Sheriff: Woman used homeless people in theft ring

Eight suspects have been arrested in a Polk County retail theft ring where thousands of dollars’ worth of merchandise were stolen.

Polk County deputies said the suspects worked together to steal merchandise from four Lakeland retail stores:

- Lowes (3600 US Hwy 98, 3525 Lakeland Highlands Rd)
- Home Depot (2805 US Hwy 98 North)
- Walmart (5800 US Hwy 98 North, 3501 South Florida Ave)
- JC Penney (3800 US Hwy 98 North)
According to their affidavits, the “ringleader” of the group is Tina Morrison, 46, of 3130 Gardner Road in Lakeland. She worked with seven others to steal roughly $6,700 of merchandise by entering the stores in the garden or automotive sections, putting items in shopping carts and taking them to return counters for gift cards in exchange for the fake returns.

Then, they would use the gift cards to purchase merchandise and pawn that merchandise for cash at various pawn stores, according to the sheriff’s office. Each theft, use of the gift card, and pawn transaction would often occur within a one-hour time frame.

During each return, the suspects provided store personnel with personal identification cards, like driver’s licenses, and during each pawn transaction, the suspects provided pawnbrokers with fingerprints and signatures.

In a news conference Friday, Sheriff Grady Judd issued a stern warning to this group and anyone else thinking about committing crimes like this.

"There's a new day and that new day was established when we created a partnership with our business partners and said, 'look, there's not going to be anymore if this shoplifting where you're charged with a misdemeanor,'" Judd said. "You're given a notice to appear and allowed to walk out of the store after you steal stuff. We're going to lock you up every time."

The sheriff said the money was obtained during the crimes was used to buy drugs, mostly heroin. In fact, investigators say she told them she had a $150-a-day drug addiction.