State and federal authorities said Friday they’ve busted an organized theft operation involving hundreds of stolen items from Walmart stores in central Maine that were being sold through the online auction site eBay.

The investigation started with the Walmart in Palmyra and mushroomed.

Police said they seized stolen items from that Walmart store as well as stores in Bangor, Brewer and Ellsworth. Homes and a bank vault were searched Thursday in Bangor, Bucksport and Frankfort that resulted in the seizure of $240,000 in cash.

Among the stolen items being sold on eBay were Star War Legos, Crest white strips, Nicorette gum, razor blades, animal flea and tick treatments and a 46-inch TV, police said. Police said information gathered from the searches in Bucksport and Frankfort later led investigators to Bangor, where search warrants were executed at a home and a pawn shop.

Police said the organized criminal enterprise was run by a man from his home in Bucksport and a woman from her home in Frankfort. Their names weren’t released because no charges have been filed yet in connection with the operation, but police said they will consult the district attorney offices and that charges were likely.

Meanwhile, Jane Tardiff, 67, of 27 Yeager Road, was arrested Thursday for allegedly brandishing a handgun when state police searched her Frankfort home as part of the investigation. Tardiff was charged with criminal threatening with a dangerous weapon and was taken to the Waldo County Jail in Belfast, where she was later released on bail. Police said she is not the woman ID’d as running the operation, but a relative.

Lt. Mark Brooks, based in the Skowhegan office of the Maine State Police, said the theft operation is the biggest he and other investigators have worked on.

Brooks, who oversaw the investigation, said the case is also notable because it highlights how police are becoming more adept at pursuing stolen merchandise that’s sold online. He and lead investigators State Police Detective Chris Tupper and Trooper Chris Crawford started with one store and unraveled a cross-state operation, he said.

“We began the investigation with the security folks from Walmart in Palmyra, and as we began to investigate the eBay account and related information we received, we could see this was an investigation that has many facets to it,” Brooks said.

He said as the investigation progressed and Tupper, of the computer crimes unit, and Crawford “pulled all this together, we saw it was larger than just the Palmyra Walmart.”

“We have a large part of the scope of it,” he said. “I’m not sure we have the entirety yet.”

Brooks said it’s becoming more frequent for thieves to try to sell stolen items online, and it can be hard for police to bring charges against the true culprits.

“You have the people involved in selling the items who may not be the individuals who have stolen from the respective industries or companies,” Brooks said. “So, it takes an incredible amount of work to locate the people involved.”

Search warrants were executed at two homes on Main Street in Bucksport and in bank vaults at Camden National Bank in Bucksport, where $140,000 in cash was seized from money bags and envelopes, according to court affidavits. Another $100,000 in cash plus bars of silver were seized by police from the Frankfort home, state Department of Public Safety spokesman Steve McCausland said.

The man and his girlfriend were living in an apartment at 165 Main St. in Bucksport, where much of the suspected stolen merchandise was recovered, police said.

Brooks said the active investigation has lasted three to four months, but “we know they were conducting illegal activity well in advance of that.”

State police, working with police departments in Ellsworth, Brewer and Bangor and an investigator from Walmart, began investigating thefts by a group local thieves caught on store cameras in June, according to search warrant affidavits filed in Hancock Superior Court in Ellsworth.

On June 9, police caught a suspect in a Walmart store and confiscated his cellphone, hoping to tie phone numbers to others who might be in the group.

During a review by police of subpoenaed eBay transaction records, detectives discovered that the user name “north_southantiques” was used in the sale of items including printer ink, car stereos, rifle scopes and calculators believed to be from the Frankfort Walmart.

State police sent a request for account information. The Walmart global investigator told state police that usually within days of the Walmart stores discovering that inventory had been stolen, the same items appeared on the north-south “store,” according to the affidavit. The on-line sales operation could also be identified by another name, “dontgiveuptheship77,” the affidavid said.

The Walmart investigator assured state police that the items found at the eBay stores could not have been bought from Walmart because they were being sold for less than the price Walmart would have paid for them — even with Walmart’s “immense purchasing power.”

For instance, dontgiveuptheship77 listed a women’s brand-name bag for $3.96 when its retail value is $24.

He also told police the merchandise could not have come from a “distressed store” or have been bought in the same way that Maine discount retailer Marden’s buys its merchandise. Some of the items even showed packaging that was specific to the items sold by Walmart.

Police said the phone number listed on the eBay account matched a phone number the state Department of Health and Human Services had for a woman that records showed gets state financial assistance and benefits.

Brooks said the man and woman connected with the theft ring were receiving an “abundance” of state welfare benefits.

“That’s why the state of Maine fraud unit is also involved,” Brooks said.

Investigators bought an item from the eBay store to learn the address of the seller. PayPal emailed a receipt to the investigator, which revealed the item had been shipped from Bucksport — the return address on the package was Frankfort.

Investigators got eBay and PayPal records to get IP addresses that were traced to the suspected theft ring leaders, according to court affidavits.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security also assisted in the case, providing intelligence, and had representatives present this week when the warrants were executed, Brooks said.

Authorities said anyone with information regarding the ongoing investigation should call 1-800-452-4664.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter: @Doug_Harlow

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