Florida officials dismantled an organized retail crime ring responsible for more than $20 million in losses this year.
Authorities arrested 14 suspects as part of a racketeering investigation, state attorney general Ashley Moody announced Monday. Operation On the Fence uncovered the crime ring which targeted over 20 retailers, including Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Target, Macy’s, Costco, Publix, Home Depot and Lowes, among others.
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“In Florida, we are fighting back against organized retail theft. We will not allow this crime, occurring rampantly in other parts of our country, to wreak havoc on our consumers and businesses,” Moody said at a press conference. “Thanks to great collaborative efforts between my Office of Statewide Prosecution and our amazing law enforcement partners, this massive criminal enterprise, which caused more than $20 million in losses, is out of business.”
Moody credited the collaboration between law enforcement agencies including the Miami-Dade Police Department, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, the Broward Sheriff’s Office, Homeland Security Investigations, the Coral Springs Police Department and the Pembroke Pines Police Department.
The suspects brought stolen merchandise to a primary distributor named Arland Cata, who purchased roughly $1 million worth of goods for 5 percent to 10 percent of their retail value. Cata then sold the items to a higher-level distributor, Joshua Markell, who owned an Amazon storefront called Hollywoodseller. In the past year the store has netted more than $5 million in profits, shipping over 100,000 items to Amazon for sale on Hollywoodseller. When officers arrested the suspects, they seized over 4,800 items worth $1.2 million that Markell targeted for sale on Amazon.
Moody’s office has charged Markell and 13 others with racketeering, organized retail theft, grand theft, dealing in stolen property and other conspiracy charges.
Retail criminals are not only becoming more sophisticated in their efforts to fence stolen goods, but more brazen in their attempts to obtain them.
Officials in New York locked down a Long Island shopping mall after a shoplifter fired a gun and fled the scene pantsless Monday morning. The incident took place at a Clique clothing store located on the second floor of Green Acres Mall in Valley Stream village, where a man was seen layering stolen clothing on top of what he was wearing before exiting the store without paying.
A store security guard approached the suspect before the two engaged in a struggle that ended in the suspect deploying a weapon, police said in a statement. The shot went into the ground, and no one was injured. The suspect then fled the scene and ran to a parking garage where he took off in a red SUV, while stripping off the clothing he had stolen from Clique. Police are still searching for the suspect.
On Friday evening police were dispatched to the Kohl’s at the Pembroke Mall after receiving a call from a loss prevention officer who saw a repeat shoplifter return to the store to steal more merchandise. A police officer tailed the suspect in a patrol car after he fled on foot, and the suspect opened fire on the officer, striking the car.
Backup arrived shortly after and police were able to apprehend the suspect, 24-year-old Tyler Davis, without incident. Police said he was accompanied by 26-year-old Hayley Fernandez and 22-year-old Jaclyn Anderson, who were arrested on an outstanding felony warrant and drug possession, respectively, and charged with conspiracy to commit grand larceny. Davis, who stole merchandise worth nearly $2,000 that day, was charged with attempted aggravated murder, use of a firearm by a violent felon, conspiracy to commit grand larceny and grand larceny.
“This incident underscores the commitment of our officers to serve and protect this community, as well as the fact there is no such thing as a ‘routine’ call,” Police Chief Paul Neudigate said in a statement. “We are incredibly grateful that our officer was not killed or injured, and we ask the community and the rest of our criminal justice system to send the message that attacks on law enforcement will not be tolerated.”
In Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser aims to tackle rising threats to both retail and public safety with the Addressing Crime Trends Now Act (ACT Now), which would give law enforcement more tools to hold criminals to account. Announced Monday, the proposed law would amend provisions of the Comprehensive Policing and Justice Amendment Act to support D.C. area communities and the Metropolitan Police Department’s (MPD) ability to hire and retain officers to fight retail crime.
“This legislation reflects what our community is telling us: they want appropriate accountability for those who choose to commit crimes and inflict fear in our neighborhoods,” Bowser said. “At a time when we’re dealing with historically low staffing levels at MPD, we’re making common-sense changes that recognize the day-to-day operational challenges our officers experience and that will better support safe and effective policing.”
The law includes a provision to create new penalties for organized retail theft, like establishing a new crime classification for “directing organized retail theft.” It will also reinstate a law that makes it illegal to wear a mask for the purpose of committing a crime, intimidating, threatening, or causing fear in others. ACT Now aims to stop people from gathering to buy, sell or use illegal drugs and limit public loitering by reinstating the MPD chief’s ability to declare drug-free zones for 120 hours.
“The proposed legislation also clarifies and updates several existing policies to better align policies with the day-to-day realities of safe and effective policing,” the mayor’s office said in a statement. The law would clarify “the distinction between a serious use of force and incidental contact with the neck,” along with ensuring that officers are able to review their body camera footage before writing their initial police reports in certain circumstances, among other rules.
“This legislation is critical for the public safety of the District of Columbia,” Acting Chief Pamela Smith said. “The legislation is responsive to what we are hearing from community and takes important steps forward in clarifying existing legislative language to ensure our officers are able to fully perform their duties.”
Bowser is also calling for City Council to move forward with her Safer Stronger Amendment Act, first introduced in May 2023, which would introduce stricter penalties for violent crimes.
Retail crime is getting more attention from industry groups serving U.S. merchant interests. The Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) and the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) have organized more than 80 store walks since September to confront the rising tide of shoplifting and other aspects of America’s $95 billion retail crime problem.
“Retailers are committed to doing everything they can to tackle retail crime and its impact on communities. It’s a complex issue that requires a multifaceted, strategic response. Building relationships and collaborating with local prosecutors is just one, albeit very important component to that response,” said RILA senior EVP of retail operations Lisa LaBruno, in a statement. “We’re thrilled that such a large group of prosecutors serving cities and towns large and small signed up to participate and share in our commitment to keeping communities safe.”
Julie Giblin, vice president loss prevention for Ulta Beauty, added that retailers “must work together with DA Offices, law enforcement, landlords, other retailers, solution providers and industry organizations to share learnings and insights to create change and progress. We appreciate the various District Attorneys for taking the time to engage with our loss prevention and store associates, learn about our crime mitigation strategies and discuss best practices that can aid criminal case prosecutions.”
Additional reporting by Jessica Binns.