The pitch to co-workers or bar patrons, police say, went like this:
“Hey, anybody interested in buying a trailer?”
Somebody was. Big-screen TVs, riding mowers, motorcycles, frozen food and more exchanged hands in what authorities charge was a sophisticated theft-to-order ring in the Rust Belt region stretching from Cleveland to western Pennsylvania.
Police said the thieves, seeking quick cash for drugs, stole and sold high-demand items for more than 11/2 years, often at up to 85 percent discount from retail prices and sometimes to return customers.
“You don’t steal these things unless you have a customer,” said Canfield police Detective Sgt. Andy Bodzak.
The 15 suspects were named in a 68-count grand jury indictment that includes charges of racketeering, breaking and entering and receiving stolen property. A racketeering conviction can mean eight years in prison. Bonds of up to $50,000 were set at arraignments Tuesday in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court.
“They were brute force more than anything, as fast as they could get in, as fast as they could get out,” Rob Gollans, 38, said of the thieves who hit the motorcycle shop he manages.
After the burglary Jan. 10, 2006, he arrived to find the security fence driven over, the garage door yanked off and the forklift boom through the roof. The business lost 10 motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles valued at $22,000.
“They’d find something they thought they could get in and out quickly and they just did it. They didn’t think much,” Gollans said.
In all, about $400,000 worth of stolen goods has been recovered, and police are receiving an average of two calls daily from people who want to surrender suspected stolen items. Police said they had no estimate on the overall take from the more than 125 burglaries.
Many of the customers have cooperated and could get lenient treatment, Bodzak said.
One of those charged with receiving stolen goods, Thomas Turney, 52, of Youngstown, will fight the allegation that he got a stolen motorcycle.
“We will aggressively defend these charges and we look forward to the time in court where we can test the government’s evidence,” said his attorney, J. Gerald Ingram.
The man accused of being the ringleader, Bobby Mock, 39, of Youngstown, has been jailed since his arrest last summer in a motel standoff with officers. A message seeking comment was left for his attorney in that earlier case in which Mock blamed his legal problems on a drug addiction.
Around the country, theft-for-order operations typically involve specialized items, such as spare vehicle parts or high-demand cars. In Philadelphia, the FBI said last fall that African carjacking rings preyed on suburbanites with luxury SUVs, quickly shipping them overseas.
Warren police Detective Jeff Hoolihan said the Ohio gang often capitalized on items displayed outdoors, such as mowers. Police cruised the area to check on what might appeal to thieves and realized “it’s so easy, it’s scary,” he said.
Some thefts resulted from an opportunity, like the delivery truck left briefly in a shopping mall parking lot. By the time the driver returned from arranging his delivery at a store, thieves had broken into his truck without even knowing what they might find, Hoolihan said.
Sometimes customers asked for specific items, according to James Ciotti, assistant director of the Ohio attorney general’s organized crime task force. “There was a lot of word-of-mouth stuff going on and subsequently these guys were coming and, ‘Hey, can you get me this?’,” Ciotti said.
Deals were made wherever the thieves gathered, including taverns, authorities said.
Some orders were taken in a corner of the vast parking lot of the General Motors Corp. Lordstown plant, where several suspects worked and allegedly reached out to buddies as fencing prospects. Others in the ring were “second-story men,” break-in specialists who got paid on a case-by-case basis for their work, Ciotti said.
The automaker was unaware of the operation. Phone messages seeking comment on the case were left for GM.
The seized goods are being stored in a warehouse in nearby Warren: a spotless horse trailer, rider mowers, outsized flat-screen TVs and all-terrain vehicles, some muddied from use, neatly lined up in the dimly lit former municipal garage.
The crack in the case came when police began recognizing a pattern of burglaries, often at businesses and after hours: in quickly, out quickly and gone with high-end items that could be fenced easily. Police also had crime intelligence from two earlier investigations and say a fourth one that they won’t discuss has begun.
Some people buying stolen goods were $70,000- to $80,000-a-year autoworkers looking for a bargain, Hoolihan said. Some would say, “I need this, I need that,” and get the order filled, he said. “You know if the deal is too good, there’s something wrong.”
The motorcycle shop Gollans manages sits along a boarded-up stretch of buildings overlooking downtown Youngstown. The city, where the alleged ring was concentrated, has lost more than 40,000 manufacturing jobs and its population of about 82,000 is half of what it was some 40 years ago.
The thefts also extended to stores in nearby Hermitage, Pa., and the Pittsburgh area.
The racketeering charges and involvement of the Ohio attorney general’s organized crime unit reflected the pattern of coordinated crime, not a revival of the once-notorious underworld gangsters that gave Youngstown a crime-ridden reputation in the 1950s, officials said.
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