Looking Behind the Scenes

Internet: ‘Modern-day fencing operation’

By: Jim Ruffalo
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The art of fencing was not unknown to me as a small boy growing up on Chicago’s West Side, although we hasten to point out that this nugget of information has absolutely nothing to do with sabers and foils. Instead, the reference is to the small storefronts, open car trunks or even door-to-door sales done to quickly dispose of stolen loot at prices so ridiculously low that even the best of us realized that you might want to let the newly purchased goods cool down a bit before using. My salad years were spent in the Garfield Park district, and only a complete distaste for the cliche-ridden prose of today prevents me from using the worn-out term of “mean streets.” How bad was it? When arriving at Delano Elementary each and every morning, we were frisked for weapons. And if we didn’t have any, the school cheerfully supplied one. Of course, that previous paragraph is pure hyperbole, but still, the Madison and Pulaski area was so tough we’d have drive-by strangulations. On the way to school — actually, just a few hundred feet away — was the proverbial candy store. But Sol’s was all that and more. It had a cash-paying pinball machine, a nickel slot machine stuck in an old phone booth (covered with what formerly was a blanket so that the local beat cop could claim he never saw it), and every imaginable type of fireworks. It also had ready cash, and it seemed odd to me that people brought stuff into the store and left with those bucks, instead of the other way around as it was with the rest of the emporiums. All of this was a mystery until one day a neighbor happily related how he was able to buy back his own TV for just pennies on the dollar. He also explained that it had been stolen from his home just a few nights previous. The upshot of this lengthy introduction is that burglars and thieves seldom steal for their own enjoyment. Instead, it’s their main employment, and few of them do it for recreational use. If there’s no way to convert the swag into cash, they find another line of work. Jim Hudson is well aware of that fact. He’s a detective with the Placer County Sheriff’s Office, and a few weeks ago began working the case of Deborah J. Hayden. “All we had at first was a Target surveillance photo, purportedly of a shoplifting suspect,” he said. That info was quickly converted into identification, which led to a hasty trip to a trailer at Loomis. “There, we found hundreds of stolen items, including weight-loss products, Rogaine and top-shelf hair products, along with a bunch of DVDs,” he said. Hudson alleges that Hayden had been re-selling these products online through eBay. “We were able to track 268 such sales since July of this year,” he said. According to investigators, Hayden had very little trouble unloading the high-end goods, especially at the bargain basement prices she was charging. Records show some of the warm-to-the-touch merchandise was shipped half-a-world away. Working cases concerning re-sale of stolen items is nothing new for Hudson, but he says his work has become much more difficult in the computer age. Oh, he’s tech-savvy enough, but he claims that police get precious little cooperation from the likes of eBay and Craigslist. “They’ve been no help at all,” was the way he put it. “At least with pawn shops we get (suspects’) descriptions and maybe a driver’s license number, but there’s no identification trace once these people go on-line” Hudson lamented, adding that “the Internet has become the modern-day fencing operation.” Auburn Police Chief Valarie Harris is well aware of the problem. “The difficulty is in the anonymity,” she said, adding that the thieves now have access to a world-wide marketplace, and can run the whole operation from, well, the inside of a trailer. “We now have the problem where not only are criminals taking advantage of this new technology, but innocent people are being caught up into the problem by becoming customers,” the Chief said. How innocent may be debatable, and if you think the problem will go away with an occasional lucky arrest, give that another thought. According to Roseville Police Department records, Hayden was arrested outside a Costco on the exact same day her candid photo was being snapped at Target. Anybody care to guess what the charges were as she bailed out for $5,000? Jim Ruffalo’s column runs Sundays in the Journal. He can be reached at, or post a comment at