OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. - What would you do if you spotted hundreds of dollars sitting in a purse on the side of a busy road without another person around? Several people were faced with that tempting choice recently along U.S. 192 in Osceola County.
It’s an area where thousands of homeless people live in hotels. But the money was placed there -- out in plain view -- as part of a sting by the Osceola County Sheriff's Office.
Channel 9 anchor Nancy Alvarez discovered that the 10 arrests stemming from the sheriff’s office operation have raised questions of whether deputies were baiting the homeless living along what was once central Florida’s premier tourist corridor.
After weeks of sleeping in a tent with his girlfriend, and days spent looking through dumpsters for food, James Custode said he thought he had stumbled on a miracle.
“I was coming back from job interview,” Custode told Alvarez. “I wasn't looking to take anything.”
A bike that Custode says appeared abandoned was sitting at a bus stop in the heart of the Highway 192 corridor, where hotels have become the last resort for thousands of homeless families.
“The bicycle was parked right over here,” Custode said, pointing toward a semi-circular section of sidewalk alongside the busy highway.
And hanging from the handle bars, he spotted a purse, with a laptop and cash in plain view.
“It ended up being $350. I didn’t know it at the time because I just grabbed it and put it in my pocket,” he said.
After taking the cash, Custode kept walking, but within seconds he was stopped by deputies.
“The detective in the blue car hopped out with the gun drawn me and told me to ‘get the f on the ground,’” Custode told Alvarez.
He had been caught in a sting set up by the sheriff's office. During a three-hour period Custode, eight other adults and a juvenile were all arrested on grand theft charges – all stemming from the abandoned bike set up by the deputies.
Most of those in the group arrested are homeless, Alvarez discovered, after searching through their arrest reports.
“They're indicative of the challenge we are facing,” said Mark Waltrip, the CEO of Westgate Resorts, who also sits on the board of the Regional Commission on Homelessness. Waltrip was so concerned about the sting, he called the sheriff directly.
“Was this a focus on a particular area, region or crime?” Waltrip asked.
Alvarez had the same questions.
“When you set this up in an area full of people who are homeless and hungry, you're going to catch people who did this out of desperation,” Alvarez said to
sheriff's office spokeswoman Twis Lizasuain.
“We're going to catch people who broke the law,” said Lizasuain. “The bottom line is that it is illegal to steal.”
Lizasuain told Alvarez the sting was in response to a spike in thefts in the area and seven of those arrested, including Custode, have criminal histories.
“We don’t target groups,” she added. “We make arrests based on the crime, and in this particular case, 10 individuals committed grand theft and that was the reason they were arrested.”
Despite the position of the sheriff’s office, WFTV legal analyst Bill Sheaffer says their felony charges could be dropped.
“I think these defendants have an excellent argument that they were entrapped,” Sheaffer said. “They committed an offense they wouldn't otherwise commit.”
Custode said the ordeal left him and many others wondering if jail is the county's answer to its homeless epidemic.
“A small child would have taken that money,” Custode said. “What's to stop a grown man that doesn't have food in his stomach?”
Alvarez checked and found out the people arrested in the sheriff’s office sting spent more than 113 days in jail. Several are still incarcerated. And holding these individuals in the county jail cost taxpayers roughly $12,000 through the beginning of this week.
The sheriff’s office told Alvarez it does not plan on making the stings routine, but deputies have already noticed a slight drop in the number of theft reports since they conducted this operation.
A homeless advocate said he was satisfied with the agency's explanation of why it did this.
At last check, the people arrested in the sting have spent a total of 113 days in jail. That has cost taxpayers roughly $12,000.