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Tampa Bay area police track thieves' pawnshop trail

TAMPA

Detective Brian Carpenter peers through a magnifying glass, squinting to read the name engraved on the inside of the diamond ring: Adolfo P.

That's odd, he thinks. A man came to a Value Pawn & Jewelry in Tampa earlier this month to sell 23 pieces of women's gold jewelry — and his name doesn't match any of the engravings.

Carpenter runs the names. An "Adolfo P." lives in Riverview, and so does the seller.

"Why is he coming all the way over here to pawn them?" Carpenter said.

That's how detectives scrutinize pawnshop inventory, in search of stolen merchandise. Authorities aren't sure how much pawn inventory is stolen, but they know it's long been a popular way to unload electronics, jewelry and tools.

Earlier this month, deputies arrested a LifePath Hospice worker when the jewelry they say he swiped from a terminally ill woman turned up at a Seffner Value Pawn & Jewelry shop.

In July, a stolen Tampa Bay Rays championship ring surfaced at a St. Petersburg pawnshop. It was eventually returned to its owner, who, in a rare move, took the matter to court. On Friday, a judge ruled that the pawnshop must pay $1,460 in attorney's fees.

And earlier this year, the St. Petersburg Times wrote about a woman who paid a pawnshop to get her stolen camera back, only to find her photos had been deleted.

Every day, local authorities check a statewide database that tracks pawnshop inventories. In Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas and Hernando, there are almost 200 shops — meaning hundreds of items pour in each day.

Tampa police data analyst Wendell Vazquez scrolls through the Tampa transactions. Earlier this week he highlighted suspicious sales, including the 23 gold items. On Thursday, he and Carpenter went to the Value Pawn to check on them.

"Collectible John Wayne," Carpenter reads from a printout of the store's inventory. "What's a 'John Wayne?' "

"They need to put a better description on that," Vazquez said, as Carpenter pulled a large cowboy figurine from a black duffle bag.

The statewide database is only as good as the information pawnshops submit, Vazquez said. The more details that are included, the higher the likelihood that law enforcement will get a match when they search for a stolen item.

Vazquez handed Value Pawn's assistant manager Ernest Mansell a citation. Mansell said he planned to reprimand the employee who wrote the vague description.

"They know better," he said.

Meanwhile, Carpenter searched through police reports to see if an Adolfo P. had recently reported a burglary. No match. But Riverview is in unincorporated Hillsborough County. He planned to contact the Sheriff's Office.

Authorities can often charge thieves with burglary, providing false information to a pawnbroker and dealing in stolen property. But there's not much they can do to help the victims get their items back. That's a civil matter.

Most people don't want to deal with the hassle of filing a lawsuit, so they pay the pawnshop for their property. Sometimes they work out a deal, splitting the losses with the store, Vazquez said.

It's unfair that people have to pay to get back their merchandise, said Hillsborough Detective Greg Pollock, an agency expert on pawn investigations. "It's victimizing the victim twice," he said.

It doesn't have to be that way, he said. With a good description, the victim usually wins in court. But law enforcement can't do much more than explain the victim's options. "Our job is to enforce the law and put people in jail," Pollock said.

Times staff writer Danny Valentine contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

Protect your property

Authorities suggest taking a few simple precautions:

• Don't leave your valuables visible in your car and close your garage door.

• Write down the serial numbers of electronics.

• Record details of valuable items, such as number of gemstones in a ring.

• Take pictures of your property.

Tampa Bay area police track thieves' pawnshop trail 10/18/10 [Last modified: Monday, October 18, 2010 11:52pm]
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