ROCK HILL — A Lancaster County woman who police say used an alias while stealing at least $1.5 million from several North Carolina Hobby Lobby stores within the last two years was arrested Wednesday after stuffing oil paints and scrapbooking items into a black bag at the Rock Hill Hobby Lobby.
Maria Steele, 58, of Indian Land, known to police in North Carolina as Maria Vera, possibly took hundreds of trips at least once or twice a week to Hobby Lobby stores, allegedly stealing high-dollar arts and crafts merchandise without being caught, said Rock Hill Police Officer Michael Reid.
Now, Steele, an unemployed mother of three adult children who police also accuse in connection with the thefts is charged with shoplifting, police say.
Steele, who told a judge that shes lived at 18031 Greyfield Glen in Indian Land on and off for the last decade, was held Thursday afternoon at the Rock Hill jail on a $2,130 bond. Just before her bond hearing, police learned that Gaston County, N.C., authorities had issued felony shoplifting warrants on Steele, accusing her in connection with thefts from a Hobby Lobby in Gastonia, N.C.
At about 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Reid met with the loss prevention manager at the Hobby Lobby store on Meeting Boulevard in Rock Hill after he recognized Maria Vera from a shoplifter alert released by the retail chains headquarters, according to a Rock Hill police report.
The manager told police that Steele and others had shoplifted at several Hobby Lobby stores in North Carolina, most notably in Charlotte, Gaston County and Mooresville, N.C.
The items would be sold on eBay, Reid said, and Steele and her children often used screen names, such as spotit4me, redhots15, tulum92, kibries and itsbest4u to sell the items at 75 percent below the retail price.
An investigator with eBay sent authorities information about the transactions, showing that Steele and her children in total made at least $480,000 in profits, according to police documents. Hobby Lobby estimates that the chain suffered a retail loss of at least $1.5 million.
Surveillance video from a Charlotte Hobby Lobby store shows a man police say is Steeles oldest son in the store with her before allegedly taking 75 oil paints last September.
Her daughter and son-in-law, both of whom live in Florida, are accused of selling several of the items that Steele allegedly stole and then mailed to them on eBay. Steeles youngest son lives with her in Indian Land, Reid said.
Reid said North Carolina authorities would have to press charges against Steeles family since those particular thefts occurred at stores out of state.
The manager at the Rock Hill store began following Steele, who wore a bright green shirt and carried a big, black handbag, once he recognized her from interoffice memos, the report states. When Steele realized the manager was tailing her, police say she walked out of the store and toward a nearby restaurant.
She stayed in the restaurant for about two minutes before leaving, Reid said. A restaurant employee called Hobby Lobbys manager after noticing a lump at the bottom of a trash can in the womens restroom. Police found the bag, filled with $475 worth of items.
Meanwhile, Steele, who spotted the manager watching her outside, ran across the parking lot, jumped into a white Jeep and drove off, the report states. Police and the manager watched restaurant video of Steele walking into the womens restroom with the bag in hand before leaving after several minutes without it, Reid said.
Reid said he was unable to find information about Steele because he searched under Vera, the name distributed on Hobby Lobbys memos. Then he found an accident attached to Steeles Indian Land address and realized that Vera was her maiden name.
He matched the photo of Steele distributed by Hobby Lobby with her DMV record and issued a warrant. Police contacted the Lancaster County Sheriffs Office, who served the warrant on Steele at her home, the report states.
Reid spoke with a Mooresville, N.C., police detective, who said he was unable to positively identify Steele as a woman they suspect of stealing from a fairly new Hobby Lobby in town, said Capt. Joe Cook with the Mooresville Police Department.
But on Thursday, Cook confirmed to The Herald that Maria Vera is the same name of the woman accused of taking 31 paper cutting dies worth $672 from the only Hobby Lobby store in the town back in April, alongside a man they suspect might be her husband.
On April 26, Hobby Lobby employees showed Mooresville police video footage of Steele and a man entering the store the previous evening with an empty bag. The security video caught the two leaving the store with a bag that clearly wasnt empty anymore, Cook said.
He said the footage didnt necessarily show Steele stashing the paper die cutters in her bag, but inferences made from the video and missing merchandise indicate that she might be involved.
The bag is not full when they walk in, but full when they walk out, he said.
Reid said he contacted Gaston County authorities on Thursday, who prepared fugitive warrants for Steele.
During a bond hearing Thursday in Rock Hill, Reid told Magistrate Tanesha Lonergan that Steele was accused of stealing from the Hobby Lobby stores on Matthews Township Parkway in Matthews, N.C.; Franklin Boulevard in Gastonia; and Mooresville store on River Highway.
Court officials escorted Steele into a small room, where she sat still wearing her bright green shirt. Longeran told her that, as a condition of her bond, she would never be allowed to come step inside a Hobby Lobby.
I will never, Steele said.
When Longeran told her she would be unable to bond out of jail because of pending fugitive warrants, Steele, nearly in tears, asked, Why cant I go home?