FDLE Partners with Local and Federal Law Enforcement to Thwart Stolen Baby Formula Ring

 The Polk County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) and Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), working in conjunction with the State Attorney’s Office (SAO) of the Tenth Judicial Circuit, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Criminal Investigations Division, have shut down an elaborate retail theft ring operating in the central Florida area responsible for the theft of thousands of cans of powdered baby formula, spanning throughout the southeastern United States. In all, 40 detectives working from October 2008 to March 2009, arrested 21 suspects who were stealing baby formula from 6 different counties (Polk, Highlands, Hillsborough, Manatee, Orange, and Osceola) and transporting it out of state.

The investigation began on October 11, 2008, during a traffic stop in Polk County on two vehicles in response to a BOLO (Be On Look Out) for an armed aggravated battery suspect. The vehicles matched the suspect vehicle description. During the traffic stop it was determined the occupants of the vehicle were illegal aliens and were in possession of stolen baby formula. Seven suspects were arrested*.

Through further investigation and interviews, detectives learned there was additional stolen baby formula at the Days Inn motel located at 4104 West Vine Street in Kissimmee (Osceola County). Detectives responded to the motel and located 2 vehicles in the parking lot, both of which contained stolen baby formula. Six more suspects were arrested*. All thirteen (13) suspects were charged with organized retail theft (F-2). Through interviews with detectives, these suspects admitted to working together as an organized theft ring.

· All of the suspects were in the country illegally and were either here from Honduras or Mexico.

· The suspects admitted to traveling from Atlanta, Georgia, for the sole purpose of stealing baby formula.

· They were being paid anywhere from $100 to $300 a day for stealing baby formula.

· Three of the vehicles they were driving had recently been purchased for the sole purpose of stealing baby formula.

The suspects told detectives that they operated in the following manner:

Three men would go to a store, one acting as the vehicle driver while two went inside. The two males would
then meet up with two females. One of the males would place baby formula into a shopping cart or
shopping basket. They would then walk to an aisle without a security camera. The other male would conduct
Counter-surveillance to ensure the group was not caught.

The females would then walk to the aisle where the man with the cart of baby formula was waiting. Within a
minute or two the women would then exit the store with up to six cans of baby formula in an over sized ladies’
bag. The bag had the lining removed and had nothing inside it. This type of bag is called a “Boost Bag.” In several of the stores the women were able to go in and out of the store more than once to steal baby formula.

The group would spend approximately fifteen minutes in each store before getting back into the car. The driver
of the car never got out of the car. The group would then drive to the next store. The group was able to steal
formula from fifteen (15) stores or more per day. The suspects would then take the formula back to their motel
room and pack it into paper shopping bags. Once that was completed they transported the stolen baby formula
to a storage unit. They would then repeat the process until they had enough formula to call and have it trans-
ported out of state.

On October 16, 2008, a PCSO patrol deputy made a traffic stop on a black Honda for a traffic violation after he observed it leaving Dundee Storage. The driver, Jose Chirinos-Hernandez, DOB 08-28-1983, had a suspended driver’s license and was placed under arrest. During a search of the Honda, the deputy located numerous cans of baby formula, which were later verified as stolen, a map of store locations, and tally sheets used to count stolen formula. Carmen Banega-Castillo, DOB 04-19-1986, who was also in the car, was arrested. A search of the storage unit belonging to the driver of the Honda revealed 900 cans of baby formula valued at $17,500. Detectives determined this was part of a large-scale organized criminal enterprise, and asked for assistance from FDLE and the FBI Lakeland Field Office.

From November 2008 through February 2009, detectives served 20 search warrants and interviewed numerous people who were already in jail or had previously been arrested for baby formula theft, two of whom were in other county jails: Jessie Lopez, DOB 12-31-1972; and Blanca Sevilla, DOB 01-06-1969. As a result of these interviews and the ongoing investigation, the organizer of this retail theft ring was identified as Eli Nimrod Castillo-Almendarez, DOB 08-20-1979. Eli rents a storage unit in Orlando and had groups working for him, stealing baby formula. He arranged on average two trips a week, transporting the stolen formula from Florida to North Carolina, where it was then repackaged and sold.

In February 2009, the USDA and FDA Criminal Investigations Division joined the investigation. The investigation ended on March 5, 2009, when the organizer, Eli Nimrod Castillo-Almendarez, and three others, Eber Ramon Escalante-Almendarez, DOB 09-16-1989; David Ruiz, DOB 01-29-1982; and Sonya Ponce, DOB 12/4/81, were arrested by PCSO deputies. Charges on these 4 latest arrests vary from Organized Retail Theft to No Valid DL, and additional charges are pending.

In all, 21 arrests have been made, and over 3,000 cans of stolen powdered baby formula have been seized, with a retail value of $75,000 (the cans average in value $25.00 per can). Last week alone, detectives seized 1,955 cans of formula, which was one week’s worth of work for the boosters. At $25.00 per can, $48,875 worth of formula was stolen in one week, which means in one year, the suspects stole $2.5 Million worth of formula. One suspect told detectives she has been doing this for 7 years. At $2.5 Million per year, her group was responsible for stealing $17.5 Million worth of formula.

*The first 13 arrests made in October 2008:

Nery Rodriguez, DOB 08-08-1984; Johny Zuniga, DOB 7-17-1985; Jose Urrutia, DOB 10-03-1982; Lucia Reyes, DOB 04-14-1978; Melba Ovellana, DOB 11-14-1977; Carlos Chacon, DOB 09-04-1986; Dania Hernandez, DOB 08-02-1984; Nelson Matute, DOB 07-20-1984; Carlos Hernandez, DOB 10-20-1985; Silvia Hernandez, DOB 10-12-1990; Neolvy Garcia, DOB 12-17-1984; Alexander Ponce, DOB 05-16-1983; Jefery Colindres, DOB 3-13-1988. All were charged with organized retail theft (F-2).

For Further Information Contact:
Heather Smith, Kristen Perezluha or Mike Morrison
FDLE Office of Public Information
(850) 410-7001


Carrie S. Eleazer, PIO
Public Information Officer
863.534.6217 office
863.287.7440 cell
863.534.6235 fax