Tuesday, 29 January 2008
18-person crime ring that may be responsible for the theft of up to $100 million worth of medicine and health and beauty goods from convenience and grocery stores statewide, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said Thursday.The investigation started with two shoplifters at a Publix supermarket on Shepherd Road in Lakeland on June 26, Judd said at a news conference in Lakeland on Thursday afternoon.Rita Maddox and Elisha Cordle of Dover stole nearly $4,500 worth of Oil of Olay products that day, placing them into special bags designed to conceal stolen goods, Judd said.To law enforcement, it seemed like a regular shoplifting incident and the two were charged with grand theft. But after speaking with confidential sources, Judd said, a sheriff’s detective uncovered something more: the single largest organized crime ring of its kind in Polk County Sheriff’s Office history.On Thursday, after executing five search warrants, 14 people were arrested and charged with racketeering and conspiracy to commit racketeering. Five of those people are already serving jail or prison time, Judd said. Four more people are still wanted on the same charges.Judd said many more may be involved.”I highly suspect that this is just a tentacle of a larger operation,” he said. “This is truly more of the beginning of the investigation than its end.”Maddox and Cordle were just two of at least 13 stealthy shoplifters who stole between $60 million and $100 million worth of over-the-counter medicines and beauty and health products from hundreds of convenience and grocery stores in at least 11 counties, Judd said.They reported to two middlemen and two ringleaders, who in turn sold the products out of two warehouses, three flea markets, including one in Auburndale, and two Web sites, including a long-standing eBay.com account.The crime ring has been operating for at least five years, Judd said.The investigation began after Maddox and Cordle, who have a child together, were arrested in June.It spanned seven months and included the sheriff’s offices of Polk and Hillsborough counties, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Attorney General Bill McCollum’s office.The retail theft operation was well-concealed. The 13 known shoplifters are all related in some way to each other and most had prior arrests and convictions for shoplifting, Judd said.They used bags designed to conceal the stolen items to shoplift from the stores, which they revisited numerous times. On one day, Judd said, investigators watched thefts occur in eight different stores. On another occasion, three people shoplifted from a Publix store while a manager did inventory in the same aisle. They were good at what they did, Judd said.The four who led the ring do not have criminal records, he said.Ringleaders Steven and Kerry Coburn are married and own four homes throughout Seminole County, authorities say. They sold the stolen items on their Web site SaleAwaySavings.com, Judd said, and even offered free shipping to customers in the U.S.One item, a soap and cologne gift set for men, was recently being sold on the site for $48.95. A 110-pack of Nicorette orange-flavored gum was on clearance sale for $159.99.The goods were delivered to the Coburns in cardboard Chiquita and Dole banana boxes. Steven Coburn inspected each box to make sure the items were in top condition. Popular items included Gillette razors and razor blades, Oil of Olay moisturizers and other health-related products, from Tylenol and Excedrin to pregnancy tests and diabetic test strips.”He wanted to make sure they were brand names and not generic,” said sheriff’s Maj. Joe Halman.Coburn even required forms to be signed that stated none of the products were stolen, Judd said.Theresa and Ronald Parrish were the middlemen, police said. They dealt with the shoplifters and paid them as much as $3,000 in cash for each delivery. Theresa Parrish, an eBay member since March 2002, sold some of the items out of her eBay store, Lola’s Discount Health and Beauty, officers said.More than 10,000 positive feedback points were left for Parrish from happy eBay members who purchased items such as razor blades, moisturizer and even bras. Buyers left praise for the quality of the products and speed of delivery.Judd said that once they were arrested, the Parrishes quickly confessed.”This investigation is just beginning. We know there are others involved,” he said.It is not known exactly how much of a profit the operation generated. Although the shoplifters were arrested from time to time, their offenses were thought to be singular events. Until the law enforcement agencies developed the investigation, they did not realize how many people were involved, Judd said.