'Customers' Jailed : Thieves Busily Sold Their Loot to the Wrong Parties

Times Staff Writer

The sign in the window of the Anaheim storefront read B.R.E.T. Products. Inside, stolen computers, television sets--even cars and boats--could easily be sold for 8 cents on the dollar.

Since last October, the shop had done brisk business, with some sellers bringing in property three and four times a week. A few of them parked stolen vehicles outside and waited for the store to open. Others, particularly those with highly valuable items, made advance appointments to haggle over price.

Customers were never asked for identification.

The sellers often told the clerks colorful tales about how they'd come to acquire the jet skis, motorcycles, cameras or video cassette recorders they brought in. Like veterans telling old war stories, they would describe how they narrowly escaped being caught by police, or which house was burglarized and when.

The customers did not realize they were selling stolen property to police officers. Their elaborate yarns, like their faces, all were captured on videotape.

With the arrests Friday of seven men and a woman, the bustling B.R.E.T. Products (for Burglary Reduction Enforcement Team) was shut down, ending a six-month "sting" operation code-named "Storefront."

"We're completely out of business now," Anaheim Police Chief Jimmie Kennedy said.

In a sweep beginning at dawn, five teams from the department's Crime Task Force served arrest warrants in Orange, Los Angeles and Riverside counties, rounding up eight of 31 people who police say sold stolen property to the shop.

A dozen others named on arrest warrants were found to be already in the custody of other agencies, investigators said, and another 10 remained at large. The eight suspects were booked into Anaheim City Jail and have been charged with burglary and sale and possession of stolen property, officers said.

Since the shop was opened Oct. 8, 1984, police have recovered through it an estimated $170,000 worth of property believed to be stolen. The officers made about 100 purchases, many of them from repeat customers, police said.

Detectives said 87% of the contraband has been identified and will be returned to its owners. Task force members worked closely with 20 law enforcement agencies to match stolen items with burglary reports. The videotapes taken in the shop were icing on the cake, officers said.

Property that is not claimed after it is put on public view will be auctioned off, and the proceeds will go to the city.

Cost-Effective Operation

Kennedy called the shop, which was set up with $25,000 in city funds, a success.

With more than $13 million worth of property stolen in the city last year, Kennedy said, "$25,000 doesn't sound like very much at all."

In 1984, residents and businesses were hit by 5,000 burglaries, accounting for a third of the city's major crimes, police said.

"We wanted to make burglars and thieves afraid to sell the property, not knowing whether it was going to be a sting or not," Kennedy said.

So the task force members rented the ordinary-looking, 1,000-square-foot building and turned it into B.R.E.T. Products. Inside, they built shelves, counters and walls to conceal the camera. The business even used a telephone-answering machine for what one detective called "real good buys."

"We put the word out that these people would buy anything off the street," Kennedy explained. "We even circulated a little flyer: 'We'll buy anything you've got to sell.' People started calling. Crooks know crooks know crooks, and the word just spread, really fast."

Inventory of Goods

On weekdays from 9 to 5, three officers worked the store counter, haggling with sellers about prices while another detective operated the camera. With $15,000 to use for purchases, the officers bought, among other items, 13 automobiles, 11 motorcycles, 14 stereo sets, a dozen VCRs and two boats, police said Friday.

Some of the sellers were so active they had to be arrested on the spot, investigators said.

"We had a couple of people stealing cars, draining all of our money for a while," said Detective Joe Liddicote, who worked behind the B.R.E.T. counter. "They'd phone us well in advance to set up an appointment, and give us plenty of time to get half the special task force down here . . . They were asking for $500 or $600 for cars, and were bringing them in three, four, five at a time. They'd have them parked there and waiting for us."

Said Kennedy, "One fella showed up one day with four pickup trucks he wanted to sell . . . he was stealing them so fast we had to go ahead and arrest him right there. We had to get him off the street."

Occasionally, the officers were confronted with legitimate customers.

Honest Man Turned Away

"We had one guy come in with a computer and we told him, 'No, we really can't use this,' " said Detective Mike Patterson, one of the officers who worked the counter and bartered with sellers. "He said 'no, really, here's my receipt, I'm just selling it because I need the money.'

"We tried to work around that by telling legitimate people we couldn't use something or wouldn't buy it," Patterson said.

Sometimes, the officers said, it was difficult keeping a straight face.

"Guys would actually come in and we'd say 'Hey, where'd you get this stuff anyway?' " Detective Steve Haulenbeck recalled with a smile. "And they'd actually--right into the camera--say, 'Hey, I almost got caught by the cops, you wouldn't believe this, I broke into this place a few weeks ago over in a certain city . . .' It was amazing."

At least one of the burglary suspects might have escaped arrest had he not been so greedy, task force members said Friday.

Youth Asks for More

The suspect, a 17-year-old Santa Ana boy, had sold four or five business computers--complete with terminals, printer and screen--a while back. On Thursday, he phoned the shop and asked for more than the 8-cents-a-dollar he was paid for the stolen goods. The officers set up a meeting in Santa Ana for Friday morning, 7:30 sharp.

The teen-ager was fresh out of juvenile hall, and officers had no current address for him. But they arrived at the rendezvous spot early on their morning rounds.

"He had been in jail and decided, I guess after talking to some people in there, that he should have got more money from us," Liddicote said. "We were glad he called. We wouldn't have got him otherwise."

"Our guys that worked it did a great job and had a good time doing it," Kennedy said of the storefront sting. He said it was so successful that it will probably be repeated.

"I think some of them are going to be a little disappointed (that) it's over."

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