Woman sentenced in shoplifting ring

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — A participant in a professional shoplifting ring that stole more than $1,000 worth of merchandise from stores in the Ohio Valley Mall was sentenced Monday by Belmont County Common Pleas Judge Frank Fregiato.

Essence T. Austin, 22, of 1240 Seward Ave., Akron, Ohio, was sentenced for theft in a Feb. 13 incident. She was sentenced to three years of community controls and will serve six months in jail with credit for 30 days served, as well as six months at the Eastern Ohio Correction Center. A violation of the terms of her controls would result in 12 months in prison.

Her father, Rodney Austin, spoke briefly about the strain his daughter’s activities have placed on the family, adding that he hoped she would understand the seriousness of the matter. Essence Austin apologized.

Fregiato reviewed the facts of the case, saying that Boscov’s loss prevention officers identified the illegal activity and observed Austin and her co-defendant stealing items from Victoria’s Secret.

“They were watching the suspects … loading their bags from the security cameras at Victoria’s Secret. The suspects had stolen clothing, perfumes, sprays, flip-flops and lip glosses. The suspects were using duct tape and aluminum foil and constructing bags that will block the signal of the security tags on the clothing. They were placing these constructed bags inside of a regular shopping bag. The suspects had five of these bags on them at the time they were caught.

“In other words we had, let’s be blunt about it, planned-out professionals,” Fregiato said.

He added that law enforcement also found stolen merchandise from Hibbits Sports and Children’s Palace in the defendants’ possession.

“The suspects’ trunk was full of shopping bags,” Fregiato said. “The question is: Do most people know that you can use duct tape and aluminum foil to block the signals? I think most people don’t know that, unless you’re a professional shoplifter.”

He then reviewed Austin’s prior record, including convictions for trespassing, theft and receiving stolen property.

“I am just literally blown away,” he said. “I don’t know how she had time to commit all these offenses.”

Fregiato also pointed out numerous pending warrants for Austin for crimes that allegedly occurred after the shoplifting offenses in this case.

“You’ve made a career of this. This is your chosen profession. This is your chosen payoff,” he said, adding that she had not received a heavy sentence for her prior offenses. “You probably did not think this is a big deal. This court finds this to be a big deal. A professional shoplifting ring at the Ohio Valley Mall. It ends right here.”

A warrant remains active for Austin’s co-defendant, Lawanda Hubbard, 25, of 1698 Liberty St., Akron, Ohio, charged with theft. She was arraigned but failed to appear for a plea agreement hearing. Her future court dates remain to be set.