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The thief inside

Drug addicts steal from siblings, parents; pawnshops win and lose

His mother's wedding ring bought him 200 balloons of heroin.

His dad's tools and the family cameras also paid to feed his addiction.

"I'd wake up feeling like crap and go out to the garage," 20-year-old Jason said. "In my head, I knew it was wrong and I didn't want to do it, but I was physically addicted. Or I'd go downstairs to the family room trying to see what I could gather up to pawn or give to my (drug dealer) to trade."

After Jason gutted the garage of tools, ladders and anything valuable, he moved on to the bedrooms.

"I took wedding rings, cameras, some really sentimental things to my parents," he said. "All because of addiction. I wouldn't do it if I was sober. I love my family. I don't know if my mom will ever forgive me. I've come clean about it, told her about it. She knows I'm really sorry."

But he knows the apology sounds a bit hollow.

After all, everything is gone.

When Jason, not his real name, first started doing heroin, he had a job and money to buy his drugs.

He soon lost that job and his financial security. But not his addiction.

Rather than steal from neighbors or sober up, Jason found a steady source of income just down the stairs.

"It's so much easier to wake up and go through your own house," he said. "The addiction comes first. It's priority number one."

He would load things up in a friend's truck and sometimes take them to a pawnshop, but most items just went straight to his drug dealer.

This plan of action is nothing new. Every drug addict Jason knows has stolen from a family member.

It's just so easy.

But in those cases, the emotional damage is far greater than a typical burglary or robbery, police officers say.

It's not just an impersonal loss of a generator or a saddle — it's a violation of trust that leaves parents and siblings feeling betrayed, police overworked and pawnshops caught in the middle as they try to screen out what items are honest sales, versus possessions that have been nabbed from mom and dad's dresser.

It's an awkward situation, and many parents are hesitant to speak out about their losses.

Some are afraid the neighbors will judge them. Others worry they'll be labeled a bad parent. Or that their children will be shunned, for being both addicts and thieves who steal from their own.

The parents who shared their stories with the Deseret News didn't want their real names used because of shame. To these families, this is a private battle, yet one that police officers routinely see across the Wasatch Front.

"It's quite embarrassing," said Carol, a frustrated mother. "I didn't raise my son to become a drug addict and steal from us. I raised my kids … in the best ways that I could."

"It just broke my heart to think that he had gone that far," says soft-spoken Linda about her 30-year-old son Ken. "Here we've provided him a home, food, our car, then he turns around and takes something so personal. Rings can be replaced, but they meant so much to me."

Ken had walked off with six of Linda's rings, including a blue sapphire with diamonds around the edge and a brand new 25-year-anniversary ring. It was "my pride and joy" with a bigger diamond "in a setting like all the young girls have," she said.

Ken remembers he got $200 for one ring, $150 for the other. Nowhere close to their real value, but "you just need the money," he says.

That money went for OxyContin, which has held Ken hostage since he was in high school, when he got into a car accident and became too dependant on the pain-numbing pills.

Linda knows Ken could have gone to college. He was so sharp. And he could have kept playing softball and baseball. Instead, he lives at home, spending his days in Narcotics Anonymous meetings and court hearings for his numerous theft charges.

"I always had the intention of making sure it got back," he said of the rings, his dad's guns and the family video camera. "Whether or not that happened was a different story, but that was the intention."

When Linda first confronted Ken about the rings, he denied taking them, just like he always did, she said. But eventually, he confessed to pawning them.

When Linda's husband, Ron, went to get the rings, the shop owner printed out a list of everything else Ken had brought in for quick cash.

There were rifles, a four-wheeler, a gold coin worth $1,100, a video recorder, a paint sprayer.

"I always felt bad (about stealing)," Ken said. "I guess toward the end, I knew I was in trouble, I just didn't care."

But Linda always did.

Her quiet voice rises as she talks about drugs and how they have nearly destroyed her family.

She has her rings back, and she's clinging to hope that her son will be next.

"I always wanted a son who excelled in sports, got a college degree, what everybody wants," Ron said. "Then all of a sudden you have one that's spending time in the county jail."

It hurts, Linda adds. "It's your child. No one expects their child to be a drug addict."

A few years ago, two 18-year-old kids came into Larry Drown's pawnshop with professional digital cameras worth nearly $4,000 and insisted they were unwanted gifts.

Drown got suspicious.

"There's no way that they owned those cameras," said the owner of L&M Pawn in Provo. He didn't buy them, worried they were stolen.

