‘Modern-day-mafia’: 14 charged in Florida retail theft ring that stole $20 million in goods

A network of 14 people stole $20 million worth of goods from retailers including Walmart, Target, Publix, and Home Depot, and sold them on an Amazon marketplace, Florida’s attorney general has announced.

Among the thousands of items recovered during the nine-month investigation into the theft ring were electric guitars, hair dryers, allergy medicine and Theragun massagers, according to a nearly 200-page arrest affidavit obtained by USA TODAY this week.

“It is well-organized, it is profitable, it is criminal. This is the modern-day mafia and criminal organizations that we’re taking down,” Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody said at a news conference announcing the charges on Monday.

Here’s what you need to know about the case:.

How officials say the scheme worked:

Retail theft has become a growing concern for corporations, though data lags make it difficult to track exactly how much companies lose from it. Regardless, missing inventory, or “shrinkage” as it is known to corporations, was discussed more on 2023 Q2 quarterly earnings calls than any other quarter on record, a USA TODAY report found.

Organized retail theft often includes a “fence,” described by the U.S. Department of Justice as someone who deals in stolen goods.

The investigation in South Florida identified Arland Cata, 44, as the “first-level fence” and found that he collected large amounts of goods grabbed in bulk from stores by lower-level shoplifters. Joshua Markell, 40, was identified as the “second-level fence,” and investigators say he would choose what items would be sold on Amazon.

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Cata was found shot to death in September at an Airbnb where he was staying. The investigation into his death is ongoing, the Broward Sheriff’s Office said.

Markell has been charged with racketeering, conspiracy to commit racketeering, aggravated white collar crime, money laundering, and dealing in stolen property, among other charges.

“This morning, Mr. Markell’s bail was reduced, and that is the first step towards proving his innocence. He looks forward to clearing his name at the trial,” Jackie Perczek, who represents Markell along with Alyssa Silvaggi, wrote to USA TODAY in an emailed sentence Friday.

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Joshua Markell’s Amazon store made $5 million in revenue this year, police said

Waiving his right to remain silent, police say that Markell told them that he has been running the “Hollywoodseller” store on Amazon as a full-time job since 2015 (he was a teacher before that). He said he started out by selling items he would buy on sale at stores like Best Buy and Walmart.

He made $200,000 annually for the first few years, he told police, adding that he began having trouble getting inventory in 2020. He tried investing in personal protection equipment as the COVID-19 pandemic spread, but had less success than he had hoped.

Markell said he started buying wholesale from US Pawn in 2022 and that in January he met Cata, who had his own “pawn shop” at his house.

The two began working together, with Markell saying that about 30% of his supply came from Cata at first. But soon it grew to 50%, and Markell made more than $5 million between January to September, records show.

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“His stuff was less expensive, so I could buy more inventory,” Markell said, according to the affidavit.

On average, Markell said he bought items from Cata at a 50% markdown from their Amazon selling price,.

Detectives say that Markell told them that he did not ask where Cata got his goods and that he didn’t find it odd that Cata ran a pawn shop out of his home.

He said he confirmed that Cata’s business was registered with the state, but did not look into whether he had a pawn license, which is required in Florida.

Markell said he never asked any of his suppliers where or how they obtained their items.

Arland Cata found dead with multiple gunshot wounds

Police responding to a call of shots fired on Sept. 10 found Cata shot dead on the living room floor of his Airbnb in Wilton Manors, north of Fort Lauderdale.

The home had multiple bullet holes in windows and walls, and Cata may have been killed in front of his teenage daughter, according to a report by WTVJ-TV in South Florida.

A Broward County sheriff’s spokesperson said Wednesday that the homicide investigation is an active investigation, and that no further information was being released.

Police searching the homicide scene found hundreds of boxes of unopened over-the-counter medication, cosmetics and discarded anti-theft devices that are typically affixed to items in stores and removed at the time of purchase.

Loss-prevention representatives from Walmart, Walgreens, CVS and Home Depot responded to the homicide scene and inventoried the items. The goods in the home were valued at more than $125,000.

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Putting together the theft ring puzzle

Nine of the people charged in the case are considered “boosters,” or shoplifters, who provided Cata with the stolen goods, the lead investigator on the case said at a news conference led by Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw on Thursday.

“They’re not your average little shoplifter that comes in and steals a stick of gum or anything like that,” said Palm Beach sheriff’s Detective Christopher Apple,.

“They come in and they take large quantities of merchandise and they have a purpose,” he said. “Their purpose is to resell.”.

He explained that the boosters charged in the case would sell goods to the Cata, who would sell to Markell.

The affidavit outlined several shoplifting incidents that would be over in a matter of minutes. In most of them, stores reported thousands of dollars worth of stolen merchandise,.

In one such incident, the suspects took about $11,400 from a Walgreens in Broward County, the affidavit says.

Several of the reported incidents describe the suspects as having a security key to get into the merchandise behind locked displays. Sometimes the suspects came in with a trash bag in hand. Other times they would use trash bags they took from the shelf in the store, records show.

The nine alleged boosters formed smaller, independent groups, officials said. An organization chart released by investigators show that Cata and Markell both had two employees each who helped sort, store, package and ship items. The four employees also face charges in the investigation.

Contributing: Bailey Schulz.

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