Theft ring stole at least $83K in merchandise from home improvement stores

52 thefts at Jacksonville-area stores between 2017 and 2019, police reports show

By Allyson Henning - Reporter, Steve Patrick - News4Jax digital managing editor

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - At least four people have been arrested in connection with a string of thefts of power tools from several Home Depot and Lowe's stores in Jacksonville.

Nicole Arnette, 34, Samantha Cowles, 31, Brian Hudson, 41, and Keith Wright, 28, face charges of grand theft and organized fraud in connections with thefts at stores on the Southside, Westside, Northside, Jacksonville Beach, Mandarin, East Arlington and Regency.

According to reports obtained by News4Jax, at least $83,000 worth of merchandise was stolen from 10 Home Depot and Lowe's stores between September 2017 and January 2019. The reports list 52 separate thefts during that time frame. One of the stores, located in Regency, was hit at least 11 times over a 16-month period, a report shows.

In one case from the Home Depot on Lane Avenue, according to police, a customer reported seeing Wright leaving with stolen merchandise and tackled him in the parking lot. Police said Wright ran from the scene and the merchandise was recovered.

"They're looking for power tools -- tools they can get rid of very quick," News4Jax crime and safety analyst Ken Jefferson said. "There's a black market for those tools. They may retail at $300 but they can get $150 out of it. It's very common. It's not easy to detect because a lot of times the retailers think there's just one incident but it's a constant thing. That's why it makes it difficult to investigate."

Jefferson explained why it takes investigators time to track down the suspects.

"It's very difficult because they're always in motion. They're always moving," he said. "You have to have a defined suspect, basically, have them on surveillance more than once."

Arnette was arrested May 1 on multiple counts of grand theft and is being held on $255,100 bond. Hudson and Wright were arrested Wednesday, also on multiple grand theft charges.

Both are held on $136,000 bond.

Cowles was arrested Wednesday and charged with petty theft and dealing in stolen property.

Wright was also arrested for retail theft last year. He pleaded guilty to stealing two nail guns from the Home Depot in Jacksonville Beach and spent a month in jail.

Organized retail crime a growing problem across the county

A November 2018 survey by the National Retail Federation found organized retail crime had seen an increase in the last 12 months. 

Christina Cornell, with The Home Depot, told News4Jax on Thursday that the problem continues to grow.

"We are seeing more and more what we call fencing and boosting operations where people will steal merchandise from us and they will try and quickly convert it into cash -- whether that is selling it to pawnshops, selling it on online marketplaces," Cornell said.

Because of the ongoing issue, The Home Depot and other retailers are partnering with local, state and federal law enforcement to keep an eye on organized crime rings nationwide. 

"If we can cut it off at the head with organized retail crime, we might be able to stop some other crimes, as well," Cornell said.

Keep in mind, in many of these cases, the retail items are ending up for sale online, so buyers should beware, especially when it comes to meeting someone offering a deal that seems too good to be true. 

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