ST. PETERSBURG (FOX 13) - A 15-month investigation lead to the arrest of a man police said bought EBT cards for pennies on the dollar and used them to stock the shelves of his own convenience store.
St. Petersburg police arrested the 55-year-old operator of King Food Mart on 22nd Street South, Wail Mari after he bought EBT cards from undercover officers.
Officers said Mari is responsible for a fraud ring involving six Bay area convenience stores.
"There are a lot of people that need these cards because their family needs food. These people were selling these cards to him and were just getting money," said Chief Anthony Holloway.
It all started in October 2014, when a store manager told police about suspicious EBT card transactions.
Investigators quickly discovered Mari was paying up to $0.50 on the dollar for EBT cards, then using them to buy goods at warehouse stores to stock King Food Mart.
"He said this. If he liked you, you got $.50 on the dollar if not maybe you would get $.03 on the dollar," said Chief HOlloway.
In addition to King Food Mart, police said he sold the goods at discounted prices to five other convenience stores and gas stations in Tampa, Dunedin, Seminole, and St. Petersburg.
Mari also took cash payouts from leftover funds on the cards at a BP Gas Station on 4th St. North.
Police said they linked Mari to 430 EBT cards since Oct. 2014. They arrested him after he bought EBT cards from undercover officers.
"He is responsible for a lot of crime in our community. You have people not purchasing food from him, but actually just taking their cards to him," said the chief.
Police executed search warrants January 11 and confiscated $169,000. They also issued warrants for 50 people who sold EBT cards worth more than $200 each to Mari.
Officials estimated the total loss from Mari's operation at $1.62 million over 12 years.
"The message here is if you are doing this especially the people and the stores. We are coming. Just be prepared. We are coming for you," said Chief Holloway.
Mari faces charges of public assistance fraud, scheme to defraud and trafficking in credit cards (EBT).
St. Petersburg police worked with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) during the investigation.