What started out as a “simple shoplifting” investigation earlier this year in Palm Beach County uncovered a retail theft ring involving dozens of people that spanned three South Florida counties, officials announced.
Fourteen people have been charged for their alleged involvement in the criminal group that profited off of items stolen from large retail stores, though more were involved than only those charged, local and state law enforcement officials announced recently. Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office said in a news release Monday the stolen products, which ranged from medications to cosmetics to household items, were ultimately sold online.
Arland Cata, one of the people allegedly involved in the ring, was killed in a Wilton Manors vacation rental early last month, according to court records.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, the Broward Sheriff’s Office, Coral Springs Police, Pembroke Pines Police, Miami-Dade Police and Homeland Security Investigations were all involved in the racketeering investigation dubbed “Operation on the Fence” that started early this year.
The crimes were committed in at least nine judicial circuits in the state, resulting in more than $20 million in losses to Walmart, Target, Publix, Home Depot, Lowe’s and other big-box retailers, Moody’s office said. Pool supply stores and music businesses were also targeted.
“If you think you’re going to come here to Palm Beach County and you’re going to involve yourself in this type of crime, you’re wrong,” Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw said at a news conference announcing the charges Thursday. “Your butts will go to jail. It’s that simple.”
And it isn’t a crime that has no affect on the public, like some may think, Bradshaw said.
“… When you get this volume of people stealing from the stores, then the retailers have to raise the price on things that you buy to make up for this loss,” he said.
PBSO Det. Christopher Apple, one of the lead detectives on the case, said at the news conference that the investigation started after several men stole over-the-counter medication from a local retail store, a “simple shoplifting” of about $1,800.
Through the investigation, detectives uncovered how the group operated: “Boosters” stole large amounts of products from the stores and then sold the products to a “fence,” who then bought the stolen items and resold them for a profit, Apple said.
“This organization has contributed to tens of millions of dollars in losses to retail stores throughout the State of Florida,” investigators wrote in a 199-page probable cause affidavit for the arrests. “Some of the members in this organization have been involved in these criminal activities for over fifteen (15) years.”
Miami-Dade Police also held a news conference with Moody announcing its involvement in the nine-month investigation. The department said in a news release the investigation identified nearly 90 serial boosters, or shoplifters.
The boosters would work quickly, in most cases being in and out of the stores within minutes. In one instance, shoplifters targeted six stores in one day, Apple said.
Apple said two fences were involved the ring: One who bought the items from the shoplifters and then resold them to a “second-level fence,” who then sold them online.
Cata was the first-level fence, according to Moody’s news release. He paid the shoplifters 5% to 10% of the products’ values and then allegedly sold them to second-level distributor Joshua Markell, who ran an Amazon storefront called Hollywoodseller.
The probable cause affidavit said the boosters sold the stolen items for a tenth of the retail price. Boosters sold the products to Cata, who then sold to Markell, who then sold on Amazon, the affidavit said.
Markell’s Amazon store made more than $5 million in sales in the last year and paid Cata about $1.2 million for the stolen goods between January and September this year, the attorney general’s news release said. Cata and Markell employed several people to help with their inventory and to move the stolen products to Amazon, the release said.
Authorities recovered nearly 5,000 products that Markell planned to sell on Amazon in the investigation, totaling more than $1.2 million. More than 100,000 products were shipped to Amazon for Markell’s storefront this year, the release said.
There were more people involved in the ring than the 14 people who have been charged, Apple said. The attorney general’s office said there were dozens of shoplifters who brought stolen products to Cata.
Detectives surveilled Cata, watching as many as 20 people a day coming to Cata’s home to drop items off, according to a petition in a civil forfeiture case against Markell and Cata filed by the Broward Sheriff’s Office on Thursday.
A separate investigation into Cata’s death is ongoing, the attorney general’s office said.
The petition in the civil case identified Cata as the man who was found shot and killed inside a Wilton Manors rental home on Sept. 10. Inside the home, officers found hundreds of over-the-counter merchandise, health and beauty supplies, electronics and other products.
“There were so many retail items in the home that there was barely enough room to move throughout the house,” the probable cause affidavit said.
The petition said that officers knew Cata was staying at the vacation rental in the 500 block of Northwest 28th Court in late June, after he moved out of his apartment in Lauderdale Lakes. They surveilled the rental and saw “frequent traffic” of people coming and going with bags of medication and electronics, the petition said.
The charges the 14 alleged suspects are facing include racketeering, organized retail theft, grand theft, dealing in stolen property and other conspiracy charges, Moody’s office said. They are:
Santana Kamari Jones, 20, an alleged booster.
Clifton Tarod Dickson, 38, an alleged booster.
Maurice Anthony Williams, Jr., 26, an alleged booster.
Cecil Jones, Jr., 26, an alleged booster.
Joel Walks, 26, an alleged booster.
Roderick Branford Taff, 25, an alleged booster.
Yahshua Holland, 24, an alleged booster.
Jamar Cunningham, 32, an alleged booster.
Brooke Elizabeth Cunningham, 34, an alleged booster.
Ricardeau Jean-Louis, 38, an alleged employee of Cata.
Jessica Pauline Robbins, 33, an alleged employee of Cata.
Joshua Rueben Markell, 40, an alleged second-level fence.
Edgar A. Ludena, 33, an alleged employee of Markell.
David John Leto, Jr., 32, an alleged employee of Markell.
Jones Jr., Taff, Holland and Walks were arrested in February. The Broward Sheriff’s Office said in a news release at the time that they were suspected members of an organized retail theft group that several law enforcement agencies were then actively investigating.
The four men referred to themselves as “YPH Hustlers,” or Young Parkway Hustlers, according to the probable cause affidavit. They were identified in nearly 70 retail thefts across South Florida between October 2022 and February 2023.
Members of the criminal group committed a grand theft at a Walgreens in Palm Beach County on Feb. 6, BSO said in its news release. PBSO deputies attempted to stop the suspects, but they intentionally crashed into one of the deputy’s vehicles.
BSO detectives surveilled the suspects’ car until it reached an apartment complex parking lot in the 3800 block of Pacific Point Place in Lauderdale Lakes and arrested the four men. Broward and Palm Beach County deputies searched an apartment and found over-the-counter medications and other products, BSO said in the release.
The petition in the civil case against Markell and Cata said the apartment that was searched was Cata’s. They found thousands of dollars worth of products.
Markell’s home in Hollywood was searched on Sept 26., according to the petition in the civil case. The 14 arrest warrants were obtained in mid-October, according to the petition.
The Office of Statewide Prosecution is handling the cases that resulted from this investigation, Moody’s office said in a news release. The Office of Statewide Prosecution prosecutes cases where the alleged crimes impacted at least two judicial circuits in the state.