Wednesday, 11 September 2019 12:12

How the Home Depot’s stolen tools are fueling Florida’s drug trade

Sara DiNatale
Retail and Tourism Reporter
www.tampabay.com

BRANDON — Dale Inman tried to run.

It didn’t matter that a Hillsborough County detective flashed his badge, Inman wasn’t stopping.

He abandoned the generator and power washer he had just stolen and tore out of the Home Depot on E. Adamo Drive. He made it through the special exit for contractors and into the parking lot, where his partner waited in a getaway car.

But detective Philip Merkle wasn’t alone. Officers who’d been hiding in unmarked cars shouted: “Stop! Sheriff’s Office.” Surrounded, Inman eased to the pavement.

His arms began to flail before deputies could cuff him. His body shook and seized.

“What’s wrong?” Merkle called down.

Inman couldn’t answer.

Minutes later, after his body calmed, Inman told deputies and medics he had a seizure disorder and hadn’t been taking his medications. He said he was addicted to heroin.

Ripping off hardware stores was his full-time job.

Kyle Walters watched the parking lot chaos from inside his Dodge Challenger that evening in April 2018. He waited for Inman to shuffle into a Sheriff’s Office cruiser before pulling out of the lot. He probably thought he went unseen.

But days later, Walters and dozens of others would be in custody.

Local detectives and state prosecutors say the men were part of an organized ring, one that took months to bring down. Hillsborough County deputies identified suspected boosters, like Inman, and fencers, like Walters, and tied them to a network that brazenly ripped off power tools, then sold them on the black market. Thieves were lured into the business — for heroin, meth or cash — to feed their addictions.

In just under a year, the Sheriff’s Office said, the ring hit four Home Depots in eastern Hillsborough repeatedly, walking away with merchandise worth $2.4 million.

Big-box retailers know people will steal. They build losses into their annual budgets, accounting for employee error, fraudulent returns and shoplifters.

Stores pass on that “shrinkage” to shoppers — a 2015 survey by merchandise security company Checkpoint Systems, Inc. found U.S. households could be footing up to $615 a year to help retailers recover from theft.

Organized retail crime cost retailers $777,877 for every $1 billion in sales during 2017, according to the National Retail Federation. That’s up from around $450,000 in 2015.

In Florida, state and local governments lose up to $1.6 billion in taxes per year to stolen goods, according to estimates. Some of the top organized retail theft hubs in the country are in the Sunshine State.

Scott Shalley, the CEO of the Florida Retail Federation, knows the image most shoppers have of retail theft: teens swiping iPhones or parents stealing baby clothes. Those types of offenses are not what retailers say is squeezing bottom lines.

“It’s very dangerous in the long run to write this off just as shoplifting, because it’s much more than that,” Shalley said.

Maj. Darrin Barlow with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office says the most successful boosters work in pairs. One might discreetly move a toolbox out of view of security cameras and start filling it with saw blades and cordless drills. The other will enter the store with the same model tool box, as if to check if an accessory will fit.

Then, they’ll make the swap. The full tool box will head out the door, the empty one left in its place.

Not every theft is an orchestrated effort. Some boosters act solo, pile tools into the cart and walk right out the door. Sometimes, they’ll flash a fake receipt.

Their hope? Law enforcement won’t care enough to track them down.

When Det. Todd Schrock first went undercover in 2017, he met the lawnmower man.

Duane Guthrie had been hit by a truck decades earlier. The accident mangled his body and left his eyesight impaired enough that he could not get a driver’s license, so Guthrie only met buyers in two places: his Valrico home or the Wawa less than a half-mile away. He rode to the gas station on an old Dixie Chopper, with the yellow DeWalt or red Milwaukee boxes in his lap.

Guthrie told buyers he was a DeWalt vendor who bought in batches.

But DeWalt had never heard of Guthrie, detectives learned, and there was only one approved wholesaler in Tampa Bay. That business didn’t carry power tools.

