant dropoff in donations from the supermarket this year, Martinez still delivered Publix donations every day, so Herbert said she didn't think anything of it.
The office sent Publix receipts for the food, but no one on either end ever contacted anyone on the other in person.
The discrepancy in pickups and deliveries went unnoticed.
Investigators say Martinez told them that he made $180,000 on the scheme, and bought a new racehorse to celebrate.
The investigation is continuing, Waller said, since agents believe Martinez also diverted truckloads of goods from other supermarket chains.
Monday's charges also involve about 20 truckloads of Winn-Dixie donations. Winn-Dixie officials declined to comment.
Maureen Meyer lives less than a block from Faedo's gray, fortresslike store at 15th and Rodney streets near Tampa's College Hills area.
She said she shopped there about twice a week, mainly for hair products and lotion. Although she saved a dollar on her Alberto VO5 hairspray, Meyer said she never will go to another second-market store.
"I think it's disgusting," Meyer said. "I'm a good Christian, I believe in helping people and I think this is terribly pathetic.
"Imagine. Stealing from the poor for 100 percent profit."
To donate to Divine Providence, call (813) 254-1190.
_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.