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D.C. Cracks Down as Stolen-Goods Dealers Evolve

Across the country, law enforcement officials report groups of criminal middlemen employing bands of burglars to target businesses and homes, in some cases providing burglars floor plans and maps of their targets, according to interviews and court records. Other fences have created platoons of shoplifters to strike retail stores. Some are working with bands of hijackers who hit trucks and trains carrying expensive cargo.

D.C. police and prosecutors said they think that the crackdown in the city has had an impact. Through the first six months of this year, burglaries declined 16 percent in the District. They dropped 25 percent in the 3rd Police District, which covers much of downtown and several "target rich" residential neighborhoods such as Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle, police said. Many of the city's fencing investigations began in the 3rd District.

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)

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"It breaks the market, and suddenly the highway isn't smooth anymore," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Hegyi of the transnational and major crimes unit, who is handling some of the first cases brought by D.C. police, in part because of the global reach of the fencing enterprises. "They have to look and find somewhere else to go."

The D.C. crackdown began last year when Swinson, a veteran property crimes investigator in the 3rd District, arrested several burglars who began tipping him off to fencing operations. The burglars, who often did not know one another, had learned about the fences through gossip on the street. Then they became regular patrons of the fencing groups.

As he began to tackle the fencing operations, Swinson soon realized that the investigations took too much time for one detective. He added two others to his team: veteran Detectives Joseph Radvansky Jr. and Neil Jones, who have specialized in tracking down serial burglars. To help finance his effort, Swinson obtained a $10,000 grant from the National Capital Police Fund, an initiative of the Federal City Council, a nonprofit group of influential business leaders.

A burglar first pointed Swinson to a group operating out of J and N Auto Service in the 1700 block of Kalorama Road NW, a concrete-block building on an otherwise quiet residential street in Adams Morgan.

In September, U.S. District Court records show, police sent a confidential informant into the auto shop and sold an employee "bait" property. Within a few weeks, the informant brought an undercover officer in on the deals, which were recorded by a hidden microphone. Other police officers kept careful watch on the deals from a vehicle hidden nearby, investigators said.

Soon, the undercover officer was making regular visits to the auto shop to sell stolen goods, police said.

Within a few visits, the shop's employees were giving the undercover detective a detailed shopping list of computers, electronic goods, jewelry and other items, police said.

When Swinson and other detectives raided the shop, they discovered several large boxes stuffed with electronics items to be shipped to Central America, police said.

Police eventually charged three employees with stolen-goods trafficking in U.S. District Court. One has not been caught, and another is wanted on a warrant issued by a judge for skipping a court date, authorities said.

The third is awaiting a trial date. Police said the owner of the shop, Nery Orsco, was not involved in the ring. Orsco, who was hospitalized for an illness during the investigation, said he was "disappointed" by his employees' actions.

In a similar undercover investigation last year, police arrested an employee of a newsstand that sold an assortment of magazines, chewing gum, candy, sodas and pornography in Northwest Washington. Behind that business front, the man was actually specializing in fencing camcorders, digital cameras and laptop computers, according to police and a nine-page affidavit filed in D.C. Superior Court. The case is awaiting trial.

As in the auto shop investigation, the defendant told police he was shipping the laptops, CDs and other goods overseas, the affidavit alleged.

In May, police and U.S. Secret Service agents raided a gas station in Northwest Washington that they alleged was a front for several fences trafficking in laptops and stolen credit cards, authorities said.

To crack the gang, investigators sold one suspect fake credit cards and charted the purchases. Some of the charges occurred within minutes of the undercover sale, police said.

Two months ago, police raided two fencing operations in Southeast, one operated from a pizza shop and another from a Chinese restaurant, according to Superior Court records.

During one recent transaction at the Chinese restaurant between an employee, an undercover detective and an informant, the employee complained that he couldn't sell one of the laptops sold to him because he couldn't cleanse its hard drive, police said.

In the future, police said, the suspect demanded that the thieves' computers be wiped clean.

"I don't care about the software," the suspect told the informant and officer, according to charging documents. "I can get any kind of software I want. I can't have [any] traces of previous users account files whatsoever."

The minor snag did not seem to diminish the suspect's enthusiasm for his trade, however. Before the informant and undercover detective left the restaurant, the charging documents state, the suspect quickly put in another order with them. He wanted as many laptop computers as possible, he said, and would pay $350 for each, so long as "they were top of the line."

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