Mayflower police say they’ve arrested a Cabot woman on suspicion of stealing food and household goods meant for tornado victims.
Patrolman Mark Winchester of Mayflower PD, said on Monday that he noticed a tan Dodge Ram pickup "loaded" with what looked like boxes of relief supplies driving in on Fortner Road just before 1 a.m. on Saturday morning. Because he had seen the same truck full of supplies when he started his shift on Friday, Winchester said, he thought it seemed suspicious that the truck was driving at that hour apparently without having unloaded the supplies and food somewhere.
The man driving the truck, who had a suspended driver’s license according to Winchester, said that the truck belonged to a Melissa Brown, 33, of Cabot according to a MPD incident report, and said that he would call her on his cell phone.
According to Winchester’s incident report, the woman he believes was Brown asked him over the phone if he could leave the pickup on the side of the road. He told her that he would be arresting the man driving the truck for driving on a suspended license and the truck would be impounded. Searches that are incident to a lawful arrest are generally constitutionally permissible, as are searches done for the purpose of inventorying property in a legally impounded vehicle.
It turned out that the property in the truck included a number of boxes marked with an "X" that Winchester recognized as the mark that volunteer and professional disaster recovery personnel at Mayflower’s Volunteer Resource Center/victim supply and food depot on Interstate Drive. Also in the truck were a number of boxes from Rice Depot, a company that is donating to the relief effort. The supply and food depot is a large tent with tables and pallets of food and various household hygiene and cleaning supplies.
Winchester said on Monday that his suspicion that Brown was possibly involved in stealing donated tornado relief goods was backed up by workers at the supply and food depot on Saturday. They recognized a picture of her, and said that the woman they recognized in the picture would come daily in the days after the tornado claiming to be a victim needing help, and that later she would claim that she was there to pick up supplies for a number of families she knew that needed help.
Workers at the food and supply depot said on Monday that this woman claimed to be "in the Army" and made other claims that they suspected were bogus. They gave her the benefit of the doubt for a while, one worker said. The words "ARDC Relief Crew" was written in what looked to be white grease pencil at the top of the tan Dodge pickup's windshield as it sat in the impound lot.
There is a process for people picking up food or supplies at the Mayflower location. There is a notebook to sign and people are supposed to provide some information about what household (or what’s left of one) the goods are going to. Also, volunteer workers ask for ID or some other proof that people claiming to be victims live in the damage areas.
Workers said on Monday that a disaster relief coordinator confronted the woman identified by Mayflower police as Brown, and that she wasn’t able to say who the people she claimed to be helping were. Also, they could find no "Melissa Brown" in their sign-in sheets. At this point volunteers there were instructed to stop giving her supplies.
By Saturday, Winchester knew that Brown had a warrant out of Greenbrier and arranged for a volunteer to call Brown and ask her to meet. When they met, Brown was arrested for the warrant. Brown had a young girl with her who was released to the care of a friend, Winchester’s report states.
It turned out, according to Winchester, that the man he had arrested driving the pickup truck with goods allegedly taken from the food and supply depot was an acquaintance of Brown. This man said he had met Brown and another man in the days after the tornado, and that Brown and the other man claimed to be members of "Misfits of Mayhem," an organization they said had set up tents including a building-sized tent behind the Lumber 1 building, according to Winchester. These tents were still there on Monday afternoon.
The man who was arrested for driving on a suspended license had been released by Saturday, and was staying in a rented home on Oak Street in Mayflower. It was at this home that the friend took custody of the girl, and Winchester noticed what he describes in his report as "a large quantity of household items" marked with the "X" in the front yard.
Winchester wrote in his report that Brown admitted taking items from the food/supply depot tent, and that instead of signing her own name she signed the names of the people she was getting supplies for.
"She says she has help[ed] several people [a]ffected and knew of more families in need," Winchester’s report reads. "I told Ms. Brown that I saw her truck on Highway 89 North at the start of my shift at 6 p.m. [on Friday]. The truck bed was full of boxes then … [and at the time the man was arrested driving it] it was full then … too. Now, I find household goods in the front yard of [the rent home] that have not been given out to anyone. Ms. Brown [replied that] she unloaded the items … [and then went to pick up] the Rice Depot boxes."
Brown also said that a weekend fundraiser had been planned by Misfits of Mayhem at the tents behind Lumber 1, but that it was rained out. Brown requested a lawyer and the interview was stopped at that point. Winchester said late Monday afternoon that he hasn’t found a witness who can say that Brown or Misfits of Mayhem had handed out any food or supplies.
Winchester said that MPD would be working with prosecutors to develop charges for either theft of property or theft by deceiving. Theft of property in the affected parts of a declared state of emergency, which much of Faulkner County is, carries a lower felony value threshold. In a disaster area, theft of any property valued at more than $100 is a Class-D felony when it would normally be a misdemeanor. About $377 worth of goods believed by MPD to have been stolen were turned back over to the food and supply depot.
MPD is also investigating if anyone involved in the incident may be liable as accomplices.
Brown has been released on bond.