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November 9th, 2005 Nick Budnick | News Stories
 

Tainted Goods

Did Uncle Sam boost Portland's stolen-goods trade?

     
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IMAGE: CHAD CROWE
The Portland Police Bureau has faced a monthlong local media siege for allowing a "brazen black market" in which thieves traveled to 10 states to steal goods, then returned here to sell them to secondhand shops.

The Oregonian's stories detailed how a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe found that Portland had become a "major West Coast hub" for junkies systematically ripping off major retailers. What has not been reported, however, is the extent to which the thieves got an unlikely helping hand—from Uncle Sam. Court documents show that the feds' investigation of the Portland stolen-goods market may have helped fuel its reach beyond Portland and throughout the western United States.

The current FBI prosecution, targeting 10 secondhand stores and 27 defendants in Portland, started in October 2003 thanks to the feds' main snitch, a longtime FBI informant. In documents filed in court, she is dubbed DR #1, for "driver."

Her handler, Special Agent Chris Frazier, notes in federal documents that the informant did not herself steal anything; she only drove the shoplifters, or "boosters," to stores such as Fred Meyer to steal items such as blank DVDs, high-end razor blades and over-the counter meds. But the same documents suggest DR #1 acted almost as a supervisor and handler of the boosters, commenting on their appearance and "work" ethic, and actively seeking to trade her boosters in for new ones when they became too messed up by heroin addiction.

It was not an easy job, the informant complained, telling one secondhand shop owner, "It got old at the end of the day after they had been 'working' all day and the boosters still expected [her] to drive them to get their heroin." She also appears to have been enterprising enough to give advice to shop owners and other boosters. Said one court document, "DR #1...was advising other people to go out-of-state to get merchandise, where it was more plentiful."

Previous to the federal investigation, the informant had driven her boosters only to Washington and California. But soon she expanded her shoplifters' activities to Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and Arizona. On those trips, "the boosters stole...merchandise from hundreds of retail stores," according to one document.

Matthew Schindler, a Lake Oswego lawyer who is representing one booster, says that before meeting the federal snitch, his client and her husband mostly took TriMet buses.

Then they met the federal snitch, who had her own transportation and expanded his client's reach.

"My client was being driven all over—Utah, Idaho, California and Nevada," he said, "by someone who was working for the FBI."

Early on, the snitch chauffeur also pointed her handlers to a "wholesaler," who bought stolen goods from the shops, then resold them on eBay or to other large buyers. The feds busted the wholesaler in April 2004 and put him to work as a snitch

And just as the driver expanded her activities while in federal employ, so did the wholesaler.

He started out working with three shops, but by mid-2005 was working with nine of them. Purchasing goods at 30 to 40 percent of their listed value, he progressively bought more: His totals for goods bought rose from $324,000 in 2003 to $893,000 in 2004 to $867,000 in just the first six months of 2005, according to court documents.

Besides fronting money to shop owners, the wholesaler often placed orders—which got passed on to boosters, who sometimes were then driven around by the other federal snitch.

In fairness, the bulk of the trade—about $7 million worth of merchandise has been seized by the feds—was outside federal control: Some boosters had access to other transport, and the wholesaler was not the only one the shops in question dealt with; the shops also did a brisk business selling stolen goods on eBay.

As FBI spokeswoman Beth Anne Steele notes, retail security folks know well that "this trade had been going on for a long time and it was excessive." She calls it "ridiculous" to say the feds may have fueled the problem.

And yet the extent of the feds' involvement probably will become an issue in court, said lawyer Steve Wax, head of the federal defender's office in Portland.

"It's likely that some of the defendants will raise claims of entrapment and/or seek dismissal of the incident," he says, "on the ground that use of an informer in this way goes beyond the bounds of accepted law-enforcement techniques."


CONFUSED? Follow our cheat sheet.

An FBI snitch drives Portland shoplifters all over the western United States to hit major retail stores, then brings them back.

The criminal sells the stolen property to secondhand stores in Portland. The shops...

...then sell it back to another FBI snitch, who'd placed orders for the stolen property.

At the end of it all, much of the proceeds from the ill-gotten loot will go to Uncle Sam, thanks to federal forfeiture law.

 
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