SPRING HILL –
Something didn’t seem right about the two homeless people cashing checks at the grocery store Friday.
At least not according to Tim Roth, an off-duty postal inspector who noticed them and kept his eyes on them for a while.
Roth thought they looked so suspicious he followed them by car for 10 miles – from the Publix at 14371 Spring Hill Drive to the Publix at 19390 Cortez Blvd. – where he witnessed them cashing more checks, according to the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office.
He called local law enforcement and Brooksville police officers were dispatched to the area, but by the time they arrived the suspects had exited the store. They tailed them and pulled them over the moment they saw the driver commit a traffic infraction, authorities said.
There were five people in the car and all of them wound up spending the night behind bars.
Hernando County Sheriff’s Detective Dustin Mormando, of the agency’s Economic Crimes Unit, was called to assist with the investigation. He said he interviewed the five suspects that evening and all of them admitted to taking part in a check-cashing scheme.
“I was told before I spoke to them that one of the women wanted to talk, so I knew going in I was going to have at least one (admission), but to get five in a row like that? Yeah, that’s very surprising. It’s not common at all,” said Mormando.
The arrest of the accused mastermind was considered a big one for the sheriff’s office – and for Publix. The crime ring has been extensive – stretching across Florida and beyond, according to a sheriff’s office media release.
The suspected ringleader, Leon “Slim” Stovall, 33, is accused of stealing about $1 million from Publix, one of the largest grocery chains in the Southeast.
Deputies said Stovall planned and supervised the operation, printed the counterfeit checks and altered the identification cards used by those who went into the stores.
Stovall told Mormando during his interview that his target was “Publix and only Publix” based on its lax check-cashing policy, the detective said.
Publix requires an identification and signature from someone who cashes a check of $500 or less. If it is fraudulent, they don’t find out from the bank until days later, according to the sheriff’s office.
“We have been working with local law enforcement for over a year on this case,” said Shannon Patten, a Publix spokeswoman. “This group of thieves targeted multiple Publix locations and cashed hundreds of thousands of dollars in fraudulent checks.
“We are always updating our procedures and upgrading our systems to help reduce our exposure to check fraud,” Patten continued. “Check cashing crime is something we contend with daily and while we are thrilled that arrests have been made, we know it’s not over.”
Also arrested Friday were Amanda Renee Berry, 22, Tammy Anette Duncan, 41, Joshua Scott Hicks, 26, and Walter Clinton “Fresh” Ingram, 40.
Berry, Duncan and Hicks were accused of cashing the checks. Ingram was the driver, deputies said.
All five were charged with organized fraud.
Lt. Michael Burzumato, a sheriff office’s spokesman, said a rental vehicle, several altered identification cards, various cell phones, a laptop, printer, blank checks and more than $3,100 in cash were seized during the investigation.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement also was involved with the case. Agents from that agency interviewed Stovall at the sheriff’s office, according to the media release.
Mormando said it was while he spoke with the FDLE agent in charge Monday that he realized how big of a case it was.
The FDLE had been investigating the check fraud for about 18 months, he said.
Stovall would recruit homeless people, pay to drive them out of town, put them up in hotels and provide them with fake identification cards, Mormando said.
He also would pay them with either cash or drugs, according to the sheriff’s office.
Stovall wanted his hired help to cash checks far away from the cities they lived so that no one could identify them on surveillance footage, said Mormando.
All of the suspects arrested Friday were from the Orlando area.
By the time he was caught, the excitement of overseeing a criminal enterprise had worn off for Stovall, said Mormando.
“He was tired of running and he wanted it to be over,” he said.