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Trading card theft ring halted, say police

The 3 a.m. heists were a quick moneymaker for the teen trading-card theft gang from Chamberlain High School.

They also were the easiest way for the teen-agers to add a $750 Al Kaline card or a rare Mickey Mantle rookie card to their collections.

But Phil Briskin, 31, one of the seven shop owners hit in a three-week series of burglaries, said the teens' attacks almost ruined his livelihood. Two stores hit by the thieves went out of business, he said.

When the ring was smashed Wednesday, with the arrest of five 15- and 16-year-old boys, all he could do was ask questions that could not be answered. Why did they have to do so much damage? Where were their parents? What was the point of the senseless vandalism?

"I could sit down and cry to think there are 15- and 16-year-olds who could cause so much pain in someone's life," Briskin said. In the Feb. 8 burglary of his Revere Sports Card Shop at 2712 W Waters Ave. his $500 glass showcase was smashed and $3,800 worth of cards were stolen.

"We're sitting in the middle of a recession and I'm devastated," he said. "I'm having a 50 percent off sale. My insurance company won't even cover me because of this."

Sheriff's Maj. Ron Poindexter said the teens stole a total of $80,000 in cards before being caught. Officials did not release their names because they are juveniles.

Poindexter said they got together at their school to plan the raids, borrowed a different parent's car each time, and crept off into the night. When it was over, they sold the cards to their classmates, he said.

The burglaries began Jan. 21 with an attempted break-in at The Card Den at 4311 W Waters Ave. Six days later, the burglars returned and stripped the shop of its best cards, according to Hillsborough sheriff's reports.

That was followed by six other burglaries, all in the same northwest Hillsborough neighborhoods.

At each shop, they smashed glass cases, grabbed the $50 card cases popular with teens, and picked their favorites, including hockey star Eric Lindros and basketball's Michael Jordan.

They tossed unwanted cards on the floor, shop owners said, bending their corners to make them worthless.

They sold many of the card sets, with retail values of between $40 and $85, for about $5. But the very best cards, including a set worth $20,000, stayed in their personal collections, Poindexter said. That set was recovered Tuesday night at one teen's home, Poindexter said.

Bob Orris, whose Madison Avenue card shop was ransacked Feb. 3, said he got a tip Tuesday from a Chamberlain student who suspected that stolen cards were being sold at his school. That led detectives to the five teens, and a sixth arrest will follow, Poindexter said.

Trading sports cards is a fad at Chamberlain High School, where principal James Gatlin said he routinely sees students with large portfolios of baseball and basketball cards.

Gatlin said he will appeal to students for help in recovering the stolen cards, but would not conduct a locker search without specific information.

Briskin was pleased with the arrests, but was concerned that the teens were released to their parents Wednesday after being charged with grand theft and burglary.

"I haven't slept in weeks. They made my personal life a shambles," Briskin said. "Maybe I'll sleep tonight."