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4 charged, 2 At Large In Organized Crime Investigation “Operation Heavy Lift”

Polk County Press Release

Across 16 Florida counties thieves rented, then systematically stole and resold, large outdoor equipment: loaders, stump grinders, trenchers, & mini-excavators from The Home Depot

Polk County Sheriff’s Office Organized Retail Crime Detectives, working with the Attorney General’s Office of Statewide Prosecution, Ashley Moody, Attorney General, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, developed and charged six suspects during an investigation that started in late 2021 when Home Depot organized retail crime investigators, working with law enforcement, developed information regarding rental equipment not being returned to their stores in the central and southeast Florida areas.

The equipment thefts, involving Toro Dingo utility loaders, stump grinders, trenchers, and mini-excavators (and the trailers they sit on) affected 16 counties within Florida, including 12 judicial circuits. 

The investigation began in late 2021 when Home Depot investigators began reviewing large equipment overdue rentals and found a pattern of activity in the southeast region, which includes the Tampa and Orlando area stores. The overdue rentals and thefts had several similarities: they were one-day rentals by renters with Orlando addresses, and the GPS devices installed in the units were disabled within hours of the equipment leaving the store. The stolen equipment was then posted on social media sales sites, such as Facebook marketplace. 

The investigation revealed that a total of 61pieces of equipment and the trailers they were on were stolen, at a loss to the Home Depot of $1.1 Million. The six suspects identified have been charged with least 50 of those fraudulent rentals and thefts. The total depreciated net book value of equipment and trailers identified throughout this investigation was determined to be nearly $600,000.

The thefts occurred in the following counties: Brevard, Broward, Duval, Hernando, Hillsborough, Indian River, Lake, Manatee, Orange, Palm Beach, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, Seminole, St. Johns, and St. Lucie.

“We appreciate the hard work and cooperation from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and Attorney General Ashley Moody’s Office of Statewide Prosecution—because of the multi-county theft and fraud that occurred in this case, we could not have held these thieves appropriately accountable without their state-wide resources. Organized retail crime is a serious problem in Florida. It drives up the cost of goods and we all suffer through higher prices. These brazen thieves made a living systematically stealing. They made the mistake of stealing in Polk County—our detectives are among the best in the nation investigating organized retail theft. We will absolutely hold them accountable and put their butts in jail and then prison.” – Grady Judd, Sheriff

Attorney General Ashley Moody said, “The suspects in this case went to great lengths and long distances to execute this elaborate construction rental scheme—stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in heavy construction equipment. They thought they were being clever by using stolen identities and smashing the GPS trackers on the equipment, but it wasn’t enough to outsmart Sheriff Judd’s deputies, FDLE and my Statewide Prosecutors.”

Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Mark Glass said, “Organized retail theft has real-life impacts on our hard-working citizens who pay more for goods because of theft. I appreciate FDLE’s Orlando Regional Operations Center special agents and analysts that worked to recover a portion of the stolen property. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, in partnership with Attorney General Moody’s Office of Statewide Prosecution and the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, will continue to fight these crimes.”

The first reported theft occurred on October 26, 2021, at the Home Depot store number 8545 on US Hwy 1 in Sebastian, FL. The main suspect, Byron Paul Johnson (DOB 3/27/1987) of Orlando, completed a one-day rental form for a Toro Dingo TX427 using his Florida Driver’s license. He then listed an “auger for sale” on Facebook marketplace, and a witness answered the ad due to the fact that his own auger had recently been stolen and he wanted to meet with the seller (Johnson) to see if the listed auger was his. The two arranged to meet, at which time the witness recognized that the auger was a rental from Home Depot. The witness observed Johnson and three other black males attempting to remove the equipment from the trailer, but they were unable to do so. They then appeared to become nervous and suddenly left in a white truck. The witness reported the incident to the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office, including the tag number of the truck. IRSO deputies responded to the Home Depot and confirmed the equipment had just been rented by Johnson. They issued a warrant for his arrest, charging him with grand theft; he was arrested on that warrant in January 2022 in Orange County and later released after posting bond. 

Johnson was tied to several thefts via video surveillance, social media messages, and text messages. He often used his own identification when completing the rental agreements and his own Facebook page to post the equipment for sale. Johnson told the unsuspecting buyers that he was a “construction worker going out of business,” or “my father passed away and I need money.” 

His co-defendants (listed below) used identification stolen during vehicle burglaries or victims of identity theft. Investigators saw several of the co-defendants with Johnson in store surveillance video filling out the rental forms. 

Johnson was arrested in Polk County on January 27, 2022, after PCSO detectives who were conducting surveillance saw him renting equipment at the Home Depot in Winter Haven, and made a traffic stop. He was taken into custody for DWLSR and transported to a Sheriff’s Office substation to be interviewed. He was released from jail after posting bond, but failed to appear in court. In June 2022, a Polk County warrant was issued for failure to appear.

