The man in the construction boots, blue cloth cap and blue work shirt timidly approached the open door of the van and peered in.
"Say, I'm curious," said the man, "What's silver plating?"
"We buy everything that has sterling stamped on it," said W.P. (Willie) Murphy half hidden in the recesses of his battered white van.
The man's eyes widened, and he cracked a broad grin, showing a shiny gold tooth.
"How about that stuff they put in your mouth?" he asked.
"Yeah," said Murphy, taking a big bit out of a Wendy's triple cheese with everything, "I buy teeth too -- What you got?"
Murphy is one of scores of buyers who are turning up on roads and in shopping plazas and motels in Prince George's County and elsewhere in the metropolitan area, offering cash for gold and silver with few questions asked. Prince George's police said they counted 30 buyers in the Hyattsville precinct, which covers the northern third of the county.
Murphy operates in front of a 7-Eleven on George Palmer Highway "eight to 10 hours a day, seven days a week," under the watchful eye of off-duty Prince George's police officers he hires as guards.
Murphy said he is undisturbed by county efforts to pass emergency legislation to regulate the precious metals buying business. He said he will do what is necessary to stay in business because he knows a "gold mine" when he sees it.
Prince George's police Sgt. Ralph Ross blames gold buyers for a 70 percent increase during the last year in the amount of gold and silver taken in burglaries.
Some vivid examples:
$10,000 worth of gold and silver ceremonial rings, watches, trophies and flatware were taken from the home of University of Maryland football coach Jerry Claiborne by two youths. Police learned that within an hour the items would be sold to a nearby gold buyer, even though the booty had Fiesta Bowl, Blue Bonnet Bowl, Atlantic Coast Conference Champs and others sports titles and Claiborne's names-engraved on most of them.
The 15-year-old daughter of Maryland Del. Kay G. Bienen (D-District 21) took $5,000 worth of her mother's jewerly to finance a drug habit and sold it on Main Street in Laurel, her hometown. "She only looks 13, maybe 12, yet this dealer took it and paid her $197 for $5,000 worth of stuff," said Ross. "We went back the next day and we were able to recover only one ring." No action was brought against the buyer.
Two months ago, burglars aged 17 and 18 took $12,000 worth of rings, silver and gold place settings, and other jewerly from a University Park home, covered them with sheets on the back seat of their car and drove to a buyer in the District. District police, alerted by Prince George's police, apprehended the youths after spotting their car in front of the gold buyer's store.
No laws in the county now directly regulate the buyers of second-hand gold and silver merchandise.
Del. Bienen told her daughter's story before the state legislature last spring, urging passage of a bill to regulate traders in precious metals. (Bienen's daughter has since undergone treatment for her drug problem.) The measure did not pass, so County Council member Frank Casula and then-council member Francis B. Francois began work on an emergency act to regulate buyers in the county.
"What you're doing to setting up a mechanism by which thieves can instantly dispose of stolen property," Casula's aide Jim Herl said of the free-wheeling gold and silver buyers. Unregulated buying of precious metals is "increasing the theft rate because people know they can get rid of it right away," he added.
Though dealers who work out of motel rooms and from trucks on private property may be violating commerical use and pedding ordinances, the county license and permit department has only just begun to look into the problem.
The bill now before the council would require strict record keeping, including identification of all sellors of jewelry, silverware and other precious items, and description of the items purchased, and would require buyers to hold the items for five days before reselling them. It would also prohibit purchases of items worth more than $25 from youths under 18 without parental consent.
The County Council voted Tuesday to hold hearings on the bill this month.
County officials also are working on a second bill to set standards for the premises of the buying operations and make sure their scales are fair.
The holding period is to give police time to check buyers for stolen goods. The buyers, who said they normally turn their purchases over to smelters or wholesale buyers within 72 hours, fell the holding period would ruin their business. They successfully fought an earlier version of the bill calling for a 15-day wait.
A District law requiring a 15-day holding period is now being challenged in court.
