TAMPA — A major retail theft ring operated across 14 central Florida counties and shipped bags of stolen goods to Cuba, investigators said, but all roads led to a barber shop in a Tampa strip center.
The Star Barbershop at 4311 W. Waters Ave. served as a front for an operation that targeted stores including Publix, Walgreens and Winn-Dixie, hitting as many as 10 locations and making off with up to $100,000 a week in goods, investigators said.
At a news conference Wednesday in Winter Haven, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd called it a "well-oiled thieving machine."
The investigation started in February with a tip from Publix supermarkets to the Polk Sheriff's Office.
As investigators tracked the thieves — mainly Cuban men — other agencies joined in: the Statewide Prosecutor's Office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and the Tampa Police Department, among them.
Five people have been arrested on 31 felony charges including racketeering, cheating or gross fraud, and grand theft. One suspect still is being sought. All six are from Tampa.
The ringleaders went to great lengths to provide cover for their operation, Judd said. One man, Reynel Hernandez Perdomo, 43, even obtained a business license to operate out of the Star Barbershop, and the barbershop owner, Dayron Ramon Torres, 31, had Perdomo sign a contract pledging not to use the location for the sale of stolen goods.
"Some people will tell you it's shoplifting and a minor event," Judd said. "What it is is organized retail crime."
It's a crime that everyone pays for, said John Vecchio, FDLE's assistant special agent in charge: "This cost is passed on to consumers in higher price tags."
Judd also expressed outrage that two of the suspects who had no legitimate jobs qualified for government assistance, including electronic benefits transfer cards or food stamps.
Stolen items were sold to several fencing operations and some were sent to Cuba, wrapped in plastic bags, in weekly air shipments Judd said.
Burlington, CVS and JC Penney also are among the stores hit. Among the goods targeted were shoes, perfumes, medicines, teeth-whitening strips and razor blades. One of their techniques was to enter a store carrying a cooler, pile items inside it, and leave by walking or rolling out with a cart. They would return and repeat the process.
During one arrest, investigators found 600 pairs of shoes and 200 bottles of perfume. A suspect arrested in St. Petersburg tried to barricade himself with his girlfriend inside a bedroom by piling stolen clothes and other items against the door.
Stolen goods spilled into a bedroom used by the 12-year-old daughter of suspect Tomas Rodriguez Oliva, 47, of Tampa.
Also arrested were Santiago Martinez Jorrin, 33; Danays Acosta Benitez, 34; and Michael Baladron Jimenez, 32. Still being sought is
Michael Baladron Jimenez, 32.
Investigators recorded 150 separate thefts and some $2 million in goods during their six-week investigation, but that represents only a portion of the theft ring's total take, Judd said. He didn't know how long they had been operating before his agency received the tip.
What's more, the ring is one of many just as large operating in Florida, he said.
Some of the suspects had been arrested before on retail theft charges and one smiled when investigators came to arrest him, confident he'd be released soon from custody, Judd said.
"He wasn't smiling," the sheriff said, "when he learned he was facing racketeering. That's a 30-year-felony."