Last fall, Greg Malone was feeling pressure from Best Buy's corporate offices to slow a hemorrhage of stolen merchandise, which was quickly pushing loss figures at the Beaverton store to alarming levels.
Sleuthing around, Malone, head of the store's loss-prevention department, discovered thieves were sneaking out coat-loads of booty --DVDs, MP3 players, mini-hard drives and much more --and taking it to secondhand shops in Portland for quick, easy cash.
Malone called a Portland police detective with his evidence: Names. License plate numbers. Information about secondhand dealers buying the pilfered merchandise. But the detective refused to investigate without serial numbers from each piece of merchandise, which the store didn't keep, Malone said.
It was one of two frustrating conversations with the detective, which went nowhere, Malone said. "He really didn't seem interested in it at all," Malone said.
But the FBI was interested.
Since 2001, federal agents had been investigating how secondhand shops had enabled a thriving culture of rampant thievery in the city, even as Portland police made routine visits. Malone is one of two former Best Buy managers in the Portland area who say they repeatedly complained to Portland police about the problem but got nowhere.
Portland police Chief Derrick Foxworth has declined to comment on the ongoing investigations into secondhand stores.
When a federal agent visited Malone at Best Buy a year ago, he asked about the thieves. He also wanted to know about Malone's conversation with the Portland officer.
As the interview ended, Malone said, the agent made a final request: Don't tell the Portland detective we talked.
In August, the FBI raided 10 Portland secondhand shops, leading to indictments against more than two dozen Portland-area residents. The FBI sting targeted owners of secondhand shops in Portland and the shoplifters, or "boosters," who stocked their shelves with millions of dollars in stolen goods.
However, the feds were interested in more than the shops. Their investigation raised questions about the Portland Police Bureau's role in allowing the illicit trade to flourish in the open. Foxworth has reassigned the two detectives charged with monitoring the shops, and he launched an internal investigation. The FBI has opened a corruption investigation.
Although most of the trade operated in the open, some merchants were concerned that the black market could attract attention from federal agents, according to a voluminous FBI affidavit.
Kenneth Laurent, an employee at Curt's Cash Corner, confided to an undercover informant that some of his competitors were "too flashy, too much attitude, too much of a line out the door," according to the affidavit.
The secret, he said, was to try to stay invisible. He also knew Portland police were hamstrung by a loophole in the city's secondhand ordinance, which doesn't require secondhand stores to record the purchase of new goods, and too few detectives.
"There's nothing anybody's ever gonna do," said Laurent, who has since been indicted. "They can't. The smart guy knows."
Racket isn't complicated
It was a Wednesday night in June, near closing time, when A-1 Cash owner Kevin Mason Sr. told one of his regular customers to stick around for another hour.
"The tweak show begins here," he promised.
Mason didn't know the customer, a wholesaler who bought in bulk, was a government informant who was taping their conversation for the FBI, according to court documents.
A rush of methamphetamine addicts, known as "tweakers," showed up at the drab and smoky shop every night, their cars packed with loot from a day of shoplifting, Mason told the wholesaler.
Mason is now under federal indictment on charges of interstate transportation of stolen goods and other accusations. He has declined to comment on the case, referring questions to his attorney, who could not be reached.