LAKELAND, Fla. – The Polk County Sheriff’s Office arrested eight suspects working to steal thousands of dollars’ worth of merchandise from eight Lakeland retail stores.

The so-called “ringleader” of the group Tina Morrison, 46, and three others are charged with racketeering, according to the sheriff’s office. All eight suspects are charged with several felonies and misdemeanors.

“This investigation went on between April and August, but we did take a break for a couple of months. Do you know why? Because we had Tina in jail on other charges.” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said during a Friday morning news conference. “She told us, she said ‘while I’m not in jail, I’m out stealing to support my drug habit.’

“Many times they would just, when they stole and they would cash out their money, they would go buy the heroin or the drug and just divide the drug up as opposed to the cash.”

The sheriff’s office said the group would steal merchandise from stores, put them in shopping carts and take them to return counters for gift cards in exchange for the fake “returns,” according to the sheriff’s office. The group would also use fraudulently gift cards to make purchases, and then would sell the merchandise at pawn shops.

Judd the suspects would then use the money for drugs.

“Heroin was the main drug of choice,” Judd said. “However, they were known to use other drugs as well.”

Morrison admitted to the sheriff’s office that she used the money to support a $150 per day drug habit, according to Judd.

On Friday, the Polk County Sheriff's Office also released surveillance video of the suspects.

The suspects committed 34 thefts from April to September. The sheriff’s office estimated it cost the businesses about $6,700.

Go to the website of the Polk County Sheriff's Office for more information.

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