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Couple nabbed in 'family' shoplifting scam

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By The Associated Press

BELLEFONTAINE, Ohio -- A couple is charged with forcing their four children to help execute an elaborate shoplifting scheme at stores around Ohio, then selling the items on eBay, authorities said.
Deputies in the Logan County Sheriff's Office said Laura Morris took her three daughters and a son to shopping centers across Ohio to pull off thefts nearly every day for the past six months. Her husband, Todd Morris, stayed home and sold the stolen goods on eBay.

Todd and Laura Morris, both 35, were arrested Thursday after investigators said they found $25,000 in stolen merchandise at their home in western Ohio.

Detective Jon Stout of the sheriff's office said the mother denied the charges when authorities confronted her. But the children -- ages 5, 13, 15 and 17 -- gave full statements.

"There was a sense of relief by all the children that this was over, and they weren't going to be forced to steal anymore," Stout said.

Authorities said Laura Morris sometimes would use the children as lookouts while she swiped items.

Other times, the children would buy items, stash the paid-for merchandise in the trunk of a car, then return to the store with empty bags and receipts, the sheriff's office said. Laura Morris then would make her children fill up the empty bags with duplicates of what already had been bought and walk out of the store with the goods, deputies said. If they were ever questioned, they could produce receipts that matched the items that they were carrying, according to authorities.

After several repetitions of this process, the mother typically would return a set of the merchandise to get back the money she initially spent, detectives said.

The family visited stores across Ohio, including Lowe's, Sears, Big Lots and Old Navy, authorities said.

"These stores were huge, and no one was paying attention to them," Stout said.

While Laura Morris and her children were shoplifting, Todd Morris would stay home and sell the stolen goods on eBay, said the Logan County Sheriff's Office.

Online records show the couple executed more than 1,350 auctions on eBay, most in the last six months -- earning a positive feedback rating of 99.8 percent from buyers.

Investigators said a family-run business, Morris Pallet Recycling, was failing and that the alleged theft ring apparently became the Morrises' only source of income.

Stout said Todd and Laura Morris had sent the Ohio Department of Education paperwork indicating that they were home-schooling the children, who actually received no academic instruction. The children are now living with relatives.

Not everyone who bought the stolen merchandise on eBay gave rave reviews. Stout said eBay customers won't face charges.

In a feedback statement posted on eBay, one of the customers gave the couple a neutral rating, complaining: "Fast shipping, but the jeans came with the security thing, got a stain on the jeans."

The couple replied: "If you would have contacted me before removing it, I would have sent you another."

The husband and wife are being held at Logan County Jail on charges of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, theft, child endangering and receiving stolen property. Prosecutors are reviewing the case to determine if the children should face any delinquency charges.

The sheriff's office searched the couple's house after receiving a tip Wednesday about the Morrises.

Investigators said the items found at the house ranged from toiletries to tools, but consisted mostly of clothing -- much of it with anti-theft devices still attached.
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