Warrant: Jacksonville man charged in organized crime ring targeting women

Makeel Williams booked into St. Johns County jail on 38 felony charges

An arrest has been made in connection with an organized crime ring that targeted women in four Northeast Florida counties, authorities said. 

Makeel Williams, 27, of Jacksonville, was booked Friday into the St. Johns County jail on 38 felony charges that include racketeering, theft, burglary and credit card fraud, according to online jail records, after a warrant had been issued for his arrest. 

The 26-page affidavit for arrest warrant shows the charges stem from a series of auto burglary and credit card fraud cases in Clay, Duval, Nassau and St. Johns counties.

Investigators said the victims were all women who were specifically targeted after being watched. According to the arrest warrant, the mode of operation in each case was the same -- once the women parked outside Orangetheory Fitness gym locations in Northeast Florida and went inside the gym, their car windows were smashed and credit cards and other valuables were stolen from the victims' vehicles under the cloak of darkness. 

RELATED: Smash-and-grab burglars target women in St. Johns County, deputies say

Kristine Thornton, of Middleburg, was one of the more than half-dozen victims listed in the arrest warrant. She said she walked out of the Orangetheory Fitness location on County Road 220 in Fleming Island the morning of Sept. 26 when she found the window to her car had been smashed and her purse, containing credit cards, had been stolen. She said the purse had been hidden under the passenger seat. 

“Within 30 minutes of notifying the credit card companies, they had already swiped almost $1,000 of items at Walmart,” Thornton told News4Jax.

Leslie Jackson, of Fleming Island, said she had also hidden her purse out of plain view. But, like Thornton, she also walked out of the same gym that morning to find her car window smashed and her purse, containing credit cards, stolen. She said the theft didn’t hurt her financially, but it was a big inconvenience. 

“It took me a full day of communicating with people on the phone and getting my cards canceled. I had to rent a car until my vehicle was fixed and that’s hard to do without a credit card,” Jackson said. 

Beau Palmer, of Ponte Vedra, was another victim who, like Thornton and Jackson, said she walked out of the Orangetheory gym on Third Street South in Jacksonville Beach in the morning hours of Sept. 28 and discovered the windows to her company SUV had been smashed and her purse stolen. 

The back window of Beau Palmer's SUV was smashed.
The back window of Beau Palmer's SUV was smashed.

“They used four of my credit cards, including a company credit card. They purchased more than $900 worth of items on the cards within 45 minutes of me reporting it to police,” Palmer said. 

According to the arrest warrant, all of the credit cards reported stolen were used at various Walmart locations in Northeast Florida. Investigators also said they had Walmart surveillance video of Williams and another unidentified person who is believed to have been working with Williams. 

The warrant states a Jacksonville Sheriff's Office detective met with Williams’ mother and showed her the surveillance video. According to the detective, she identified one of the men in the video as her son.

In addition to credit cards, driver's licenses, cash, electronics and expensive watches and sunglasses were reported stolen, according to the warrant. Investigators said more than $10,000 worth of personal items were reported stolen. 

Each of the three victims said they learned a valuable lesson from their experience. 

“Don’t leave any valuables in your car. My car was locked,” Thornton said. 

“Your things are not safe just by leaving them in a locked vehicle. The sad thing is that I have teenagers that I warn all the time and I did it myself, so shame on me,” Jackson said.

She went on to say she had items in her purse that didn’t need to be there.

“I had cards I don’t even use. I was using my wallet to store all my credit cards, so I don’t have all that stuff in my wallet anymore,” Jackson said. 

Palmer told News4Jax she is now observant of everything around her when she parks her car in a parking lot. Her sense of awareness followed something detectives told her after her SUV was burglarized. 

“The detectives who investigated my case said I had been watched. To have it pitch-black dark in the morning and walking into the gym by yourself is unnerving,” Palmer said. "I'm not ever bringing my purse with me to the gym that early in the morning ever again."

Safety and self-defense expert Martin Lopez said crooks know that Orangetheory Fitness gyms have set schedules for group training so, "if a woman is going to a class at a set time every single day, a criminal who is watching that location can pick up on that."

For those worried about being watched, Lopez suggests going to the gym at different times, but also offered another suggestion if that's not possible. 

"Before you get out of the vehicle, look around to see what's happening around you," he said. "If you’re going to the gym, then immediately home, only take what’s necessary, like your driver’s license and maybe your phone. But don’t leave valuables in the car.”

Lopez also advises that if you're exiting your vehicle in a parking lot at night, instead of using your left hand to open the door, use your right hand so that, when you get out, your body is in a position that allows you to get a glance at anyone who may be behind you. 

As for Williams, he remained locked up in jail on a $142,500 bond as of Monday evening, according to online jail records. 

The attorney general’s office has taken over the investigation. 

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