The pitch to co-workers or bar patrons, police say, went like this: “Hey, anybody interested in buying a trailer?”
Many were. 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 1½ years, often at up to an 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 are due in court Tuesday in Youngstown on a 68-count grand jury indictment that includes charges of racketeering, breaking and entering and receiving stolen property. A racketeering conviction can bring eight years in prison.
“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.
‘They didn’t think much’
After the burglary Jan. 10, 2006, he arrived to find the security fence driven over, the garage door yanked off, and a 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.
The motorcycle shop 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. Thefts also occurred in nearby Hermitage, Pa., and in the Pittsburgh area.
In all, about $400,000 worth of stolen goods have been recovered, and police are receiving an average of two calls daily from people who want to surrender suspected stolen items. Police said they have no estimate on the overall take from 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 from his then-attorney was not returned. At the time, 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 and quickly shipped them overseas.
Capitalizing on outdoor displays
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.
James Ciotti, assistant director of the Ohio attorney general’s organized crime task force, said customers sometimes asked for specific items. “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.
Some people buying stolen goods were $70,000- to $80,000-a-year autoworkers looking for a bargain, Hoolihan said. “You know if the deal is too good, there’s something wrong.”