Yet, in the coming months, every online seller investigators came across would use the same storyline to explain the low prices.

Schrock and other detectives on the case work in District V, a jurisdiction that begins where Tampa police’s ends. It sprawls to cover most of Brandon and communities like Bloomingdale, Palm River-Clair Mel and Progress Village.

Barlow said the district, launched in May 2017, has a high concentration of retailers: the Westfield Brandon Mall, Walmarts, Lowe’s and Targets — and two Home Depots. The connection to the drug trade gave deputies more reason to investigate.

By the start of 2018, Guthrie had more competition online and a protege: Kyle Walters. Walters used the screen name “Tools 4 the Trade!” Guthrie adopted “Overstocked Tools.”

Every day, they sent hundreds of messages, trying to bargain with buyers and set up meetings.

That February, the detectives got a tip about another seller, one who called himself “Amazon.”

The tipster said Amazon drove his girlfriend’s silver Honda, bought large amounts of tools from heroin addicts and sent them lists of what to steal next.

A successful fence retains anonymity. It’s why the men liked website platforms that didn’t require their real names, why they seldom stole tools themselves. It’s also why detectives knew the only way to break up the ring was by going undercover, posing as buyers and sellers.

Amazon’s real name was Aaron Orr. He made deals from a lawn chair in his front yard or in the parking lot of a nearby Family Dollar.

Each man handled his own sales. They worked together while still competitors, according to detectives — almost like a series of franchisees under the same brand.

***

Barlow said his deputies noticed the tool theft issue within days working in the new squad.

The dealers know that a cart of tools is more lucrative than a cart of razor blades, which are perennially lifted and sold at flea markets or overseas. The growth of the online marketplace has made it easy to sell big-ticket items outside of pawn shops, which require customers to leave behind their fingerprints.

And a truck full of stolen tools is not going to warrant the same charges as a glove box full of methamphetamines.

Det. Schrock told the fences his name was Scott and he sneaked out items through a hole in the fence of the garden department. Another detective claimed to be good at finding unmanned exits.

By the end of March, Schrock was in regular contact with Guthrie and Amazon, who scribbled a list of two dozen items and what he would pay on a loose-leaf sheet of paper.

“I like to keep things professional,” he’d later tell detectives.

Meanwhile, Inman would sell his boosts to whomever was offering the best price. Usually that meant Walters.

In April, Inman passed out in his car at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino. Tampa police knocked on his window and saw a needle and heroin in plain view. He was arrested on possession charges, but he didn’t stay in jail long.

Walters’ wife, LaTasha, secured Inman’s bail through a bondsman.

Just over a week later, Walters and Inman were in that Home Depot parking lot plotting the next heist.

Inman went back to jail that day after medics cleared his seizure. This time, his bail was revoked.

***

The day before the Sheriff’s Office raids, Guthrie sat on OfferUp, an online sales platform, past 3 a.m. He mocked a buyer trying to lower the price on a welding machine worth $4,000.

That morning, around 8, he woke up to deputies at his door.

They impounded a stolen boat and a Charles Chips can stuffed with more than $5,000. At another fencer’s house, they found a scale with glass and metal pipes on a nightstand. And in a drawer, nearly $13,000 sat in rolls.

By 10:15 a.m., deputies were in east Tampa at the home Amazon shared with his mother.

“I got greedy,” he told Det. Schrock.

Inside, they found five pounds of marijuana. Among the boxes of tools were three different ledgers he’d used to track sales.

When deputies arrived at Kyle Walters’ home in Ruskin that morning, he wasn’t there.

His wife had kicked him out the night before.

He was always out trying to hustle deals, she told detectives as deputies combed through her home.

Walters was in his car when he saw the scene at his home. A deputy noticed the Ohio State Buckeyes sticker on the back window as Walters tried to turn around and pull away.

Deputies found pills and a baggie with powder residue in his pockets. In the house, they found more pills, without prescriptions, and a digital scale.

