Authorities: Shoplifting ring stole ‘millions’ from Publix stores

Suspects old enough to be grandfathers face statewide charges of shoplifting millions of dollars of merchandise from Publix supermarkets across Central Florida — crimes law enforcement officers said they carried out consistently over the past decade.

Playing on his age, one of them repeatedly duped clerks by hobbling into stores and asking for a motorized shopping cart to navigate the aisles and carry out his goods.

Over the past 10 years, ring members stole razors, vitamins and hygienic items worth to up to $60,000 a week. They hit as many as 60 stores a week, the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Department of Law of Enforcement said Tuesday.

Ranging in ages from 53 to 68, the five suspected thieves worked with a 22-year-old accomplice and sold their bounty on eBay and through local flea markets, records show.

An investigation of the ring began in March when the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office noticed unusually large numbers of costly toiletries being stolen from a Publix supermarket on Merritt Island.

When investigators met with Publix security officers they learned similar thefts plagued the grocery chain’s Central Florida stores.

The probe focused on Gary Powell, a gray-haired Orlando resident, after security cameras filmed him loading his pockets in the health and the beauty aisles, according to interviews Tuesday.

“When he’d go in, he’d get a little motorized shopping cart and pretend to be elderly and handicapped,” Brevard County Sheriff’s Sgt. Kent Sellers said. .”

In some instances, the 56-year-old felon shoplifted as many as 75 packs of Gillette Fusion razor blades. Each pack is worth about $22, Sellers said. Powell hid the boosted items in his clothing or Publix shopping bags, he said.

Powell is the only one of the six suspects with an extensive criminal history. He has used at least 10 aliases and served eight terms longer than 6 months in Florida jails and prisons since 1982, according to the state Department of Corrections.

All of the suspects were familiar with the layout of Publix supermarkets and knew exactly where they would find what they wanted to steal: electronic toothbrush heads; vitamins, Oil of Olay, computer memory sticks and DVD’s, Ivey said. Their routine was to leave quickly without confronting anyone if caught, he said.