But if a man shows up with a $100 digital camera and signs his name that it's his, Drown isn't in a position to call the man a liar or a thief.

Nor is Brent Johnson, vice president of Provo's AAA Trading and Pawn.

"We have no way of knowing that it's stolen until after the fact," Johnson said.

That "after the fact" begins each night when shop owners download the day's purchases, and the name, address, driver's license number of their sellers, into a police database.

If someone sells an item for cash, owners must hold it for 15 days, which gives law enforcement time to track it down if it was stolen.

If the item was pawned for a loan, meaning that the individual can buy their item back with interest, owners must store the item for 30 days.

So, if dad thinks his daughter pawned his handgun, he should contact police first, said detective Cody Lougy with the Salt Lake police burglary and pawn unit.

With a serial number and a description, Lougy can search the database to find the stolen gun almost immediately, while family members scouring stores wouldn't see it on the shelves for several days.

Once found, Lougy will put a police hold on the gun and open a criminal case.

The gun stays in the store, on hold, so the shop owner doesn't lose money, Lougy said. However, sometimes he'll need to confiscate items immediately, like a victim's work computer.

It's a good system, but the police say that not every owner plays by the rules.

"With the pawnshop, it's a love/hate type of a situation," said Lindon police officer Darrell Bingham. "They're fairly cooperative because they have to be cooperative. But at the same time … they're going to be hesitant just to do the right thing and give the property back that's stolen because they're out money. It's the nature of the business. If you're in a pawnshop, you're going to pick up hot stuff."

On the other side, shop owners say police don't always follow that step-by-step process, and instead immediately return items to upset family members.

"I'm definitely frustrated," Drown said. "It's like I told the cop, realistically you're no better than the guy who stole it. You just stole from me. And I'm out. I have no recourse. None. Zero. Zip."

Although the police file a report on behalf of the shop owner for theft by deception, restitution is rare, owners say.

A few weeks ago Drown got his first restitution check in four years.

"I was shocked," he said. "Usually it's just a lost cause."

Johnson said his shop has a good relationship with the police, but he still often takes a back seat to the families' needs.

"Sometimes (the officer's) only concern is to protect the person who lost the merchandise," Johnson said. "So they get to be the hero to the citizen who lost something, but as far as being real sympathetic to the business, they're not."

It started with a missing DVD. Then all the silver in her husband's change jar disappeared.

Pretty soon it was bigger things. Laptops. Guns. Her younger son's game systems.

"It got to a point where we couldn't do it," said Carol, the frustrated mother of three. "I was only working part time (as a secretary). I couldn't do it."

She and her husband, Brandon, a journeyman boilermaker, learned that their son, Devin, would steal from them, then have friends pawn the items to avoid having his name on the paper trail. The boys would split the heroin the money would buy.

Soon the family had to hide everything. Money, jewelry, car keys. They confronted him, but nothing changed.

Carol had a $5,000 savings bond and $10,000 in savings. Plus the money in her dresser drawer to go toward refinancing their home. Not anymore.

"You try to work an honest day, make an honest living and someone comes and steals all this stuff you've worked hard for," Carol said. "It's just not right. I'm tired of being the victim."

But money is only half the battle. Devin's actions have shaken their marriage and strained family relations.

If Carol wouldn't give Devin the money, he'd go to Brandon, pitting parents against each other.

And as the drugs warped Devin's personality, his younger brother Matthew began to hate him, especially after Devin stole Matthew's Xbox the day after he got it.

"The only thing (Matthew) wanted for his birthday was for (Devin) to be gone, in jail," Carol said.

Eventually Matthew never wanted to leave the house because he was afraid things would disappear when he was gone.

The family is still missing laptops, guns, rings, checks and electronics. At least $10,000 worth, Carol said. And that doesn't include the money they spent buying items out of pawnshops.

It's been especially tough for Brandon, she said, who has watched his son slip from baseball star to jail inmate. The frustrated father doesn't talk much about Devin's problem. But when he does, the feelings are intense.

He said he's fed-up with the court system, which often turns what he considers petty thefts into life-changing felonies.

"That's why we waited so long to turn him in," Brandon says. "We waited till it got unbearable."

That feeling is not new, nor is it uncommon, says Salem Police Sgt. Scott Dibble. He knows Brandon and Carol's story. He's part of that story, having arrested Devin time after time.

But it could have been anyone.

"As a parent, you want to do everything under the sun to protect your child," Dibble said. "But there comes a point when the child has got to stand up on their own and be responsible for their own actions. Until they're held accountable for their own actions, the behavior is not going to change."

