Tears tinged with black mascara stained Peggy Cooney's cheeks. She was staring at trays and trays of wedding rings. Lying there in row after row, each and every white gold band looked unequivocally like the simple ring her husband had placed on her finger 40 years ago.
They all reminded her of the band that was snatched from her leather jewelry box in her Montgomery Village home April 5.
"I didn't buy a lot of jewelry for myself," said Cooney, 62, as she used her fingers to dry her wet cheeks. "All the things the kids bought me for Christmas and birthdays--I lost everything I ever had."
On that spring day, the burglars also grabbed a sapphire necklace--a gift from her daughter, who was killed at 16 by a drunk driver.
Her voice shook. She folded into tears.
"This was my history. And this day is bringing it all back," she said yesterday, as she surveyed the tables filled with objects in a room of people like herself, seeking what they had lost.
She straightened her hair. Then she returned to the trays inside the sprawling Montgomery County Public Service Training Academy in Rockville.
In a building resembling a drab suburban high school, police officers and U.S. Customs Service officials stood behind locked glass cases stuffed with diamond-smothered $50,000 Rolexes, fake gold butterfly pins, authentic Willie Mays baseball cards and hundreds and hundreds of engagement and wedding rings.
They were trying to return to the rightful owners 100,000 pieces of jewelry, along with furs, electric guitars, Indian rugs and nativity sets. The property--in total worth several million dollars--was seized in an investigation of drug-money laundering involving three jewelry stores in the District and Bethesda.
Folks were happy to have the chance to reclaim their family keepsakes. But the task was dizzying.
In cars, taxis and buses, hundreds of people arrived early, clutching receipts, insurance claims and photographs of their beloved items.
But even if they had proof of ownership, actually locating their grandmother's pearls or their favorite watch was "like finding a needle in a haystack," said Jeff Casey, a Customs special agent in charge.
The lobby buzzed with concerns. "Excuse me," said a woman, wandering up to Casey. "Have you guys found a tea set? A silver tea set. Anyone?"
The silver-haired officer, wearing a jean shirt and a badge, went off to find out.
Baffled, people lined up to find out why their property was in police hands in the first place. They were handed a flier, "Frequently Asked Questions and Answers": "The property was seized pursuant to an investigation . . . under the provisions of 18 United States Code, section 1956, 'Laundering of monetary instruments.' "
Not exactly the answer they were looking for.
Once some people found their items, they were dismayed to hear they could not leave with them and would not get the objects until fall. There will be another display like this Aug. 29. Then it will take 60 to 90 days to review all claims, police said.
Cici Moore, with a 4-week-old baby strapped to her chest, persuaded officers to let her into the viewing room with her sleeping baby. (Security was tight: No one under 18 allowed, no handbags or purses. No one was allowed to enter wearing jewelry--that way, if someone left wearing some, guards would know something was amiss.)
Moore started to sob when she found the $11,000 gold Rolex watch, drizzled with diamonds, that her stepchildren had given to her a year after she married their father.
She pulled out a receipt. She also brought out a picture she had taken at a mall when she was wearing the Rolex, even though the diamond-covered watch face was not visible in the photograph. Luckily, the receipt worked fine.
Like many others at the training center, Moore had taken her watch to the Jewel Collection in Georgetown to be fixed. When she returned, the shop had been closed down by police.
"My husband went to pick up the watch, and I was pregnant at the time. And he said the store was closed," said the weeping Moore. "I just started to cry."
The store, along with Bethesda Jewelry Exchange on Old Georgetown Road, allegedly laundered hundreds of thousands of dollars by selling jewelry to drug dealers and not reporting the cash transactions to federal authorities, according to a nine-count indictment unsealed in April in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.
Besides laundering money, officials said, the suspects in some cases purchased jewelry they knew was stolen and resold the items after dismantling them to prevent their identification. The suspects removed any gems and sold them separately, then melted the gold, according to the indictment.
Objects from another case were also there, property seized from Livingston Jewelers in Northwest Washington after it allegedly was linked to drug-money laundering, police said yesterday.
Nearby, Cooney was still scanning the trays. Police tried to be encouraging, even though they said privately that it can be hard to find a piece of jewelry whose distinguishing characteristics are all in the mind of the owner. By the end of the day, 550 claims had been submitted by people who found their missing belongings.
Cooney wasn't among them. After months of scouring area pawn shops for her pieces, she had found the task too depressing.
And yesterday, she found it the same.