WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (WFLA) – Four minors and one adult are being questioned Wednesday night at the Lake Wales Police Department for their possible involvement in a string of purse snatchings that targeted seniors in the Tampa Bay area. One incident left a 71-year-old with a broken wrist, police said.
The arrests were made Wednesday by Lake Wales officers and Polk County Sheriff’s Office deputies.
Authorities have not released the names of the suspects or a list of the charges they face.
The “rash of occurrences” began in Lakeland on March 9 with a vehicle theft, police said. That case has been connected to additional incidents. The average age of the victims is older than 65.
According to one victim, who spoke only to News Channel 8, a man approached her car in a Publix parking lot in Auburndale late Wednesday afternoon and asked for directions. She said he then stole her purse.
“He reached through the window, grabbed my little clutch purse and ran,” Karen Anderson, of Auburndale, said. “You think you’re safe sitting in the car and you don’t even think anyone can see you that far down but they can.”
An incident before that occurred on Tuesday, March 15 around 6:50 p.m. The 71-year-old victim was parked in the east side of a Publix lot at 1350 6th St. NW in Winter Haven. The victim was going to St Joseph’s Catholic Church, which is nearby.
When she exited her vehicle, a 2001 silver Jeep Grand Cherokee pulled up near her, police said. A backseat passenger opened the door and asked the victim for directions to church.
“The suspect was holding a paper, making it appear he had the name of the church on the paper,” police said. “As the victim stepped closer to converse with the suspect in order to help him with directions, the suspect grabbed her purse straps and jumped back into the vehicle as it began to speed away.”
The purse was around the victim’s shoulder, and the speeding vehicle caused her to fall, police said. The victim was treated for a broken wrist, multiple scrapes and contusions.
The vehicle then went westbound toward Lake Howard Down Avenue. Witnesses saw four men in the vehicle.
Another victim, Kathy Anderson, of Winter Haven, was robbed in the parking lot of a Walmart.
“I keep reliving it,” she told News Channel 8. “It’s like a daily occurrence. I’m continuing to say, ‘I got robbed.’”
In Anderson’s case, she had just gotten her groceries and was putting them in the back of her car when all of a sudden, the Jeep pulled up from behind and someone got out and stole her purse.
Anderson said she feels sorry for the suspects.
“He seemed like such a nice young man, and I’m so sorry that he did that,” she said. “He’s on the wrong track.”
“It takes an absolute cowardly thug to prey upon a senior adult female and use a ruse about directions to a church in order to victimize her,” Chief Charlie Bird said. “It’s obvious they stalked her and when she was at her most vulnerable, they sprang into action by taking advantage of her kindness.”
Here are the cases connected to the stolen vehicle:
- March 9: A Jeep Cherokee was stolen from a church parking lot, at 1945 Florida Ave. N. in Lakeland, between 6:45 and 8:30 p.m.
- March 11: Around 2:30 p.m. in Seffner a suspect snatched a victim’s purse in a Publix parking lot at 11782 Dr. King Blvd.
- March 12: Around 4:15 p.m. a victim was in a Walmart parking lot at 36205 Highway 27 in Haines City when a suspect asked for directions. The suspect grabbed the victim’s purse.
- March 13: Around 4:49 p.m. a victim was in the Dillard’s parking lot at 100 Eagle Ridge Drive in Lake Wales when a suspect asked her a question. The suspect then snatched the victim’s purse, which caused the chain to break.
- March 13: A victim was loading groceries into her vehicle in the Walmart parking lot at 355 Cypress Gardens Blvd. SE in Winter Haven. A suspect grabbed her purse around 6:43 p.m.
- March 14: A victim was leaning inside her trunk in the Publix parking lot at 4651 Cortez Road W. in Bradenton. A suspect then tried snatching her purse and grabbed her upper left arm, causing a struggle. The victim fell to the ground. This occurred around 12 p.m.
- March 14: Around 1:30 p.m. The suspects were spotted entering a victim’s vehicle and taking a purse. This occurred in the Walmart parking lot at 23106 US Hwy 19 N. in Clearwater.
- March 15: This is the Winter Haven Publix incident that caused a 71-year-old victim to break her wrist.
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