By James Pinkerton
October 24, 2010
Houston police are using a privately owned online database of pawned merchandise to bust thieves and recover stolen property, a crime-solving tool enlisted by more than two dozen other law enforcement agencies in the area.
For a $90,000 annual fee, Houston detectives can log into LeadsOnline's nationwide database and view paperwork on items taken in by most of the city's 133 pawn shops, as well as thrift stores, scrap yards and pawnshops in all 50 states. Along with the item's description and serial number, the required picture identification of the person who pawned the merchandise is displayed.
"It's just awesome ... it's like night and day, just unbelievable," said HPD officer Carl Enge. "We're recovering more property and at a faster rate."
Enge said in the first weeks of using the service in January, the city recovered stolen property whose value far exceeded the annual fee.
Enge, a veteran of 14 years in the theft division, said before LeadsOnline was activated the city's pawn shop detail assigned 10 to 12 officers to check the stores and retrieve copies of pawn tickets issued to customers. A large number of clerks were needed to laboriously enter information taken from 3 to 4 million pawn tickets collected annually. And, the copied pawn tickets had to be stored in a rented warehouse.
Now, a few detectives review the information stored in the LeadsOnline database from computers on their desks, and still have time to review transactions at 18 Houston pawn shops that haven't converted to the database, Enge said. Detectives also can find the pawn history of an individual, or even query an entire apartment complex or a neighborhood to see who is frequently pawning merchandise.
"We're saving a whole lot of money," Enge said.
So far, more than 3,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide have signed up. In this region, clients include the Harris County Sheriff's Office and police departments in Alvin, Bellaire, Galveston, Katy, Pearland and River Oaks. Billing is based on the department's size, with some smaller departments paying $2,000 to $3,000 a year for access, a company spokeswoman said.
The database alerts police to fraudulent serial numbers, due to agreements with major manufacturers to provide their serial number sequences.
"If we see a pawn shop who's got a lot of problems we'll go hammer them, do an inspection," Enge said.
One pawnshop owner said LeadsOnline is easy to use and helps deter thieves from hawking stolen items.
"We don't want to be fences," said Jeffrey Chiles, owner of Bingle Pawn & Jewelry on Houston's northside. "All I can do is ask 'Is this yours to sell?' And if I believe it, I'll loan money."
Sometimes the property database helps police catch violent criminals.
Last month, a Huntsville police detective queried LeadsOnline with the name of Jerwoody Moler, a suspect in the murder of K'Lynn Kohr, a 17-year-old high school student killed in her home.
The next day the database alerted the investigator that Moler, 27, had pawned a stolen item in Dallas. Police were able to track the ex-con and eventually arrested him in Iowa.
LeadsOnline, based in Dallas, is owned by Dave Finley, who explained the database began as a way of eliminating the chronic logjam between pawnshop records and police detectives working to track stolen property. Company technicians modify a pawnshop's software, at no charge, so the business can download daily reports of pawned items.
Finley had no specifics on how many violent crimes are solved by the database, but noted he's been called at home on the last two Friday nights by detectives in Maryland and New York who asked for access to LeadsOnline.
"They called us and said we don't have access to your system but need it," Finley recalled. "We will do anything we can to help these guys, even if they're not a client."
'We'll catch up to them'
Pasadena police Detective Michael Cooper said the database allows investigators to develop burglary suspects by reviewing the history of frequent pawners. The veteran detective noted that some experienced thieves eventually become wary of pawning merchandise, and turn to other methods of selling their loot.
"When a burglar finds out we can trace (pawned property) they'll stop and start using a fence, like at a flea market or a drug dealer that will take stolen property in exchange for drugs," Cooper said. "But if they start using other people to do the pawn, we'll catch up to them."