On Monday, detectives fanned out and arrested 30 of 102 suspected criminals who sold stolen goods to the Seattle police during a yearlong sting operation in Georgetown that led to the recovery of more than 900 stolen items.
Business at the little red storefront in an industrial area of Georgetown was slow at first, but once word got out that items could be sold for pennies on the dollar with “no questions asked,” it picked up quickly.
Soon, the phony fencing operation on Harney Street had a steady clientele, according to the undercover Seattle police detectives who were running it.
On Monday, detectives fanned out and arrested 30 of 102 suspected criminals who sold stolen goods to the police during a yearlong sting operation that led to the recovery of more than 900 stolen items, including boats, cars, motorcycles, passports, credit cards and 27 guns, police said.
“There was even one guy with military-grade C-4 explosives,” said Seattle Police Department Assistant Chief Jim Pugel.
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“The whole idea was to ID the prolific property criminals and get them to come to us. If you can get the heavy hitters, you may experience a reduction in crime,” Pugel said.
The operation has led to an estimated 300 criminal cases, including 146 auto-theft cases. Six of the suspects have been indicted and will face federal charges, police said.
The majority of the suspects remain at large, and warrants will be issued for their arrests, Pugel said.
By comparison, police said, an average year yields only 80 to 100 auto-theft cases being investigated and brought to charges.
“Operation Oliver’s Twist,” as it was called, began when police rented the building at 929 Harney St. in Georgetown. There, they made modifications to the space and equipped it with video and audio surveillance, Pugel said.
Seven police officers and one FBI agent were assigned to the investigation.
Police then advertised their phony fencing services through a website called middleman.com and on business cards.
“We left cards around taverns that said ‘If you need to sell something, we can be your middle man,’ ” Pugel said.
He said Seattle police worked with the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, the FBI and the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which put up some money to set up the storefront.
Steven Dean, the assistant special agent in charge of the criminal division in the Seattle FBI office, said the arrests should have an impact.
“A lot of these people have lengthy criminal histories,” he said. “They are menaces.”
In addition to theft convictions, Pugel said, others snared in the sting have convictions for drug use and domestic violence.
The current charges should yield the suspects “a significant amount of time” behind bars, he said.
The storefront operation, the first of its kind run by Seattle police in more than 30 years, was the brainchild of investigators with the Major Crimes Task Force and the Pawn Shop and Property Recovery Unit, police said.
“It was an effort to get creative and make good use of limited resources,” said Pugel. “We were trying to get them to come to us instead of us chasing them around.”
He said that while property crime has gone down in the nation as a whole, according to FBI crime statistics, it has been on the rise in Seattle.
In March 2011, property crime was up 10 percent year-over-year in certain Seattle neighborhoods, Pugel said.
Pugel said that while detectives have worked on cases in which store or pawnshop owners gave lists of specific wanted items to thieves, the undercover officers in “Operation Oliver’s Twist” did not do so.
“We were very careful because we did not want to cause crime,” he said.
Most of the stolen items recovered were not immediately returned to their owners because of sensitivity of the investigation and the safety of the undercover officers, he said.
Some of the cars, for example, had been stolen from a suspect’s parents or neighbors, he said, and returning the items could have blown the operation’s cover.
Dean said Seattle police deserve credit for the unusual tactic.
“They took an aggressive stance in keeping their streets safe and took on a lot of initiative,” Dean said. “They deserve to be commended.”
Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or email@example.com