The man behind the jewelry counter unlocked the case, reached for the pearl ring and slipped it onto Jenny Gessler's finger. She gasped, then smiled and held her hand out admiringly to her boyfriend.
Although the scene is a familiar one in jewelry stores, this was no ordinary shopping trip. The man behind the counter wore a police badge and a gun. The jewelry case rested on a wooden table under a gymnasium basketball hoop. And a beaming Jenny Gessler believed that she had just found a ring that had been stolen from her Alexandria apartment five months ago.
More than $2 million in stolen property seized in February from the owners of the Florida Avenue Grill, in one of the largest fencing operations ever uncovered in the Washington area, was displayed by D.C. police over the weekend. For two days, hundreds of area residents -- victims of burglaries -- flocked to the D.C. Police Training Academy in Anacostia in hopes of recovering possessions.
Most, like 29-year-old Dominique Darne, were disappointed. "I came with the teensy bit of hope of finding something," said Darne, who was unable to find any of the approximately $4,000 worth of property he said was stolen in two robberies at his Dupont Circle apartment.
"This room is so sad," said Darne, pointing to the eight long tables overflowing with cameras, videocassette recorders, computers, leather briefcases, tools, vacuum cleaners, microwave ovens, gold bracelets and diamond rings. "People have lost all of this . . . . Think of all the sorrow this represents."
The 7,500 items on display were confiscated by D.C. police and FBI agents in February raids on three locations, including the Florida Avenue Grill. Two of the restaurant's owners, who pleaded guilty in federal court last month to interstate transportation of stolen property in the multimillion-dollar fencing operation, remain free pending sentencing.
The owners, who face maximum penalties of 10 years in jail and $10,000 fines, agreed as part of a plea bargain to identify the people who allegedly supplied them with stolen goods.
According to an affidavit, Lacy Carl Wilson Jr., 50, of Fredericksburg, Va., and his brother, Joseph I. Wilson, 45, of Potomac, bought stolen property during regular business hours at the front cash register of the landmark soul food restaurant at 1100 Florida Ave. NW. They handled larger merchandise, such as computers and television sets, from the grill's kitchen.
The Wilson brothers were fond of horses. On every table of stolen property, there were horses. Red rocking horses, crystal horse paperweights, marble horse statues, jade horse figurines. FAO Schwarz toy store in Mazza Gallerie claimed the two brightly colored carousel horse statues that retail for $650 each; no one had repossessed the $3,000 bronze of a jockey sitting on a horse.
"Lacy Wilson has a horse farm in Stafford County, Virginia," explained Sgt. James D. Vucci of the D.C. Repeat Offender Project, who is in charge of the investigation. "A lot of these items were being sold through his Double L Tack Shop in Fredericksburg."
At least one victim was happy to see all those horses. Linda Dermody, a security supervisor at Woodward & Lothrop department stores, said store representatives had claimed thousands of dollars worth of statues and other merchandise with Woodies tags still on them.
Dermody found several expensive oriental rugs that she said had been taken from Woodies. How do you inconspicuously shoplift an oriental rug? "They posed as stock people, rolled them, picked them up, slipped out the back and threw them in a truck," Dermody explained.
Up to 10 percent of the 7,500 stolen items were claimed during the weekend, mostly by Montgomery County residents, Vucci said. But when the court case is closed, police will turn over about 2 to 3 percent of the stolen merchandise.
The problem, according to Lt. R.D. Gibson, is that claimants have to provide documentation of the stolen item, such as a photograph, warranty, serial number or detailed police report. If two or more people claim the same item, Gibson holds a hearing to see who can provide the most documentation.
Jenny Gessler, 28, a saleswoman with a local publishing firm, did make a police report when a pearl ring, other jewelry, cameras, a backpack and even her telephone were stolen from her apartment.
"They took my grandmother's ring. This looks just like it," she said of the ring in the police display.