Wearing a hidden microphone and pretending to be a heroin addict, an undercover D.C. police detective penetrated an alleged crime ring last fall and made a half-dozen clandestine deals aimed at smashing the gang. But the officer was not investigating drug dealers.
Rather, the detective and other investigators were painstakingly building a case that a group was selling stolen property out of an auto body shop on Kalorama Road NW.
D.C. police Lt. Robert Glover does the paperwork that will allow Sherry Harper to get back her stolen earrings. Authorities in the District have recently investigated a half-dozen groups that traffic in stolen goods.
(James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
Over several months, the thieves gave the undercover officer lists of desired items: laptop computers, digital cameras, camcorders. Within days of each request, the detective returned with the goods. When police raided the business in November, detectives said they found boxes stuffed with stolen electronics waiting to be shipped overseas.
The investigation was just one of a half-dozen recently conducted by D.C. police during a rare crackdown on groups, known as fences, that traffic in stolen goods.
In court documents and interviews, police provided a window into how fences have evolved, growing more sophisticated and no longer relying on the walk-in traffic of burglars. Fences hand out "shopping lists" to thieves, give tours of target neighborhoods and now pull loot from burglaries and thefts across the Washington area into their District-based operations.
Some groups also have begun to dabble in identity theft, asking bandits to target credit cards and checkbooks. And, police said, the stolen items are not just being peddled out the back door or on sidewalk stands. With the help of the Internet and overnight shipping, the fencing operators are sending stolen goods worldwide.
The developments could have broad implications for law enforcement in the region as police try to reduce property crime. In the District, police recorded nearly 5,000 burglaries and 16,890 thefts last year. Across the Washington area, police reported more than 25,000 burglaries and 118,380 thefts in 2002, the last year regionwide statistics were available.
Many of those crimes are committed by neighborhood teens or other residents who pocket the stolen items themselves. Other thieves continue to make quick sales to pawn shops.
But District and suburban police said a sizable chunk of stolen items is being funneled through fencing operations. Career burglars often strike house after house, or store after store, to get enough cash to satisfy their drug addictions. Often, those burglars get away with 30 or 40 thefts before being caught.
In Montgomery County, for example, police said drug addicts were responsible for many of last year's 4,095 burglaries. Those thieves often sold their goods in the District to fencing groups.
"A lot of it goes downtown, and we know a lot of our drug-related crime goes right back to the District to be sold," said Lt. Michael Mancuso, who heads Montgomery's criminal investigation division, adding that his detectives were investigating several fencing operations that have sprung up in the county.
Fencing stolen items is an age-old practice of burglars. Yet just a few decades ago, fencing operations generally fell into three categories: pawn dealers, mom-and-pop businesses and organized criminal groups, such as La Cosa Nostra and the Russian mafia. Authorities said newer fencing operations hide from sight in legitimate businesses and show discipline and precision in their dealings.
To break up the gangs, D.C. police have been forced to undertake months-long undercover operations, complete with confidential informants.
"If these groups were not good, we wouldn't have to put so much effort into taking them down," said D.C. police Detective David Swinson, who leads the city's initiative targeting the rings. "It's very similar to a drug gang, the way they operate. These organized fencing operations know their market."