State investigators say they have made an arrest in the largest case of citrus theft they have ever investigated, accusing Brad Reiter of Winter Haven of stealing 4 million pounds of fruit, worth more than $500,000. Of the three victims, Michael Whaley of Bartow was the smallest grower, losing a relatively small 180 boxes to Reiter, when compared to more than 44,000 boxes lost by Gabriel Family Partners.
"He has picked my fruit in the past probably eight or ten years," said Whaley. He says Reiter would visit the 5-acre, 750-tree grove next to Whaley's home, and his men would pick as many as 2,000 boxes of oranges.
Every year, the money would arrive soon after. Every year, that is, until last. "He said 'I'll be back,'" recalled Whaley. "Well he didn't come back that day. I bugged him about paying me, he said, 'I'll get around to it.'" Whaley says he's owed $1,000 for 180 boxes.
But Gabriel Partners says they were ripped off by Reiter Citrus for 250-times as much fruit. The Agriculture Department, which announced the arrest on Friday, says they were left holding the bag for 44,438 boxes of oranges. They say Reiter sold the fruit to others and didn't pay.
"I think he's a thief," said Whaley. "I can't believe he would do something like that to somebody, especially farmers." Whaley says no matter the size of the company, the theft hurts. After he had a stroke in 1993, the orange groves were his second home. "I did my own spraying, I did my own herbicide," he said. "I didn't really feel like doing it, but I got out here and did it anyway because I knew it would help me physically, and mentally."
Last year, a disease turned his oranges green. He says the suspect had picked every bit of his last good crop. "I know I am not a big time farmer, I know I am just a little rinky-dink farmer, but that's beside the point, at least I tried to do something with what I have got here."
The citrus greening, and the emotional toll of the theft, has him ready to rip out the orange grove, and plant a new fruit. Whaley was one of two victims who were smaller operations, with the other losing 570 boxes of fruit. Gabriel Family Partners did not want to comment.
If convicted of the four felony charges against him, Reiter faces twenty years behind bars. He is being held at the Polk County jail.
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