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Tampa Bay law enforcement agencies empty evidence rooms with online auctions

If you're enticed to buy stolen merchandise but don't want to do the time, here's a tip:

Most police agencies now empty their evidence and property rooms on online auctions that dole out deals in swiped fine jewelry, power tools, laptops and, yes, even a coffin.

"You name it, we've sold it," said P.J. Bellomo, chief executive of propertyroom.com, which sells for 1,600 police agencies, including 96 in Florida and many big cop shops in the Tampa Bay area.

Among the top sellers: 30,000 lost or stolen bicycles. But the off-the-wall runs the spectrum: an ax-shaped guitar signed by Gene Simmons of the rock group Kiss, a cherry picker crane arm and a medical device used to perform colonoscopies.

For decades, police held their own auctions when they cleaned the attic of confiscated contraband or unclaimed goods held as evidence. They typically drew the same handful of folks eager to score hidden treasure at pennies on the dollar. Crowds were so thin some agencies lost money selling goods that cost them nothing.

"It was a big hassle to stockpile the stuff, then hope for a crowd," said Russ Hanson, seizures investigator for the St. Petersburg Police Department, which sells confiscated goods through Bay Area Auction Services (baas live.com). "One of our last drew 40 bidders, so they got a lot of deals."

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office took its goods auction to propertyroom.com in 2007.

"We're getting 50 percent more revenue," said Cecelia Barreda, department spokeswoman.

Tom Lane, a Long Island detective, dreamed up propertyroom.com in 1999, but didn't sell the first item — a Pentax SLR camera for $20 — until 2001.

Organizing meant getting police to part with goods without up-front payments, perfecting the technology and setting up warehousing, delivery and photographing 1,000 items a day.

Today, 25,000 shoppers check deals daily and visits are growing at 30 percent a year. The site is closing in on 1 million registered users. Sales rose 27 percent to $35 million in 2008 when the venture capital fund owners claimed their first profit.

The rules require you to register. Bids start at $1 and are binding. Auctions are seldom called off if bids are too skimpy.

Weapons and confiscated drugs are forbidden.

If you can prove something is yours, the Web site will return it. Reclaimed so far: a tombstone and a University of Nevada at Las Vegas NCAA championship ring.

Discounts may be deep, but prices can get stratospheric. A diamond-encrusted Rolex sold for $11,000 and an industrial generator went for $45,000. Among the regulars are theatrical prop houses, such as the makers of Reno 9-1-1, who bought a police car light bar.

Demand for deals exceeds the supply. So Bellomo signed up merchandise liquidators to supply about a third of the goods — mostly collectable coins, jewelry and designer apparel to keep the offering interesting.

The Web site offers few clues to the stories behind the goods because police don't tell them. But the company does certify authenticity of valuables through third-party appraisers.

There are mixups. One commercial nursery owner — Bellomo won't name the state — bought a truckload of grow lights taken from a marijuana grower. Pulled over for a bad taillight, the nursery owner was threatened with arrest when a drug-sniffing dog smelled cannabis residue in his rental truck.

"He told the officer, 'Hey, I bought this stuff from you guys!' " recalled Bellomo, whose company confirmed the sale before the buyer could drive off.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Tampa Bay law enforcement agencies empty evidence rooms with online auctions 06/22/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 22, 2009 9:04pm]
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