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$25,000 in stolen clothes discovered

The red-haired woman said her name was Maria Riano and she was from Elizabeth, N.J. She asked the Continental Airlines agent for a ticket to Newark and pointed to the eight bulging, extra-large duffel bags lined up behind her. They were coming too.

The ticket agent asked Riano the standard question: "Did anyone else pack your bags?"

Riano didn't respond in the usual way, officials said later.

"Why do you need to know that?" she snapped back.

Riano had cause to be nervous. Inside the bags were more than $25,000 in clothes authorities said were stolen from at least two Hillsborough malls.

Riano, an illegal Peruvian immigrant, carried an itemized shopping list of the stolen clothes, their sizes and prices. Officials say she and other members of a shoplifting ring planned to hit several Tampa stores and make a quick getaway north to sell the items.

Riano already has a lengthy arrest record in three states under several names on felony retail theft and criminal enterprise charges.

This time, her rude, defensive manner did her in.

"The airline agent was pretty sharp," said Lt. Kevin Perridge with Tampa International Airport Police. "She knew something wasn't right and checked the bags."

Inside, the agent saw some higher-end clothes with the price tags and anti-theft devices still attached. She called police. The ticket agent is a witness in the case so police declined to identify her.

Perridge said airline employees are legally entitled to search any passenger's bag. Police must ask for permission or get a search warrant.

When police arrived, Riano gave them a driver's license from Puerto Rico. It was fake. They later identified her as Riano, although she has used several aliases. TIA police called Immigration and Naturalization Service agents, who are performing a fingerprint search to learn more about her identity and her criminal past.

INS agents also will be working with the State Attorney's Office in the coming weeks to decide whether to prosecute Riano for her crimes first or deport her.

"Either way, she's not going anywhere for a while," Perridge said.

Perridge said Riano is part of a "shoplifting gang" that hits stores quickly and manages to slip out undetected by creating a distraction.

Riano and her unknown accomplices are suspected of hitting at least two Hillsborough County malls: Citrus Park Town Center and Brandon Town Center. They stole clothes from Eddie Bauer, Banana Republic, Abercrombie & Fitch, Victoria's Secret, Express and Guess. At department stores, they stole brands like Nautica, Tommy Hilfiger, Kenneth Cole, Playboy and Ralph Lauren.

Perridge said the store manager at Brandon's Abercrombie & Fitch already has identified a pile of men's clothes that came from his store. They were stolen in a brazen theft several days ago in which an entire rack of clothes disappeared.

Perridge, who said TIA has dealt with shoplifting rings in the past, added that Riano may have just been buying a ticket in order to ship the clothes back to New Jersey to sell and would've stayed behind or gone to another location.

"These traveling thieves, it's always something new with them," Perridge said. "They make big bucks doing this. It's how they make their living."

Riano has been charged with dealing in stolen property, unauthorized use of a driver's license and obstructing an officer. She is being held in the Hillsborough County jail in lieu of $4,000 bail. Even if she posts a bond, deputies have been instructed to hold her in jail for immigration officials.

Perridge said more charges may be filed as officials figure out who Riano really is and whether she is wanted in other states.