Undercover Police Put ‘Sting’ on Thieves
The residents of the Compton Boulevard condominium would buy just about anything. And why not, at the prices they paid?
They got a Mercedes-Benz for $900 and paid $600 for a BMW. They bought 90 pounds of beef off the back of one man’s truck and paid another $100 for a tractor-trailer rig loaded with 30 pallets of Miller beer. Cameras, televisions, radios, stereos, credit cards, clothes, bicycles and drugs flowed through their home for nearly a year--all of it stolen.
‘Almost Endless Stream’
The clearinghouse for crime in a neighborhood between Hawthorne and Gardena closed about a month ago and local criminals just got the bad news why:
The friendly fence was really the fuzz.
The Hawthorne Police Department revealed Thursday that undercover police operated the condominium since July to catch “an almost endless stream of burglars, car thieves, hijackers and hypes"--police slang for drug abusers.
Several other police departments helped in the fencing operation, which recovered nearly $1 million in stolen property and led to 50 arrests for offenses ranging from grand theft to drug possession.
Police finished the operation with a flourish on Thursday morning, calling in the television cameras as officers raided 15 homes in Los Angeles and Orange counties, arresting 15 persons.
Even as they raided the homes, police said, a suspect contacted one undercover officer through the electronic beeper he used in the sting, and the officer arranged to buy a two-way radio that had just been stolen in Encino. The thief met with the detective at Imperial and Crenshaw boulevards and was arrested when he tried to pass the radio.
“These crooks come here to steal and to sell stuff in the South Bay,” said Hawthorne police Lt. Herb Mundon. “I think they are really going to think twice the next time.”
The arrests were continuing and names of the suspects were not available.
The operation was financed with a $100,000 grant from the state Office of Criminal Justice Planning and $11,000 from the City of Hawthorne.
Detectives used the money to rig hidden video cameras and microphones in the condominium, near the corner of Compton and Crenshaw boulevards in an unincorporated neighborhood just west of Gardena. About half the cash--$45,000--was used to buy the ill-gotten goods.
Undercover officers established that they were in the market for stolen property by seeking out someone known to strip parts from stolen cars.
“It started just building and building,” Mundon said. “One thief would introduce them to another thief. It became known as a place to get rid of stolen property.”
The desire to fence stolen goods in a hurry and to acquire drug money led some of the suspects to sell their merchandise at ridiculously low prices. Detectives bought the loaded Miller beer truck on the street for $100.
Police made 225 buys in all, including a $150,000 truckload of electronic equipment and 40 cars, mostly late models that went for well under $1,000 each.
If the thieves did not appear to be too dangerous, Mundon said, police waited to arrest them later, so the operation would not be given away. But police arrested suspects sooner if they became aggressive or too successful, like the car thief who stole four cars in one night.
“They had to arrest that one guy just to slow him down,” said Tom Quintana, a spokesman for the City of Hawthorne.
Tracking the suspects was not difficult because many of the condominium visitors bragged about what they would steal next, police said.
Two Hawthorne policemen, whose names were withheld, were the principal occupants of the condominium, although “relatives” from the county Sheriff’s Department and the El Segundo, Gardena and Inglewood police departments would sometimes drop by to help purchase stolen goods at the condo or in the area.
The home and the undercover police became an accepted part of the local criminal community. Suspects became so comfortable that when they met at the home they sometimes traded stolen goods and drugs--all on camera.
And when they were thrown in jail, they invariably called the undercover policemen and asked to be bailed out.
But the detectives became targets as well, as thieves four times attempted to break into the condominium and once stole and stripped an unmarked police car.
Mundon said the sting operation produced leads that will occupy Hawthorne police for many months. And if thieves don’t slow down, he said, police may have to open another place that will buy just about anything.