He was taken to his home briefly, then to a holding cell. Each fencer was held in a secluded room, unaware the Sheriff’s Office arrested them all in one morning.

Most of the men didn’t say much. But Walters? He couldn’t stop talking.

***

Walters said he’d left Ohio for a fresh start in Florida. He’d been busted selling drugs up north.

At first, he sold liquidated and discontinued tools online, trying to run an honest business. But sales tapered as more new tools at lower prices showed up online.

He had a wife and children to support and was desperate to make more money. Guthrie showed him how.

Walters sat in the cramped interview room, slowly rambling. He held his face in his cuffed hands. His eyes were bloodshot. He hadn’t slept since fighting with his wife the previous night.

Det. Ronald Corr was nearly two hours into his questions before Walters understood he wasn’t facing shoplifting charges. He’d be charged with multiple felonies.

He shook his head. He cried and rocked.

“I can’t believe I just ruined my (expletive) family,” he said.

Corr asked him what he thought would happen — if he thought cooperating with detectives now meant he’d somehow get off the hook.

”Kyle, there are four people on the top of the food chain,” Corr said. “You’re one of them.”

It was never supposed to get this big, he said. He never hurt anyone. It was “victimless crime.” And why weren’t the boosters facing the same, serious charges, he asked.

“If you guys don’t get them then, they’re just going to keep doing it,” he told Corr.

“We are arresting them,” the detective said. “But you look at it this way, if we take away the outlet, maybe they’ll move on.”

Walters barely let Corr finish the sentence.

“They’ll find a new person.”

Ultimately, deputies arrested 34 people, mostly boosters.

But the first-degree felony charges each fencer faced were elevated months later by Florida's statewide prosecutor. Part of the Attorney General’s Office, the statewide prosecutor focuses on crimes that cross county lines, usually racketeering cases.

The state law mirrors the federal law and covers a wide range of criminal activity.

It also carries up to 30 years in state prison.

Walters, Orr and Guthrie face multiple felony charges. Inman recently got out of jail on probation after agreeing to testify.

No trial date has been set.

Since 2015, the statewide prosecutor has begun racketeering cases against 327 people. Roughly two thirds of those are tied to shoplifting rings.

The previous state attorney general made organized retail theft rings a priority, and that’s something Ashley Moody has continued, a spokeswoman said. The statewide prosecutor’s office declined to comment further because the case is ongoing.

None of the men charged as part of the Hillsborough Home Depot investigation responded to requests for an interview.

Walters’ attorney, Bryant Camareno, called the charges “overkill.”

Camareno said the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, more commonly known as RICO, was originally meant to target mob leaders, “The Untouchables.”

Walters was the first person in 20 years to contact him about organized crime charges related to retail theft.

“My client is no Al Capone,” he said. “It’s not like he made millions.”

***

The Hillsborough case isn’t an outlier for Home Depot.

Scott Glenn, the company’s vice president of asset protection, said another ring recently stole close to $20 million in tools.

Home Depot has its own set of investigators to monitor retail crime.

The company worked closely with Hillsborough County detectives, giving them access to run stings in its stores.

Glenn said some law enforcement agencies are too understaffed to take on retail crime. Some simply don’t view it as a priority.

“Businesses can’t afford to lose product like this,” Glenn said.

He has seen other retailers close stores that became steady targets for organized shoplifting.

In the last two decades, 37 states have raised the threshold for felony shoplifting to keep pace with inflation. Some have gone as high as $2,500.

Higher thresholds can serve to deter prosecutions, said Robert Moraca, a former detective and vice president of loss prevention with the National Retail Federation. Career criminals avoid serious charges by stealing below certain amounts, racking up misdemeanors instead, he said.

Retailers sometimes won’t even get police response to a shoplifting complaint if the amount is too low, he said.

Florida had one of the lowest felony thresholds in the country at $300 until the most recent session, when it passed a bill to increase it to $750. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it into law on June 28.

