Five arrested in suspected ring of purse thefts

- Five people are in custody, suspected in a string of purse snatches that spread between three counties, police said Wednesday.

The crimes started March 12 when a woman had her purse stolen from her while she was in the parking lot of a Walmart in Haines City.

During the next five days, six more women would have their purses stolen while they were in parking lots in Polk County, Clearwater and Bradenton. Detectives say the criminals were targeting vulnerable women whose ages averaged about 65 years old.

"If you had the gutless heat to do that to one person and get away, you would do it to multiple people," said a victim who had her purse stolen Sunday from a Winter Haven Walmart parking lot; she was still so shaken she didn't want to be identified. "I'm afraid to walk alone. I'm actually afraid to shop alone."

The victim said she had just gone to the store to pick up some paper plates and was just getting into her car when she saw something she'll never forget.

"I saw a person's hand -- a man's hand! And he had his hand on the strap of my purse," she said, adding they took $586 in cash she was carrying in her wallet.

Winter Haven Police said two days later those same thieves stole a 71-year-old woman's purse while she was in a Publix parking lot. The woman fell to the ground during the crime and broke her wrist.

"It's horrible. It's despicable. These guys are preying on, what appear to be easy targets to them. It's dangerous. These guys need to be off the streets," said Winter Haven Police Capt. Mitch Meadows.

Investigators determined the suspects were using an SUV that had been stolen March 9 from Calvary Baptist Church in Lakeland.

Lake Wales Police said an unmarked officer spotted the vehicle at around 6 p.m. Wednesday and began following it on to Highway 27.

The driver, according to investigators, wasn't aware he was being followed and pulled over to deal with a tire issue. Officers swarmed the vehicle and took four juveniles and an adult into custody. Their names have not yet been released.

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