Birmingham AL Oct 20 2016 The simultaneous raids on 12 Birmingham area pawn shops in Jefferson and Shelby counties last week led to the seizure of more than $600,000 cash and enough stolen goods to fill two 53-foot trailers, authorities said Tuesday.
Friday's raids, dubbed Operation Get Fit, targeted a dozen businesses owned by 58-year-old Steve Scott of Pelham, as well as his Shelby County home, and led to the arrests of Scott and 15 of his employees. A 17th person is still sought.
The four-month investigation was led by the Jefferson County Regional Financial Crimes Task Force, which is headed by the office of District Attorney Brandon Falls and the U.S. Secret Service. Falls said "boosters" have been stealing Fitbits, Nest Learning Thermostats, and numerous other items from a variety of area stores and then selling them to Scott's businesses. From there, the stolen items were then sold on eBay and Craigslist.
"We feel like we've stopped a major pipeline," Falls said in a Tuesday news conference.
Investigators fanned out Friday morning armed with search and arrest warrants at the businesses, which serve as pawn shops and provide payday loans and check cashing. The Financial Crimes Task Force includes Vestavia Hills, Birmingham and Mountain Brook police, the U.S. Postal Service, Walmart and Target. Pelham police and the Shelby County District Attorney's Office also took part in Friday's arrests.
At 10 a.m., officers descended on stores in Jefferson and Shelby counties, handcuffing employees and seizing dozens of boxes of business records and stolen goods. Jefferson County District Attorney Investigator Chris Clark and Deputy District Attorney Cynthia Raulston said the investigation began months ago when retailers realized hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of merchandise was being boosted off the shelves.
The Fitbits, iPads and other "smart products" were disappearing from Walmart, Target, CVS, Walgreen's, Lowes and Home Depot. Investigators from those stores teamed up with federal and Jefferson County authorities to launch Operation Get Fit, which culminated in Friday's roundup. Authorities believe the organized theft operation has been ongoing for at least two years.
Once they realized what was happening, the retailers provided undercover officers with goods to present as stolen to the businesses owned by Scott, said Vestavia Hills police Capt. Kevin York. "The new, in-the-box property was presented as stolen,'' York said. "The clerks knew it was stolen when they took it in."
Those taking part in Operation Get Fit with the District Attorney's Office and U.S. Secret Service included: Vestavia Hills, Birmingham, Mountain Brook, and Pelham police; Walmart Global Investigations, Target Special Investigations Team, Home Depot Corporate Investigators, CVS health Organized Retail Crime Unit, Walgreens Organized Retail Crime Unit, and Publix Organized Retail Crime Investigations.
The recovered items are valued at more than $500,000.
"The U.S. Secret Service is proud to work with its partners to dismantle a large-scale network of traffickers in stolen property and other criminal activities, said U.S. Secret Service Special Agent in Charge Michael Williams.
"This boosting and fencing, this is a criminal enterprise and what it does is add to the destruction of the community as a whole," Falls said. "Because at some point, those stores, those retailers, cannot survive and continue to do business in the community when they suffer the loss from crime."
"When that becomes too great, the business just shuts down. That is when the entire community suffers. There is obvious loss of revenue in the form of taxes to the city,'' he said. "When that revenue goes away, so do the services that are provided with it. That's less money for roads, that's less money for schools and that's less money for fire departments."
But that's not all it means, Falls said. "It means the loss of jobs for the community. It means there isn't a store down the street for people to go buy groceries, to go buy medicine, to go buy clothes for their kids,'' he said. "Those are the necessities of life, what every community needs to thrive, to survive."
Falls said he was recently asked why they have dedicated the effort to white-collar crime and fraud. "When that business closes its doors, we lose all that it provides. It is because those necessities that these businesses provide to the community. They aren't just providing necessities, they are providing hope,'' he said.
"In the last two years, we have seen an increase in violent crime in certain cities across the country, and one of the common characteristics in those cities is a lack of economic opportunity,'' Falls said. "In referring to that economic opportunity in Chicago, a city that has certainly seen an increase in violent, a city official said, 'Show me a man without hope, and I'll show you a man willing to pick up a gun.'''
Falls said that's why they started the task force – to go after theft and fraud and everything that follows from it, which includes violent crime. "Crime doesn't happen in a vacuum, and the ramifications of it don't happen in a vacuum either, and those ramifications are made worse by the perception of crime in the area,'' he said. "And perception isn't limited to just the boundaries of the city of Birmingham; it affects the entire area. Because if people believe Birmingham is a high-crime area, they are going to think twice about moving their families here or opening businesses here."
The Financial Crimes Task Force includes Vestavia Hills, Birmingham and Mountain Brook police, the U.S. Postal Service, Walmart and Target. Fall said he'd like to have a detective from every city in Jefferson County, and even Shelby County, join the task force. "You really will be making a difference to fight crime and combat the violence in our area," he said.