The skies were still burnt orange from receding fires when the calls began. One after another, citizens of Compton, Long Beach and Huntington Park telephoned their local police departments in whispers and outrage.
"I know this guy is buying and selling loot," one woman told Compton detective Sgt. Barry Lobel recently. "And it's just not right."
"It's not right" was the sentiment voiced by most callers. And when patrol officers checked on the tips, they often found not just loot but more suspects.
"When we go out to a location to investigate, the person often snitches out everybody else," Compton Police Sgt. William Wallace said. "It's a domino effect."
It has been much the same in Long Beach. When the looters returned home with purloined booty, their neighbors were watching and calling police, said officers and city officials.
Police in all three cities said the largest percentage of stolen goods they recovered came from such anonymous tips--but everything that has been recovered probably amounts to less than 1% of all goods stolen during the riots.
A few penitent looters have turned themselves in or returned their booty to neutral drop-off points. South Gate city officials said they will allow looters to return merchandise--stolen from shops there or outside the city--to the Police Department with no questions asked. But no one has taken them up on the offer so far.
And though Compton officials say looters will be aggressively prosecuted, officers say they decide whether to arrest on a case-by-case basis.
If a suspect is cooperative and readily hands over stolen goods, officers probably won't haul the person in to the station. But those who tell the officer at the door to get lost will probably be charged if booty is found, Compton police said.
"If we have to go to the trouble of getting a search warrant, we'll most likely make an arrest," Wallace said.
Of course, if someone is suspected of more serious crimes, no amount of pleasantries will help, Long Beach Police Sgt. Linda Fiero said.
When Thomas Leroy Saafir, 26, returned two new stereo speakers to the station, someone asked him his name. Saafir hesitated, then handed over his driver's license. A detective's secretary recognized the name, and Saafir was arrested on suspicion of arson, Fiero said.
"We had a videotape of someone setting fire to a store and had been able to get a preliminary ID of the suspect," Fiero said.
Saafir is the only person to return stolen property directly to the Long Beach police station.
The Long Beach Police Department arrested a total of 1,158 people on riot-related charges and recovered about $350,000 worth of bicycles, liquor, tires and stereo equipment, Fiero said. Officials have not calculated how much merchandise was lost to the looting, but total damages were about $18.2 million, officials said. Police in Long Beach have been able to return 80% of the recovered booty to its rightful owners, said Detective Joe Bahash.
But even after about 40 bikes were returned to Jones Bicycles on Long Beach Boulevard, store manager Jhair Piedrahida was still looking at a mostly empty storefront--a shop stripped clean of 300 new bicycles.
"We hope to open next week," Piedrahida said Tuesday. "But for now, we only have these 40 bikes."
Huntington Park officials estimate businesses there suffered $7 million in damage from looting and vandalism alone. Officers have recovered about $100,000 in merchandise--with the help of about 100 anonymous callers, police Lt. Stephen Peeler said.
Compton has not calculated the value of what was looted or recovered, but officials say the city suffered $100 million in property damage and loss. Officers say they can't even begin to estimate how many anonymous tips they have received.
The Toll From the Riots
Buildings Buildings Arrests Destroyed Damaged Losses Long Beach 1,158 15 159 $18.2 million Compton 355 84 186 $100 million Huntington Park 406 6 70 $7 million
Merchandise Recovered Long Beach $350,000 Compton no estimate Huntington Park $100,000