Despite thoughts that she had to "save" her son, Carol finally called the police and turned Devin in.

But not all parents can make that call, officers say. Some parents will report their children's crimes, but once they realize the punishment could be prison, they'll refuse to cooperate again with police, said Springville Police Lt. Dave Caron.

"This, of course, enables the drug-using child, and sets them up to steal again and again," Caron said.

It's hard to know what's worse. Having things stolen from you, or finally admitting that it's your child who's doing the stealing.

"(Families) feel violated," said Mike Katsanevas, owner of Crown Jewelers & Pawn in Salt Lake City. "They can't believe their son or daughter … did this. (They feel) anger, sadness, confusion, betrayal would be number one."

Katsanevas said he often sees family members come into his shop and buy back stolen items rather than press charges.

But without police involvement or prosecution, inevitably, within three or four weeks, Katsanevas said he'll see the child again, trying to pawn something else.

And it's all for the drugs.

In 14 years of business, Katsanevas can only remember three times when someone has stolen from family for something other than drug money.

"These guys aren't paying tithing or rent with this (money)," Lougy said. "It's generally drugs or alcohol."

Stolen stuff happens. But labeling all pawnshops as dark, seedy places that cater to drug addicts just isn't fair, say store owners.

"We don't want stolen stuff either," said Ryan Wheeler, assistant manager at Discount Firearms & Pawn in American Fork. "We're not here to help the criminals out. It's not beneficial to us."

Anytime something stolen comes into the store, the owners usually lose money, either by selling it back to a heartbroken family member at their original purchase price, or having it confiscated for a criminal case with its elusive restitution.

But dealing with the police is maybe a once-a-month occurrence, owners say. The majority of business is with law-abiding customers who just need a little boost.

"Most people (use pawnshops) to tide them over until pay day," said Troy Raven, owner of Discount Firearms & Pawn. "Most people who come in here have jobs, but they didn't get paid on time and need money for diapers, gasoline."

Or money for the bow hunt.

Zack Holdaway recently pawned his shotgun to get a $100 cash loan for his beloved, but expensive hobby.

"It's just a really convenient way to get money," the 19-year-old said. "It's nice to be able to come get a loan and not have to fill out (bank) paperwork."

And even though he might have gotten more for his gun on eBay, there's the issue of shipping and waiting for a payment. And his gun would be permanently gone.

This way, after the bow hunt when he's got money, he'll come buy it back, plus interest, and be on his way.

Nancy Brown recently needed a quick loan, so she brought in a $1,500 silver and turquoise necklace and walked out with $300 cash.

She only pawns once or twice a year, but she said she feels safer working with the people she knows at AAA Trading & Pawn in Provo rather than using a check cashing business or a credit card.

"Access is easier," she said. "(I come) just whenever I need (money) … and don't want to dip into savings."

She made a few payments on her loan, the came in last week to pay off the rest, plus the 10 percent interest that had accrued every 30 days.

Russ Snyder said he's more of a shopper and visits pawnshops to look for deals.

He recently came across a set of three DeWalt drills with batteries and a charger for $100 — far cheaper than he could buy one new.

"I walk around and look for a deal, make them an offer," he said, then paused as he stumbled across a welding mask for $20 at Discount Firearms & Pawn. It would cost him $100 at the store. "I see it and say, for $20, I'm going to pick me up a welding helmet today. There are deals to be had."

But Carol and Brandon's experiences in shops haven't been as pleasant.

They say some shop owners seem to distrust them almost as much as they trusted their stealing son, and will pepper them with questions when they come to claim a stolen item. They say other stores have knowingly sold their stolen items before they could come buy them back, just to make a profit.

"I think they're negligent in how they take things," Carol said. "They're in the business to screw people over."

And some are, owners say. Those "bad apples," as Johnson calls them, are the minority. And usually, they're quickly shut down by the police.

The majority of the shops do their best to carefully screen customers, keep accurate records and avoid stolen goods. But sooner or later, something will slip through the cracks, frustrating both the out-of-luck parents and the out-of-revenue pawnshop owners.

That's just an unfortunate aspect to the job, Wheeler says.

"We don't want the stolen stuff any more than they want their stuff stolen."

How to protect yourself:

Write down serial numbers from all electronics, tools and sporting goods. Telling police your white iPod has been stolen won't get you very far.

Engrave items with your name or number.

Take photographs of items and store them in a secure location.

Lock up rarely used, expensive items.

Immediately contact police and file a report if something has been stolen.

e-mail: sisraelsen@desnews.com