Florida’s update includes a provision that targets organized rings. Prosecutors are now allowed to aggregate items stolen over a 90-day period if the thefts occur in more than one county. Previously, it was only 48 hours.

“A person stealing $600 doesn’t mean a lot to me,” Glenn said. “One person stealing $600 ten times means a lot to me. Those are the people who actually put a hurt on us.”

About five years ago, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd created the first organized retail crime unit in the state. His investigators will take on any case in Florida with a tie to Polk County, which isn’t hard to do. Boosters spread out their targets.

“They’re organized enough where they will say: We will hit Polk today and will come back to Pinellas and Hillsborough and Pasco tomorrow,” he said. “They want to give them time to restock and not create a pattern of activity.”

Judd’s unit recently busted a ring, based out of Tampa, whose leaders were shipping stolen goods to Cuba.

That, too, is being tried by the state prosecutor’s office as a racketeering case.

“Quite frankly, that is our end game,” Judd said. “As long as you’re just arresting people at the front end, you’re not getting to the core of the problem.”

***

In District V, detectives hoped after last year’s bust, they’d see the trend start to taper.

Thefts are down so far this year, about 8.5 percent. But Maj. Barlow said there is still time for the numbers to move up, to the nearly 1,000 theft arrests they made last year.

“There are new players in the game,” Barlow said. “It’s prevalent.”

One day this summer, Det. Schrock sat in front of a Home Depot computer that showed every security camera’s view in the Riverview store.

Home Depot employees spotted a man in a blue shirt they recognized walk through the front door.

Schrock focused on aisle 12, full of power tools. His fingers moved fast on the keyboard, jumping from frame to frame, following as the man picked up a DeWalt drill kit priced at $299. “He’s past aisle 13, 14,” Schrock said to deputies outside. “He’s heading toward garden. Past aisle 58, 60.”

The man walked steadily past a cashier, who asked for a receipt. The man flashed a fake one and rushed out.

“He did not pay for that,” Schrock called into his phone. “You can arrest him.”

Moments later, undercover officers with guns drawn took the man into custody in the middle of the parking lot.

He had a partner, too, waiting in a beat-up Chrysler.

Inside the car, investigators found a baggie that tested positive for meth, along with an empty Milwaukee drill box.

Deputies ran the car’s plate. It didn’t belong to either man.

“This car belongs to Jennifer Cartwright,” one deputy called out.

The others chuckled. They knew Cartwright well. She’d been arrested at that very store.

She was one of Kyle Walters’ regular boosters.

About this story
For this project, Tampa Bay Times staff writer Sara DiNatale reviewed hundreds of pages of police reports, court documents and search warrants, as well as more than 6,000 messages sent over the OfferUp app.

Quotes from the men accused of running the tool ring are taken from investigative reports or recorded interviews with detectives. Records were obtained through public records requests.

The Times conducted more than a dozen interviews with law enforcement, Home Depot personnel and retail or security experts.

The accused
Dale Inman, 37, of Brandon pleaded guilty to a first-degree felony for violating the RICO statute and a third-degree felony for fraud. He made a plea arrangement with prosecutors and was released from jail on his own recognizance in April.

Kyle Walters, 38, of Ruskin faces four first-degree felony charges, which include counts of RICO violations and dealing in stolen property. He also faces three second-degree felony charges for dealing in stolen property and three third-degree felony charges for fraud and unlawful use of a two-way communication device. He is being held without bail.

Duane Guthrie, 47, of Valrico faces the same four first-degree felony charges as Walters. He also has been charged with two counts of dealing in stolen property, a second-degree felony, and three third-degree felonies for fraud and unlawful use of a two-way communication device. He is out on bail.

Aaron “Amazon” Orr, 35, of Tampa faces 12 felony charges similar to those against Walters and Guthrie. He is out on bail.

Joshua Burr, 32, of Tampa also was a fencer, according to police, and faces the same breadth of felony charges. Police said he had the largest number of stolen tools. He is out on bail.

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