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Anaheim Sting Delivers the Goods : Law enforcement: A six-month undercover investigation culminates in dozens of arrests for trafficking in stolen merchandise.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Police raided dozens of homes, apartments and motels Thursday and arrested 24 people in the culmination of a six-month undercover investigation targeting stolen-goods merchants, burglars, auto thieves and other street criminals.

Dubbed GNAT Catcher--for “Gang Nuisances and Thieves"--by the Anaheim Police Department, the operation recovered more than $450,000 in stolen goods, police said. Also, 49 arrests were made before Thursday and 30 people already in custody were charged with additional crimes, police said.

Officers had been posing since last fall as “fences,” or buyers of stolen goods, making contact with more than 100 people who were willing to sell stolen merchandise, police said.

“We hope that this sends a message to the crooks that they need to be careful about who their fence is,” said Sgt. Craig Hunter, the operation’s supervisor. “If they know they can’t trust anyone to be their fence, maybe they’ll stop stealing.”

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Almost all of those arrested are “professional thieves” who might have made tens or hundreds of thefts before being caught and could account for a good portion of the $24 million in goods stolen in Anaheim annually, Hunter said.

“When you work an operation like this, you learn that stealing is the sole source of income for these people,” he said.

The raids began early Thursday morning. Anaheim police, assisted by officers from Garden Grove, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, the county probation and parole departments and the state Department of Corrections, hit locations in West Anaheim, Garden Grove, Westminster and Midway City.

At one hotel in Westminster, police were looking for Cody Hildreath, 35, who authorities said had agreed to meet an undercover officer in the parking lot to sell him a stolen Cadillac.

As officers gathered behind a moving van parked outside his room and prepared to barge inside, Hildreath came strolling out, his denim jacket flung over one shoulder. Officers, their guns drawn, ordered him to the ground. After handcuffing Hildreath, officers sat him against a wall and, to confirm his identity, compared his face to a mug shot they had with them.

“Cody, my man, you’ve shaved,” Anaheim Officer Lee Smith said, noticing that the cleanshaven Hildreath had a beard in the photo.

“Looking good!” Smith said, slapping Hildreath on the shoulder as if they were good friends. “By the way, you’re under arrest.”

“I know,” Hildreath mumbled.

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The police on Thursday also got some unexpected arrests, or “freebies,” as Hunter called them.

In one instance, the girlfriend of a man arrested in the sweeps earlier in the day called the undercover officer who had been posing as his fence. Not knowing he was a police officer, she told “the fence” that she needed bail money for her boyfriend and had a stolen flatbed truck she wanted to unload for $500.

The undercover officer agreed to make the deal in a parking lot at Beach Boulevard and Lincoln Avenue around noon.

A few minutes after noon, the truck pulled into the lot. The undercover officer spoke to the two men inside, inspected the truck and then gave the signal for other officers to swoop in. The two men and the woman, who was at a nearby motel, were arrested. Police said the truck had been stolen in Orange.

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When someone expressed surprise that the suspects had been willing to part with a truck worth at least $10,000 for a fraction of that price, Hunter noted that it happens all the time.

“If they complain, we say, ‘How long did it take you to steal it? Ten minutes?’ ” Hunter said. “ ‘If we pay you $500, that’s the equivalent of $3,000 an hour.’ Crooks buy that all the time.”


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