Washington law enforcement officials yesterday charged 16 persons here and in five East Coast states with selling stolen paintings, priceless antiques, luxury cars and a trailer-truck load of liquor to an elaborate and expensive fake fencing operation run by city police and the FBI out of the Shoreham American Hotel.
Known as the Highroller, the phony fencing project is the third to be revealed here in the past year. Unlike the other two, which dealt with street thieves and office burglars, the customers of Highroller were described as professional, high-level thieves and fences who bragged of connections with organized crime.
The Highroller's undercover officers operated for 14 months out of a plush $1,500-a-month suite at the Shoreham Americana off Connecticut Avenue NW on Calvert Street. Law enforecment officials said the agents paid $169,000 for property that has been appraised for at least $2 million.
The undercover agents purchased 10 antique mirrors that had been in storage since 1854 when they were removed from the walls of the U.S. Capitol. Law enforcement authorities are still tracing the history of another purchase, an antique table on which various historical documents are said to have been signed.
Civil War collections, oil paintings, diamond rings, truckloads of yard equipment such as roto-tillers, stereo gear, diamonds, china, silver, stolen securities and an antique typewriter also were purchased by the agents.
The officers involved in Highroller had to reject numerous offers of property because of the prohibitive cost, officials added. Top Washington FBI agent Nick F. Stames said the group dealt with one car theft ring that said it could supply between 300 and 400 luxury automobiles a month.In addition to the purchase made by the oficers, the operation provided large amounts of criminal intelligence about the operation of organized crime along the East Coast, officials said.
U.S. Attorney Earl J. Silbert said it would take months for investigation to continue into the origins of the stolen property, and that additional persons probably will be charged. The tight secrecy surrounding Highroller has so far prevented the police and FBI from making detailed checks into the property and the persons who sold it, officials added.
The undercover officers who worked with the Highroller videotaped transactions in the Shoreham hotel suite. The videotape equipment was built into a piece of furniture in the suite's sitting room.
The Highroller, described by police officers as the most adventuresome of the fake fencing operations revealed so far, differed in many aspects from the first two projects that were disclosed here.
The first one, which came to be known as the Sting, operated out of a grimy Northeast Washington warehouse, and was run by law enforcement officials who posed as the Mafia. It was revealed one year ago this weekend.
The second operation was known as "GYA," for "Got Ya Again," and was announced on July 7.
Both previous fake fencing projects focused on street thiefs who would bring in such items as typewriters stolen from offices, credit cards taken in armed robberies and checks stolen in the mail. Some thieves came to the previous operations as many as 50 times to sell stolen goods.
The Highroller made only 64 buys in its 14 months of operation. Its customers were dealing in property worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and came to D.C. from Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and Virginia.
The first two operations netted more than 300 defendants. Police officials said they never expected that volume in Highroller, because it was an attempt by police to break into the higher echelons of fencing - the point at which lower-level fences themselves are among the main customers.
Although law enforement authorities described Highroller yesterday as the "most successful" fencing operation yet, others say privately that it was not as successful in infiltrating the fencing underworld as they had hoped.
Unlike the dealings with street-level narcotics addicts whose unwariness would allow them to be spoofed into believing they were dealing with the Mafia, the police agents in Highroller found themselves confronted with hard-bargaining sophisticates.
Deals were often completed in parking lots by thieves who were warry of meeting often in the hotel room, police said. Those transactions also were taped anyway, police added.
Generally, though, the law enforcement officers thought the Highroller was worth its cost despite the relatively few arrests that were made.
"This is proof of what we have known all along," one law enforcement official said. "There are persons who deal in stolen goods worth millions of dollars and there is sophisticated machinery in the underworld to handle deals of that volume."
The customers who finally agreed to handle deals of that volume."
The customers who finally agreed to consummate deals in the Shoreham Americana hotel suite often talked of connections to organized crime and the manner in which they managed to acquire the goods that they were bringing into the Highroller, according to several law enforcement sources.
"We didn't want to go around asking questions about someone that might inadvertently tip them to the fact we were the law," said one police official who is familiar with the operation.
Highroller finally had to end because it was running out of money, according to police officials. They were not able to provide a figure for the total cost of the operation.
One man who was arrested in New York Wednesday on Unrelated charges had offered the police a "shipload" of Lincoln Continental automobiles. "He said for us to get a warehouse and he would fill it up," said one federal investigator.
The man's asking price was $260,000, but he was arrested before being told it was a sum of money the phony fencing operaiton could not raise.
Three men were arrested at the Shoreham yesterday as they showed up to collect money they were showed up to collect money they were owed or to discuss deals that had previously been rejected, police said.
The three were identified as Edward Michael Marra, 30, a truck driver of 174 Manassas Dr., Manassas, Va.; Lynn Robert Adams, 30, a heavy equipment operator, of 13808 Newport La., Chantilly, Va.; and Orville White, 43, a farmer of 51 Monument Ave., Richmond.
The other dozen or so arrests were being carried out in the other jurisdictions, where the suspects live, the FBI said.
Most of the persons named in the arrest warrants were charged with interstate transportation of stolen property, which carries a maximum prison term of 10 years.
Both previous fake fencing operations have been successful in court as well as in original arrests. Only one person against whom final charges were lodged was acquitted.
The only acquittal was that of then Assistant U.S. Attorney Donald Robinson who, a jury found, was "trapped" into accepting $700 in bribes from the countermen in the original Sting operation. Robinson was fired from his job.
The fake fencing operations are writing a new chapter in national crime fighting, backed by large amounts of electronic equipment and federal money and an unusual spirit of cooperation between law enforcement agencies. More than 20 similar operations have ended in cities across the nation in the past three years. They have netted hundreds of criminals and salvaged millions of dollars of stole private property from the underworld distribution system that centers on fences.
The chain normally begins with a burglary or mugging, then a victim's possessions are passed through a "fence" who resells the items frequently to respectable citizens seeking bargain basement prices.
Hughe amounts of police manpower are needed for the operations, which center on videotapes of transactions and meticulous logging of the recovered property on evidence sheets.
The operations have been financed by the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, whose director says he has "swamped" with requests since the voluminous publicity surrounding such operations.
LRAA spent about $2 million this year funding the projects, out of a total $10 million in special projects funding, according to the LEAA official.
Prosecutor Silbert and Police Chief CUllinance have praised the fencing operations and the cooperation of the law enforcement agencies that have taken part in them.
"It's a new are of law enforcement," prosecutor Silbert has said of the operations.
"No single agency can pull off a successful operation as large as this one," Cullinane added.
Acceptance of the Sting operations has not been unanimous, however. A press conference concering the GYA operation was interrupted by community activities who questioned the expenditure of large amounts of federal and local funds to catch so-called "petty thieves."
The community activits said the money should be used to help eliminate root causes of crime such as poverty, and to set up drug treatment centers for addicts who must steal to get enough money to buy narcotics.
Some law enforcement officials said last week they know the High-roller will be viewed by some activists as a "public relations gimmick" by the police as a result of those past criticisms.
The law enforcement officials said, however, that such a claim is unfounded, since the Highroller was under way before the other two operations were unveiled.
One effect of the Highroller that is hoped for by prosecutors is widespread distrust among theives whenever they have property to sell.
"We hope that it is clear to thieves of all levels that anyone they sell property to - a man behind a warehouse counter or a smooth-talking con man sipping wine in a hotel suite - is just as likely as not to be a cop," the investigator added.