Two women left a Reisterstown jewelry shop with hundreds of dollars after hawking a shoebox full of gold and silver, much of it allegedly linked to a string of nearly 30 area burglaries. They might never have been arrested, police said, because the store produced no legal record of the transaction.
But in this case, Baltimore County detectives were watching. They had suspicions about Crown Jewelry because the store hadn't documented buying anything of value since it opened in August. The investigation resulted in burglary charges against three people, including one of the women, and charges that the owners of Crown and another store accepted stolen property.
County authorities say such operations are helping them target the burgeoning illicit trade in pilfered metals — copper gutters ripped from homes, gold rings taken in burglaries — by cracking down on "cash for gold" businesses and jewelry shops that try to hide their transactions.
Unscrupulous gold buyers might be enticed to forgo the paperwork that helps police track transactions because the profits from re-selling the items can be big. Police say enforcement can recover stolen property before it reaches the black market.
Too many shops escape compliance because fines provide little incentive for owners to follow the rules, according to authorities. Penalties for underreporting or failing to report are relatively low — up to $5,000 or loss of license. For police, that can mean the only way to get their attention is to launch a criminal investigation — in this case into a series of burglaries.
"These investigations are becoming more common," said Baltimore County Police Chief James W. Johnson. "This is a national problem. With the downturn in the economy, you have more people moving precious metals. This is an area we've got to stay on top of."
Baltimore County has seen an increase in precious-metal dealers, up from about 60 in 2004 to more than 100 today, as gold prices have skyrocketed. While Johnson said most businesses adhere to regulations, some are frequently used to move stolen property.
Police said they zeroed in on the women — including Shannon Lee, 25, who was later charged — after a state database that tracks precious-metal sales showed they were allegedly selling stolen items in Carroll and Baltimore counties.
A surveillance team subsequently followed them Nov. 6 to the Crown Jewelry shop, and then to JD Loan the next day, but police said those transactions never appeared in the state system.
The two businesses along Reisterstown Road that police were investigating remain open, but the owners face charges of accepting stolen goods — including long chain necklaces, hoop earrings, jeweled pendants and personalized rings — and not properly reporting the transactions to authorities.
Police charged Anthony Gelfen and Jay Rodchenko at Crown Jewelry with buying the stolen goods and failure to report the transactions. John Doyle of JD Loan faces similar allegations.
Stephen Tully, Doyle's attorney, said it was too early in the case to comment. But he added: "My client does advise me that he is not guilty of any of the charges." At Crown Jewelry, a man who identified himself as one of the owners referred questions to a lawyer, who did not return calls.
Keeping tabs on secondhand stores, pawnshops and scrap metal dealers has long been a priority for police tracking thieves who need a place to sell ill-gotten goods, whether it's stolen manhole covers or antique dolls. Shopkeepers in Maryland must record transactions and take names, and are required to hold onto items for 18 days — 30 in Prince George's County.
For thieves, "it's their only outlet," Baltimore County Cpl. Christine Sisk said of the businesses.
In 2010, the Maryland State Police set up a task force to monitor the sales through a central computerized database that makes it easier and faster to match merchandise to police reports listing stolen goods. The agency credits the system with recovering more than $8.6 million in stolen property, leading to more than 1,400 arrests in the first two years.
Baltimore County has been one of the most aggressive jurisdictions, making 32 of the 52 complaints against dealers across the state. Such complaints go to the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, which administers shop licenses and is responsible for issuing fines and in some cases revoking licenses.
"What we do is more of a preventative role. If a shop owner has been involved in criminal activity, police get involved," said Michael Vorgetts, deputy commissioner of the department.
"We generally take a number of things into consideration when considering whether to penalize a licensee," Vorgetts said, including the nature of the infraction and past offenses. He said he could not comment on the Baltimore County cases.
Richard Sussman, president of the Maryland Pawnbrokers Association, said his organization favors strict enforcement, because only recently have other businesses that sell precious metal items been subjected to the same level of scrutiny that pawnshops have seen for years.
"The penalties are very, very severe," he said. "At least there's finally an attempt by the legislature and the police to level the playing field."
JD Loan, cited in the latest police investigation, was previously ordered by the state licensing department to pay $400 in penalties for not recording items properly. The company was also reprimanded for entering incorrect driver's license numbers from people who sold gold jewelry, an iPod, a guitar and a rifle, according to a case summary on the department's website.
In addition to the licensees, police also arrested and charged three people in connection with a burglary in Westminster. Baltimore County and Westminster police are investigating whether the defendants are tied to additional burglaries, totaling up to $100,000 in stolen property.
Westminster police charged Lee and William Bircher, 24, both of Westminster, and Matthew Short, 31, of Manchester.
Neither Lee nor Bircher has a lawyer listed in electronic court records, and Short's attorney could not be reached for comment.
Capt. Pete D'Antuono, commander of the Westminster police Criminal Investigation Bureau, tied Bircher and Lee to the daytime burglary at a home on Uniontown Road in Westminster. "They weren't taking anything really large," he said, mentioning mostly cash and jewelry — items that were "not necessarily traceable."
When police went into Crown Jewelry, they questioned Rodchenko, one of the owners.
Rodchenko said the shop had not purchased any items recently, and the detective told him about the surveillance conducted on the two women. The detective then looked inside the store's safe and found a shoebox with several pieces of jewelry inside plastic bags labeled 10kt and 14kt, according to charging documents.
Police did find a transaction sheet, with one woman's name and signature and another piece of paper with a name and "$925" written on it in ink. But the sheet made no reference to what the store had purchased, police said.
Baltimore County police then contacted Westminster police, who said they matched the items to burglary victims in Carroll County.
The jewelry was missing all the stones, and one watch was already broken into pieces to be melted down, charging documents said. None of the other items were tagged to show where they came from.
The next day, the suspects went back to the shop and police conducted surveillance. The women did not stay inside the shop long, and they then drove down Reisterstown Road to JD Loan, according to the documents. Detectives went in later that day to talk to Doyle, the owner.
At first he told police the woman brought him only scraps, but then he brought out additional items, the document says. Both women told police they had sold items to the shops before and even when they offered IDs, the owners did not take them, according to charging documents.
Among the items that were recovered from the Reisterstown stores was a wedding band reported stolen with the inscription "To Chooch Love Bob 10-15-55."
Anne Beach, whose Reisterstown home had been broken into through the kitchen window, said she was happy to have the family heirloom back, even though the inscription was rubbed off.
"I had over 100 pieces of jewelry stolen," she said. But of all of the items stolen, including her own wedding ring, she said she wanted her mother's wedding band more than anything else.
"You can't replace that stuff," she said."Both of my parents are deceased, so it just means that much more to me."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun