Seven arrested in two Florida retail theft rings

Seven people were arrested following two separate organized theft investigations.

On Tuesday morning, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister announced the first investigation started in June 2019 that led to a search warrant at a Tampa home, located at 2611 Emma Street East. Inside the home, detectives found 50 boxes of unopened diapers, thousands of dollars in baby formula, multiple packages of paper towels, toilet paper and brand-new tools.

The discovery led to the arrest of 20-year-old Samya Harris, 35-year-old Pernell Bethell, 64-year-old Clarence Walters, 42-year-old Ronald West, and 30-year-old Konna Engram. They said they identified 39-year-old Lee York as the head of the racketeering circle.

The second investigation started in July 2019, which centered around a home at 3009 Crest Avenue West in Tampa, detectives said. The sheriff's office task force used confidential sources to do two stolen merchandise transactions at the home.

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Detectives said they identified 45-year-old Jose Valdivia-Quinones as the head of this organization.

"This is an example of what can happen when multiple agencies work together and coordinate to go after large complex criminal organizations," said Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody. "These individuals can go in and just take what they want and sell for their own profit. These businesses were getting hit eight to 10 times a day. This was a full-time job for those individuals involved in this criminal organization."

In the case said the suspect instructed the confidential source after steal certain items from stores and then compensated them.

A search warrant was obtained and detectives said they found more than 1,100 pairs of brand name shoes, more than 500 bottles of unopened cologne, multiple personal grooming items, clothes, purses and high-end watches. The items had a total value of roughly $180,000.

"They came from mainstream stores that all of us shop at: CVS, Publix, Walmart, the shoes from Ross, places where we're going to pay as consumers a lot more money to cover the costs of these losses," Chronister said. "[In the Valdivia-Quinones case], some of this was being sold out of state, some of it even being sold back to [people in] Cuba. Apparently there's a tremendous mark-up, the items that are able to be sent overseas."

%INLINE%The criminals were also targeting parents looking for a deal. Alayna Vernon heads up Joining Together Eliminating Poverty, a Tampa charity that helps families in need with those specific needs for their children. As a mother herself, Vernon said parents need to know there are safer resources here to help.

“It's not like these families have $60 to $70 to put on a big box of value wipes and a big box of value diapers. So this is literally thousands of dollars,” said Vernon. “I think in desperation, yes, if they can get more value or they see that as more valuable then they will turn to black-market sellers out of desperation. But we're here to say they don't need to do that.”

Vernon said her nonprofit also educates parents about breastfeeding and other clothing options to help cost-burdened families.

“We even give cloth diapers and cloth diaper education so that they don't have to keep reentering that cycle of needing and needing and needing at the end of every pay period,” said Vernon.

Buying through a third party is risky. Doctors said the products could be tampered with, and you may not even realize it.

“If there's a filler added, if the components are changed, if the salt amount or protein amount is altered in any way, that can severely affect that baby,” said Fox13 medical expert Dr. Joette Giovinco.

Doctors said parents should check any formula for expiration dates, make sure the seal is still intact and not crushed.

Hillsborough detectives said it’s safer to buy from a grocery store or directly from the manufacturer.

According to Moody, all told, there were more than 130 alleged crimes spread across 14 counties.