3 held in theft of baby formula

Published March 27, 2007

WESLEY CHAPEL - In the annals of crime, there was "Baby Face" Nelson, who stole money from banks.

Now comes grocer Publix, warning the world of a new breed of baby-leaning crook.

Baby formula bandits.

"An organized retail crime ring" has kept the Publix on S Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa from keeping its shelves fully stocked at all times, says a notice posted on the baby food aisle. Needy parents are directed to the customer service counter.

Cans of formula such as Similac, which may sell for $25 each, can be marked up and fenced on Internet black markets, according to the National Retail Federation. An FBI assistant director told a congressional subcommittee last year that the retail industry loses between $15-billion and $30-billion annually from stolen items such as infant formula, over-the-counter medication and beauty supplies.

Saturday, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office arrested three people who authorities suspect hit at least two bay area stores.

The thefts were videotaped on March 17, when 18 cans of formula worth about $380 vanished from a Zephyrhills Publix, sheriff's spokesman Doug Tobin said. Security cameras show two women using frozen food aisles to camouflage the transfer of baby formula into handbags.

A Publix loss prevention supervisor put other area stores on alert.

Saturday, witnesses say, a man wearing a gray shirt and dark pants and a woman wearing a light blue shirt walked toward the baby formula section at the Publix at 5400 County Road 581 in Wesley Chapel. The man loaded cans of formula into a shopping cart, and the woman pushed it down the aisle until she met another woman.

One woman pulled out two fur bags. She filled the purses, put a stuffed toy on top of the goods and walked out with 12 Similac cans worth $302, sheriff's records state.

Publix employees called the Sheriff's Office. Deputies pulled over a silver Ford pickup carrying three suspects:

Selvin Alfredo Ponce-Hernandez, 28, was charged with retail theft over $300 and driving with an expired driver's license. Brenda Vargas, 31, faces charges of grand theft and retail theft over $300. Catalina A. Garcia, 46, was charged with two counts of retail theft over $300 and giving false identification to a law enforcement officer.

The Lakeland trio remains jailed pending bail and Immigration and Customs Enforcement intervention.

Justin George can be reached at 813 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.