Stop Ventura Thieves
The disconnect between pawn stores, law enforcement and stolen goods pushes one local man to action
By Shane Cohn 06/20/2013
It was a dream guitar.
Mowing lawn after lawn, washing car after car when he was 14 years old, Harvey Penwall finally saved up enough to buy a Paul Reed Smith (PRS) CE-24 guitar.
It was all he ever wanted, and for more than a decade, Penwall, 30, cherished his six-string dream, a guitar that has been discontinued and is highly sought by collectors.
But this past November, Penwall, like countless thousands of others in Ventura, became a victim of the city’s most rapidly increasing crime: property theft.
Around $5,000 worth of music equipment, along with the PRS, was stolen from Penwall’s bandmate’s car one November night in the gated parking lot of the Beachfronter Apartments next to Surfers Point.
The crime was caught on surveillance cameras, and reported to Ventura Police investigators. Penwall provided a local pawn shop with the descriptions and serial numbers of the stolen gear, and it was entered into its log books of reported stolen items.
But it didn’t matter.
Surveillance cameras show the thieves in action
Five months later, Penwall learned that nearly all of his stolen equipment was pawned and sold at Old Towne Jewelry and Loan in Ventura for $200. Fortunately, his friend noticed Penwall’s amp in the shop, and Penwall, as the law states, had to buy it back before it was sold to another party.
“People can do what they want, basically,” says Penwall. “They can rob your stuff and pawn it with no consequences. You’d think $5,000 worth of gear being sold for $200 would be a red flag.”
Now, many months into his search to retrieve his gear, Penwall is discovering why property crimes are so widespread throughout the city: There is simply no active teamwork in place with pawnbrokers, secondhand dealers and the Ventura Police Department. Unless perpetrators are caught in the act, the crime — though the most popular in the city — seems to become an afterthought, as recovering stolen items is low on the priority list for law enforcement.
“Our main objective here is to run a business, do loans and make sales,” says Diana Russell, manager of Olde Towne Jewelry and Loan. “There is nothing that mandates us to keep track of people who come in here and say their stuff has been stolen.”
Russell says that she and her employees, whenever they have free time, do their best to check their logbook of items reported stolen. A seller is fingerprinted, name and address recorded, and a document is signed verifying that the merchandise is not stolen; and the merchandise is then held for 30 days before being resold.
Current law also requires dealers to fill out a Department of Justice (DOJ) form for every pawn or secondhand dealer transaction, and then mail copies of the form to the DOJ and local law enforcement, as well as to keep their own copies of every transaction.
These forms sent to the VPD, according to Sgt. David Dickey, are now handled by volunteers, due to staffing issues.
“There is such a high volume of pawned items, it is hard to stay ahead of the curve and do checks,” says Dickey. “This is a resource issue, and it’s hard to pull from the huge caseloads we have and go for one.”
Dickey heads the street crimes unit, which has seen an 18 percent increase in property crimes this year after rising 24 percent from 2011 to 2012, and there are regular city-issued alerts in several neighborhoods for residents to keep their doors locked.
In 2012, there were 2,825 larceny/thefts reported, including thefts from locked and unlocked vehicles, 500 residential burglaries and 284 non-residential. Dickey has six detectives who work commercial and residential burglary, grand theft, identity theft and narcotic-related offenses. During the past few months, Dickey says, his unit was down to three detectives for several weeks because his detectives were assigned to other details.
“Our focus is to go after people we know are committing crimes and work specific cases on them,” says Dickey. “I empathize with him (Penwall). It would be nice to go to pawn shops and make cases. But it’s not as easy as it seems. Selling to pawn shops doesn’t establish probable cause.”
In Penwall’s case, surveillance cameras show a VPD squad car drive through the Paseo de Playa Street, which borders the private Beachfronter parking lot, shining a search light. Just minutes later, two perpetrators begin casing the parking lot around 2:30 a.m., until finally using a Slim Jim to break into the car that held Penwall’s equipment. The whole operation, Penwall says, took the thieves about 45 minutes. The crime itself was quick, but the video, Penwall says, shows the perpetrators waiting curbside on Paseo de Playa Street with the stolen equipment for nearly 30 minutes before an accomplice picked them up in a car.
Penwall filed a report, provided police with the surveillance footage, notified pawn shops and set auto-alerts for matching items on Craigslist and eBay.
“I was assured by the police that if it went through a pawn shop, I would be notified and they’d find it because the pawn shop has to submit serial numbers to the police department and hold everything for 30 days,” says Penwall.
But Russell admitted that whoever was working the day Penwall’s equipment was pawned didn’t look in the stolen items logbook, and because of staffing issues at the police department, the serial numbers from Penwall’s merchandise were never matched with the original police report.
With the given resources, Dickey says, Penwall’s case wasn’t possible. The surveillance footage was too blurry to make out suspects, and close to five months had passed by the time the stolen merchandise appeared in the pawn shop. The customer who had sold Penwall’s gear to the shop was not on probation or parole, and did not have a permanent address, and there was no probable cause to bring the seller in for questioning.
“But you’re not going to even try and contact the person?” asked Penwall. “At least let him know he is connected to a crime. Maybe he is innocent and had no idea the stuff he pawned off was stolen. Wouldn’t he want to know? I would.
“I’m sympathetic to the police department and their lack of resources,” continued Penwall. “But something else needs to happen. If it’s a lack of resources, then as a community we need to get more resources together to go in that direction.”
Russell says that since this particular incident, especially after hearing the story about Penwall’s childhood dream literally being stolen, she has been trying to come up with a more efficient way to manage situations like Penwall’s.
“With this particular situation, I was disappointed,” says Russell. “He had been in two weeks before with descriptions, serial numbers; and if a better system was in place, it could’ve been caught.”
A system is in the works, however. Last year, Assembly Bill 391 was passed. Authored by Assemblyman Dr. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, the law calls for a statewide online database for pawnbrokers and secondhand dealers to report their transactions the same day they occur. This database would allow pawnbrokers, secondhand dealers and police departments to work together in tracking and recovering stolen goods used as collateral, instead of relying on the antiquated snail-mail methods now in place. The database will be funded by pawnbroker and secondhand dealer licensing fees.
The database is still in the process of being built, and according to Pan’s office, the state attorney general estimates it will be up and running by the end of 2013, possibly early 2014.
“This has been a wish list for us for a while,” says Dickey. “We could read stuff really quickly about stolen items pawned.”
“When this gets into place, it will be an amazing thing,” Russell agrees. “Right now, if you steal from Los Angeles and bring to Ventura, it will never get tracked because local police departments only get paperwork for their local area.”
But in the meantime, victims and citizens like Penwall are still highly concerned about thefts in the area, calling it a “robber/pawner’s paradise.” Penwall recently bought a house in the city and had his first child and doesn’t want to see Ventura become known as a hotbed for robbery.
“This is a serious epidemic that brings down the class and value of this beautiful city,” Penwall says. “The city/police need to reevaluate their stance and priority on robbery. . . . I understand the police feel they have a lack of resources, but times are tough for all businesses, and we all need to be more efficient with the limited resources we do have.”
Penwall doesn’t expect to see his guitar again, or the other pieces of gear that were stolen, but says he’s found peace with the situation by sharing his story and finding there are many others in the community that share a similar experience. He has started a Stop Ventura Thieves Facebook page (www.facebook.com/stopvtathieves) to collaborate and strategize with community members about theft prevention.
Harvey Penwall is a fictitious name as the sorce had asked to remain anonymous.