TAMPA — The thieves probably should have known better. There were a few subtle clues, like the green-and-gold sheriff's colors on the sign outside, the nondescript store's raffle for trip to "the Orient," and an eagerness to pay $400 for a stolen dog.
All the signs pointed to a sting, and that's exactly what it was.
Hillsborough County detectives bought $1.4-million in stolen guns, cars, jewelry, computers, even drugs. But the thieves came to trust the men at SouthEast Auction Service at 7902 W Waters Ave. Now 140 of them wished they hadn't.
Set up in October 2007, SouthEast got a reputation early as a place that would buy anything — no questions asked.
The Sheriff's Office used money confiscated from drug dealers and other criminals to pay people for their stolen goods and keep them coming back, said Lt. Steve Launikitis.
When it was time to close up shop and round up their loyal clients, deputies worried that a few who might be too dangerous for a standard raid. So they set a trap, telling them they'd won a raffle. They even created a fancy raffle poster.
"The Orient awaits!!! Lock in your chance to win this great trip," it said.
"Check out the bars. … Partake of daily recreational activities." And this word of caution: "Length of stay may vary."
Launikitis said detectives called suspects and told them they'd won the trip, but they had to come by for their tickets.
"When they'd come in to pick up their tickets, we would sit them down on the couch" he said, and one of the undercover officers would tell them they were going to the Orient Road jail.
The reaction — they froze in disbelief. "They were really shocked because he was their friend and they really trusted this guy," he said.
One thief became so certain that the auction operators were crooks like himself, that he stopped fencing stolen cars one at a time, and showed up with a semitrailer truck loaded with them, six in all.
"He basically admitted it was stolen," said the detective who cut a deal for them that night. The identity of the undercover officer was not revealed by deputies for security reasons. "When you're buying stuff way under market value, you know things have to be stolen," he said.
They paid the man 5 cents on the dollar for the value of everything, including the truck itself, a stolen $200,000 semi.
In a year's time, the agency bought back more than $1.4-million worth of merchandise, including 102 guns, 50 vehicles, jewelry, computers and even a dog. Deputies arrested 140 people so far and are after at least 20 more.
A yearlong sting is expensive, but the money came from a trust fund, said Launikitis.
This wasn't the first time Hillsborough deputies carried out this sort of investigation. In 2007 in eastern Hillsborough, it operated a fake pawnshop. But the agency thought the west side needed a different feel.
Instead of the gruff biker type, Sheriff David Gee assigned a bilingual man with a kind laugh and unimposing stature to run SouthEast.
He had stories of his time posing as the shop's owner that made even his bosses giggle. Things you could see only working with criminals.
Like one night he got a call about a burglary victim distraught because the thief who took her jewelry also ran off with her dog.
"I called the guy who brought in the stuff and offered him $400 for the dog," the officer recalled. He said he'd heard the woman was desperate and planned to sell it back to her for a profit. "He brought in the dog, and the woman got it back that same night."
The undercover officers became, well, as thick as thieves, so to speak, with the burglars, car snatchers and drug dealers who were their clientele. Thieves invited them to parties (they said no), mooched money and cigarettes, and stopped by occasionally to shop.
Now, those customers are on their trip to the Orient (Road Jail).
Robbyn Mitchell can be reached at (813) 226-3373 or firstname.lastname@example.org.