Alleged car-theft ring broken

Tampa police arrest four and are searching for eight others they say targeted luxury cars.

By ABBIE VANSICKLE, Times Staff Writer
Published January 4, 2008

TAMPA - When police caught up with the suspected leader of a Tampa car-theft ring, he had keys for a Cadillac and Lexus owned by former Tampa Bay Devil Rays player Elijah Dukes.

Police say Maurice Antuan Garrett led a ring of thieves in Tampa that traveled the state to steal dozens of cars and pricey rims, including the pricey, $12,000 hubcaps from Dukes' Lexus.

When police questioned him about Dukes' cars, Garrett told them he took the rims but someone else took the car keys, said Tampa Detective Scott Guffey.

Dukes got the Lexus back, police said. Officers found it up on blocks, with the tires and rims gone. The Cadillac keys had been missing, but the car hadn't been stolen, officers said.

Investigators are still trying to piece it all together.

The group looked for events it believed would be gold mines of glitzy cars. It targeted the Florida Classic game in Orlando and a hip-hop show at Tropicana Field, investigators say.

"These guys made it a point of going out and victimizing everyone," said Tampa police Capt. Hugh Miller.

So far, officers have arrested three people believed to be key players: Garrett, 21, of 3402 Frierson Ave.; Erica C. Reed, 21, of 3606 Deleuil Ave.; and Henry A. Merrell, 23, of 401 Seventh Ave., Apt. 1321. Jail records show the three face racketeering charges.

There are warrants out for two others also described as key members: Jeffrey F. Bush, 23, of 3103 E 18th Ave., and Maurice D. Deshazier, 19, of 3611 E Frierson Ave., both of Tampa.

Police also are searching for eight other suspects and have arrested one more person they believe was involved, Riley T. Jackson, 19, 3015 E Ellicott St.

The investigation into the theft ring began four months ago, when officers noticed a pattern in the types of cars being stolen in Tampa. They dubbed their inquiry "Operation Winter HEAT," which stands for "Help End Auto Theft."

Investigators say they identified Garrett, also known as "Dirty Reese," as the ringleader, organizing thefts in Tampa, Orlando, St. Petersburg and Tallahassee.Police said they believe the group splintered from a gang, but they declined to go into details or name the gang.

Garrett and his cohorts ran a well-organized operation, investigators say, often finding buyers for the rims and then scouting the streets for vehicles. The group frequently targeted Nissans and Chevrolets, officers said.

Police had no estimate of the cost all the stolen cars and rims, and they said it has been difficult to find the merchandise to return to the owners.

Garrett, who is being held without bail at the Orient Road Jail, has been arrested 11 times, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. His first arrest, a shoplifting charge, came at age 12, records show.

Anyone with information about the group can contact the Tampa Police Department at 813-231-6130.

Times staff writer Amber Mobley contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at vansickle@sptimes.com or 813-226-3373.