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Going the Extra Mile for Crime Victims

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Det. Patricia Picker of the Manhattan Beach Police Department usually considers herself hard-nosed. But when confronted with the stacks of wedding and honeymoon pictures, baby thermometers and diamond jewelry, the 19-year veteran of the force was devastated.

That was last fall--after she snared three burglars who had pillaged the rental cars of hundreds of tourists from around the nation and the world. Many of the victims had stopped in Manhattan Beach for a final summertime glimpse of the beach before heading to Los Angeles International Airport.

After the arrests, Picker went to the crooks’ house and found the loot--three truckloads of personal treasures and mementos from weekend getaways, business trips, long-saved-for family trips to Disneyland.

“I’ve taken a lot of crime reports in my life, but this was different,” she said. “This was the biggest seizure of stuff I’ve ever seen, and looking at all the stuff, you realized how many people were hurt by this. I bet over a thousand people lost their stuff to these guys.”

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So Picker, who once had her own car stolen, and with it her 6-month-old baby’s worldly possessions, is on a crusade to return as much of the property to the owners as she can. She created a Web site and posted pictures of every item, and on Thursday she took over a Manhattan Beach recreation building, laid everything out on tables and invited burglary victims to look.

The scene resembled a giant garage sale: Rows upon rows of suitcases were stuffed with folded clothes. Tables were heaped with sunglasses, European phone cards, cameras, Walkmans and a well-loved teddy bear. Three hundred pieces of jewelry were individually sealed in plastic bags. A diamond and gold bracelet assessed at more than $2,000 glittered next to a faux-pearl necklace worth less than $10.

The victims trudged in, cautiously hopeful, holding their police reports like concert tickets. Picker explained that no one would be allowed to claim property without proving that he or she had reported it stolen.

Frank Harris of Los Angeles had driven to his gym last August and come out an hour later to find that his possessions, including the briefcase containing his divorce papers, were gone from his car.

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On Thursday, he spent 45 minutes searching. He left empty-handed.

The thieves, Gabino Soto, Javier Barrera and Ernesto Figueroa, pleaded no contest last week to receiving stolen property and are awaiting sentencing.

Detectives, who believe the men had a bustling business in stolen property, found shipping records showing that vast loads of contraband had been sent to a storefront in Mexico. After their arrests, reports of auto burglaries from Santa Barbara to Dana Point plummeted.

All three had also been apprehended a year ago breaking into cars at the Beverly Center in Los Angeles and had served some jail time.

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At the end of the day, none of the two dozen people who looked over the goods were reunited with their possessions. But one television cameraman, who came to report the story, noticed a TV monitor and cables that had been stolen from a Channel 7 vehicle, Picker said.

“Most of the stuff was already shipped to Mexico,” she said. But she hopes word will trickle out about her Web site (https://www.ci.manhattan-beach.ca.us/ police/rental) to people living overseas or in other states.

Picker was able to get in touch with some victims, including people in Europe, through phone numbers on memory banks of recovered Palm Pilots and cellular phones.

Anything that is not claimed in three years, when the statute of limitations runs out, will be auctioned off, Sgt. John Dye said.

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