CLEARWATER — Longtime Clearwater dentist Bill Strupp just wanted to get back some of his prized sports memorabilia when he posted an ad on Craigslist offering a reward for the stolen items.
He hoped that someone who had bought one of the signed baseballs or bats — gifts from a friend, the late New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner — might contact him.
Someone did call him in late December, a month after the burglary at Strupp's dental practice on Sunset Point Road. The man offered to sell the memorabilia back to him, and Strupp played along. He promised he wouldn't call the police.
"Immediately, as soon as I hung up with him, I picked up the phone and called (Clearwater police) Detective Jonathan Walser," said Strupp, 66.
Walser recommended a sting operation.
On Jan. 3, police swooped in as two men tried to sell Strupp's belongings to him at a shopping center.
Robert Kinzinger, 42, of Clearwater and Dana M. Eson, 48, of New Port Richey were each charged with two counts of dealing in stolen property.
The office that Strupp and dentist Michael Brumm share at 2376 Sunset Point Road was burglarized between 6 p.m. Nov. 16 and 7 a.m. Nov. 17, according to Clearwater police. Brumm discovered the burglary.
The dentists discovered that the haul included several computers, four cameras, a postage machine, some medicine, a portable X-ray machine and other dental equipment. The estimated value of those items alone was $37,000, police said.
Then there was Strupp's official Heisman football with autographs that include the honor's first recipient, Jay Berwanger. And there was the memorabilia given to Strupp, the Yankees' team dentist, that included dozens of signed baseballs and three signed bats.
Of Steinbrenner, Strupp said: "He was a personal friend. He was a patient. He was probably one of the nicest guys I've ever known in my entire life … a phenomenal individual." Steinbrenner died in July at age 80.
As police investigated, Strupp posted the Craigslist ad.
On Dec. 22, a man called Strupp and said he had the bats and 33 of the baseballs, Strupp said. The man wanted $4,000.
Strupp agreed, but said he really needed his computer equipment back, too. The man said he'd look into it. Strupp called Walser, who encouraged him to set up a meeting when the man called back.
On Dec. 30, the man called again from a "throwaway cellphone," Strupp said. He offered Strupp two computers, the balls and the bats and said he wanted $10,000. He wanted to meet that afternoon.
Strupp stalled, he said, knowing police would need time to set up a sting.
It was the Friday before the New Year's holiday, the banks were closing and wouldn't open until the following Tuesday, Jan. 3, he told the man.
They agreed to meet Jan. 3 at Sunset Point Road and U.S. 19 in the Publix parking lot. Police got into position early and began surveillance, Strupp said, paying attention to two men in two vehicles who seemed to be driving from one nearby parking lot to another.
Meanwhile, Strupp drove to a post office and gave a detective his coat and sunglasses. The detective got into Strupp's car and drove to the shopping center as a decoy.
The man who had Strupp's property was late, but when he did call, he wanted to move the meeting spot. But Walser had told Strupp that would be impossible with all of the surveillance vehicles and equipment.
Strupp spun a tale.
"I told him, 'Forget about it. I've been sitting here for the last half hour. I've got $10,000 sitting in my lap. I'm scared, afraid someone's going to come shove a gun in my face … You know what, you can just keep those bats and balls and shove them where the sun don't shine,' " Strupp recalled Wednesday. "I said, 'I'm not going anywhere. You want the money, you come here.' "
The ploy worked and soon Eson was running toward Strupp's vehicle, bats and balls in hand. Kinzinger realized it was a setup and took off, but he was stopped by police nearby.
"I'm just flabbergasted that anybody would be that stupid to try to sell something back to somebody after you stole it from them," Strupp said.
Police executed a search warrant and found some more of Strupp's belongings. Some are still unaccounted for, he said.
Strupp credited the ingenuity of Walser and the other investigators involved.
"The Clearwater Police Department is the finest police organization in the entire country, in my opinion. I don't believe anybody could have made this come to fruition any better than they did," he said. "What they did is just an absolutely phenomenal thing, so people in Clearwater have a lot to be proud of with that organization."