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Polk County Sheriff’s Office Organized Retail Crime Detectives, working with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Attorney General's Office of Statewide Prosecution, developed eight suspects statewide during an investigation that started in August of 2019.

According to a release, these eight suspects are responsible for the theft and illegal resale of items such as baby formula, diapers and energy drinks, resulting in felony charges of grand theft and racketeering, among other crimes.

The total estimated loss to retailers is $84,669, of which $10,520 occurred in Polk County. The businesses targeted include Publix, Southeastern Grocers (Winn-Dixie) and Walmart.

The 18 affected counties were identified as Charlotte, Citrus, Desoto, Hernando, Hillsborough, Lake, Lee, Levy, Marion, Orange, Osceola, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, Sarasota, Seminole, Sumter, and Volusia. The 10 judicial circuits affected are the 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 12th, 13th, 18th, and 20th.

On Wednesday, December 16, five of the suspects were arrested in Hillsborough County and booked into the HCSO jail. One suspect was arrested in Orlando and booked into the Orange County Department of Corrections facility. On Thursday, December 17, another suspect turned herself in, in Polk County. The last suspect has a warrant and is still at large.

“This is the second group of retail thieves brought to justice by (Polk) Sheriff (Grady) Judd’s Deputies and my Statewide Prosecutors this month,” Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody said in a statement. “Criminals be warned: We will not allow rampant retail theft to harm Florida businesses and force consumers to pay inflated prices to cover the costs of your indolent, unscrupulous crime sprees.

“These businesses have to build into their budgets projected losses to organized crime rings and shoplifters,” she continued. “Inevitably, those losses get passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices at the cash register. When crime rings, like this one, steal from retailers, they are essentially stealing from all Floridians.”

The thefts and racketeering occurred as follows: Five of the suspects (boosters) would enter the different stores and place dozens of cans of baby formula into bags. Oftentimes they would put baby diapers on top of the formula to further conceal it. On other occasions they stole energy drinks. They then passed all points of sale and loaded the stolen goods into a rental car.

Each organized theft amounted to a range between $350-900 worth of stolen items. The suspects then immediately drove to one of the fencing locations, where they were given cash by the three other suspects (fences) who then resold the stolen items from their stores.

"This is an organized group of criminals working together to steal high-dollar items for their own personal profit, by stealing, and then selling the stolen goods on the black market,” Judd said in a statement. “These suspects are committing felony racketeering and they belong in prison. …

“Our message is simple: if it’s not yours, don’t take it,” Judd continued. “Don’t steal in Polk County and don’t steal in Florida. If you do, and we catch you, you will go to jail and then prison. Organized retail theft is a big problem in Florida costing retailers and consumers millions of dollars.”