The buyers include individuals who rent motel rooms and take out ads in local papers, or who work out of lone trucks with garish signs, renting space on private lots. Others include established coin dealers and second-hand traders such as the operators of the Swap Shop on Marlboro Pike in District Heights, who have been lured into precious metals trading within the last year by the prospect of as much as a 100 percent gross profit on their purchases.
Then there are the larger outfits, like Precious Metal Specialists Inc. of Hyattsville, which boasts that its 14 metro area stores are the beginning of a nationwide chain and that PMS will rival McDonald's as a household word. Company officials say they don't want the firm to be considered a "fence," an outlet for stolen property.
"They're associating us with fences; we don't like that," said company founder Art Davis. "We're providing a needed service."
They object to the proposed law's requirement for a holding period, but point out that they already comply with the identification and record-keeping provisions.
"I've found PMS very helpful," said Detective Tom Gross of the Bowie substation. "We've solved four robberies in the Bowie area with the information they've brought us."
PMS's customers are "working people -- even law enforcement people," according to I.H. Catlett, PMS president. "We had four law enforcement offficers at our District Heights office the other day," he said, thumbing through an inch-high stack of $20 bills. "Anyone who would use a bank," he continued. "We're getting people from all walks of life."
His company's competition, he added, is "anybody with $1,000 who thinks they know something about the gold business.These people will be legislated out of business in six months."
Willie Murphy, the man in the white van, thought he had read enough about the business to sell his brick cleaning equipment six months ago and get into gold. He was formerly self-employed, putting acid on new brick walls, until the construction industry nosedived. Now he puts acid on things the glitter to see if they're gold.
He wishes he had started a year ago. "I started with $240, now I can pay the rent," he said. "I got a family to feed."
Murphy checks the world price of gold four times a day. He even plays the futures market, taking out contracts to sell gold to his refiner at a fixed price on a fixed date, to cover his purchases, he said. Murphy has begun looking into getting a store, just in case the regulators move to get him off the street.
Murphy said he does not buy from minors, and uses his judgment on goods that might be suspicious. On the other hand he takes no identification and keeps no permanent records, though he does give receipts.
"The people coming to me are pulling rings off their fingers and chains from their necks, and they just ask me 'how much can I get,'" he said.
As he talked, three customers arrived in quick succession. The first man pulled up in a sleek red Corvette with Delaware plates and showed Murphy a large, stone-studied ring of white gold.
"I don't buy the stones," said Murphy. "Take the stones out and I'll give you $50," he said.
The other two customers, on driving a cement truck, and the other on foot, also checked the prices for rings on their fingers, but nobody sold.
"Somebody might have a few rings home and is getting ready to get set out (evicted). They use that ring money for the rent," said Murphy.
A couple in a red Pinto pulled up and the man got out to negotiate. Murphy tested the man's Central High School ring and gave him $50 for it.
"Better I sell it now than wait for someone to take it off my finger," the man said.
Most of the sellers interviewed had shopped around to get the best prices on broken or unwanted jewerly and other household items that might contain gold or silver. Most were repeat seller, delighted at creating some instant cash.
"Last year when they first started doing this thing, we got over $200 for some old coins and clocks and stuff," said Debbie Brooking of Largo, standing in a Marlboro Pike parking lot next to 35-year-old Kurt Kane's truck.
She was disappointed with the $17 that Kane offered her for two tarnished silver bracelets, one with a fancy latticework design stamped "acapulco." She said she planned to check elsewhere for a better price.
Kurt Kane said that the Washington area was "just the way the wind blew" his panel truck two months ago, after he had spent two years buying gold in Durham N.C. Before that he didn't feel that $7 per hour as a butcher was enough, so the Temple Hills resident supports his wife and three children from the gold and silver trade.
Like Murphy, he asks few questions beyond the value of the merchandise offered.
"I'm buying something and someone wants to sell -- why should I need IDs," he said. "That's not my business if it's stolen. If I want to buy," I'll buy," he added.
Or as Murphy summed it up: "People are selling things out here because of inflation, and I'm out here working for the same reason."