During the investigation, detectives identified Johnson’s girlfriend, Natasha Tacathy Anderson (DOB 5/30/1995) of Orlando, as part of the theft ring. They also found evidence of his orchestration of thefts by other associates of theirs. 

Ivan Ramirez (DOB 2/14/1987), the owner of Smiley’s Heavy Equipment Services, LLC, in Bradenton, coordinated several fraudulent rentals and thefts of Home Depot equipment with Johnson, and then purchased the stolen equipment from him at a much lower cost than retail.

Byron Johnson directed a criminal organization to steal and make fraudulent sales of unreturned rental machinery from The Home Depot stores. His girlfriend Natasha acted as a coordinator, advising Johnson of potential buyers and letting him know where rentals were available. Johnson paid friends, family members, and other acquaintances to act as “look outs” when meeting potential buyers, to do counter surveillance when making the fraudulent rentals, to use their personal vehicles or rental cars, and asking them to deliver the stolen equipment when he was unavailable. 

On August 6, 2022, PCSO detectives were contacted by a Home Depot investigator who was watching “On Patrol: Live” (a show that airs footage from camera crews who do ride-alongs with law enforcement agencies). The episode that aired on August 5th showed Volusia County deputies following a white SUV that was pulling a trailer with a Toro Dingo TX427 on it. The truck refused to stop, but then broke down on Interstate 95 in Daytona Beach. The driver – Johnson – was arrested by Volusia deputies on his active Polk County warrant for failure to appear. In the video, he puts himself in the backseat before getting out of the SUV. There are three children in the SUV as well. The Toro Dingo on the trailer was the one that was stolen by Johnson in Jacksonville in December 2021. Johnson is currently serving a 1.5 year sentence in Florida state prison for felony fleeing to elude and child neglect based on this arrest. He is scheduled to be released in January 2024.

The suspects who were arrested and charged during this investigation are:

Byron Paul Johnson, DOB 3/27/1987; 846 23rd St, Orlando (currently in FL state prison – charged via Polk Co. warrant):

·        Grand theft over $100,000

·        Scheme to defraud

·        9 counts dealing in stolen property

·        Unlawful possession of personal identification

·        CRIMINAL HISTORY: Grand theft, child neglect, fleeing to elude, resisting arrest, DUI, DWLSR

Natasha Anderson, DOB 5/30/1995; 846 23rd St, Orlando (Polk Co. warrant issued):

·        Grand theft over $20,000

·        Scheme to defraud

·        Dealing in stolen property

·        CRIMINAL HISTORY: Possession of: cocaine, meth, controlled substance, synthetic cannabinoid, marijuana, and paraphernalia; petit theft

Michael Tyrone White, DOB 10/16/1989; 1912 Rockwell Rd, Orlando (arrested March 31, 2023, currently in Orange Co. jail):

·        Grand theft over $20,000

·        Scheme to defraud

·        Dealing in stolen property

·        CRIMINAL HISTORY: Battery, assault on public education employee, possession of cocaine, possession of synthetic cannabinoid, possession of marijuana, possession of paraphernalia, tampering with evidence, criminal mischief, fleeing to elude, resisting arrest, grand theft of a motor vehicle, racketeering, unlawful use of two-way communication device, DWLSR

Marquiel De’Shai Joseph, DOB 11/5/1991; 1760 Bright Meadow Ct, Orlando (arrested February 20, 2023 on Orange Co. charges, still in Orange Co. jail):

·        Grand theft 

·        Scheme to defraud

·        CRIMINAL HISTORY: Battery on school employee, battery on LEO, aggravated battery, aggravated stalking, robbery, burglary with battery, burglary, grand theft of a firearm, grand theft of motor vehicle, carrying concealed weapon, possession of weapon by convicted felon, fraud, grand theft, petit theft, possession of meth, possession of marijuana, possession of paraphernalia, DWLSR

Ivan Flores Ramirez, DOB 2/14/1987; 3304 17th Ave W, Bradenton (arrested in Manatee Co. March 31, 2023, bonded out April 3, 2023):

·        Dealing in stolen property

·        CRIMINAL HISTORY: Trespassing

Dwight Williams, DOB 9/1/1987; 4441 Conley St, Orlando (Polk Co. warrant issued):

·        Grand theft over $10,000

·        Scheme to defraud

·        CRIMINAL HISTORY: Burglary with battery, battery, carrying concealed firearm, armed burglary, possession of burglary tools, criminal mischief, grand theft, fleeing to elude, resisting arrest, forgery, possession of controlled substance, possession of synthetic cannabinoid

Byron Johnson

Michael White

Marquiel Joseph

Ivan Ramirez

WANTED:

Natasha Anderson

Dwight Williams

author avatar
Carl Fish

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