MONROE — On a billiards table in the center of the pawn shop’s back room, police pulled up a white sheet to reveal enough probiotics, Claritin and pregnancy tests to stock a pharmacy aisle.
Cardboard boxes full of pills, from Allegra to Zyrtec, lined the walls of the store. Many still had QFC tags.
Monroe police believe the owner of NW Gold Buyers knew he’d been fencing thousands of dollars in shoplifted goods online over the past two years.
On Friday morning, a half-dozen officers raided the business in a strip mall on Highway 99, the climax of a two-year investigation that led officers from the owner’s defunct pawn shop in Monroe to his new storefront near Lynnwood.
Police dumped a mound of Flonase bottles onto the floor in a back room, sifting through them for signs that they were obviously stolen.
“Whoa!” an officer said. “The fair market value is $2,500 for that box.”
At first they expected to be in the store all day, making an exhaustive inventory. Once they saw the scope of the task, they decided to bring all of the merchandise back to the police station, to add it up later. They picked things off shelves, off the pool table and out of the moving boxes.
Online ads say NW Gold Buyers will pay “top dollar” for jewelry, coins, watches and silver. Search warrant papers say the owner was, in reality, often offering 12 to 20 percent of retail value for razors, medications and other items that could be concealed and stolen en mass from legitimate stores. Customers showed up to sell, not to buy. The merchandise was kept behind a locked door. The business had a core of about 20 people who would sell goods, officer Nathan Erdmann said.
“It was all a front,” Erdmann said. “At the other one, he actually had stuff for sale up front, but that wasn’t what this business was about.”
The case began because of a missing vacuum cleaner. Theft prevention workers at a hardware store reported the possible theft in January 2016, and relayed that a new pawn shop in Monroe might be taking stolen goods. Erdmann studied security video from the vacuum case. He recognized the suspect as an often-homeless heroin user. He checked an online database and noticed “odd transactions that were not typical of items that would be purchased by a pawn shop,” according to the search warrant affidavit.
Rogaine, Nicorette, teeth-whitening kits, electric toothbrushes as well as memory supplements, allergy medication, routers and electric razors were standard fare. Other local businesses reported a spike in thefts of health and beauty products.
Hints that a large-scale investigation was under way can be found in 2-year-old arrest reports. One Monroe man, then 29, admitted in 2016 to stealing electric razors to pawn so he could buy heroin. He’d made 59 transactions for more than $7,600 at One Stop Pawn Shop over three months. He told officers he typically received 30 percent the product’s worth, indicating his theft total during that time was about $22,000.
Police worked closely with local businesses, enlisted undercover officers from other agencies, interviewed theft suspects and used confidential informants during the course of the investigation. Thieves told police they were making a beeline to the One Stop Pawn Shop.
Police believe the goods were sold online, on Amazon or eBay.
One Stop Pawn was closing in the fall of 2016, when Erdmann paid the owner a visit. Near the end of the chat, Erdmann shared his suspicions.
“I told him that the stores in Monroe were cleaned out of many of the items that he was buying because there was so much theft,” he wrote, in the affidavit for the search warrant that was served Friday. “I told him that if he was not already closing down his business I would be coming after him and find some way to charge him, because no reasonable person could look at the things he was buying and not know (they were) stolen … I asked if that made sense, and he acknowledged that it did.”
Even after the business was shuttered, Erdmann kept a watchful eye. He learned that the suspect would meet at night in and around Lynnwood with people wanting to sell bags of stolen goods.
A confidential informant reported being given specific lists of items to steal, including Prevagen, Viviscal, Crest 3D Luxe and Alli, an over-the-counter weight loss pill.
In February 2017, the new business was registered in a triangular strip mall on Highway 99, between Everett and Lynnwood.
Video surveillance showed people waiting in parking lots late at night for the pawn shop owner to drive up in a Mercedes to conduct business.
One confidential informant told police the owner was getting nervous, inquiring about any possible connection to Monroe and saying he’d heard there might be a rat.
Police noticed an extremely high volume of traffic into the store by a small number of people. One man made 85 sales since October 2017. A woman had more than 90 transactions during the same period. In the online database, almost all of the transactions were listed as gift cards.
The suspect “has a common practice of entering transactions as the purchase of a gift card or multiple gift cards, when it is obvious that a large amount of unknown items is actually brought in,” Erdmann wrote. “Additionally, the frequency with which the same people routinely visit the store, taking bags and bags of items in on an almost daily basis, and sometimes twice in a day, would lead any reasonable person to question whether the items were legitimately obtained.”
Police believe the store had taken in about $428,000 in revenue.
Outside the store, officers handcuffed the owner, 22, and booked him into the Snohomish County Jail for investigation of attempted trafficking in stolen property.
His father and sister arrived at the strip mall minutes later. They declined to talk at length with a reporter, and instead waited and watched as officers loaded power drills and robotic vacuums into the trunks of their police SUVs.
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @snocaleb.