Melbourne shop owner turns to Facebook to find plant thief

Topiaries stolen from The Soup Shop

MELBOURNE, Fla. - He's middle-aged, balding, last seen talking on a Bluetooth headpiece. May be hiding two pilfered plants.

Julie Shipley jokingly calls him "Mr. Nonchalant," and says she's going to find the man who stole the topiaries from her north Melbourne area business, The Soup Shop. The chef has enlisted her Facebook fans to help, and has seen an incredible outpouring of support.

Local 6 News partner Florida Today reported that the strange incident unfolded Monday about 9:30 p.m. outside the shop in Post Commons. After a 15-minute ordeal, the man makes off with one spiral and one ball-shaped topiary. It's caught on surveillance video.

"You watch it, and you're like, how dare you," Shipley said.

She posted a picture from the shop's surveillance video on the social media site on Wednesday, and the image spread. Within 24 hours, it had been "shared" more than 320 times.

"I'm really kind of blown away by it," Shipley said. "We have a couple hundred people that watch our page every day for the (soup of the day). But I didn't know it would spread like this."

It even evoked one supportive post: "hope you catch him, all the best from the UK."

Law enforcement agencies are increasingly turning to social media, as Shipley has, to help solve crimes and promote crime prevention. According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police Center for Social Media, last year more than 90 percent of police agencies surveyed used social media.

"About 77 percent of agencies in 2012 said they were using social media for criminal investigations," said Nancy Kolb, manager of the social media program. "It's a great tool for law enforcement to use in a variety of ways."

Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey has increased his presence, and his office's presence, on Facebook since taking over in January. Plans are in the works to spread crime-prevention tips and alerts via more social media platforms.

"It gives us a chance, let's say we have a victim of crime, we can go back and see any conversations a person may have been involved in," the sheriff said. Online profiles can provide incriminating pictures and help officers research a potential suspect.

Shipley said three names have been passed along to her as possible suspects after she posted her video, and that information has been turned over to the sheriff's office.

A Brevard County sheriff's case report says the 5-foot-tall plants were worth about $500. The suspect, if apprehended, could be charged with a third-degree felony and if convicted, face prison time.

Why would someone steal potted plants? Shipley doesn't know, but she laughed as she thought of the possibilities.

"I think it'd be really funny if he gave it to somebody for Valentine's that saw the (surveillance) film," she said.

Shipley discovered the theft when she showed up to open the shop Tuesday.

"We haven't had our patio very long, and it's quite nice out there, we're proud of it, so we noticed it right away," she said. "We watched our surveillance tapes and discovered ... while Publix was still open, this fella brought a dolly and acted nonchalant when people came around. And eventually he got the plants out of here."

The video shows the thief trying to steal a wrought iron chair, only to discover it's chained to a table. As a car passes, he sits down, crosses his legs and waits. Minutes later, he's at it again. He's smoking a cigarette as he loads the plants and takes them away.

Shipley opened the store just north of Post Road in April, and now has 14 staffers producing 700 gallons of soup a week. None recognized the bandit.

Shipley will replace the plants, which were purchased at Rockledge Gardens, because of the ambiance they created on the patio.

"He didn't steal these from me, he stole them from all the people who sit out there and have lunch," she said.

"There are customers who are outraged on our behalf. It's not about the plant."

Anyone with information on the theft or suspect should call the Brevard County Sheriff's Office at 321-633-2123.

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