In Small Town, Tennessee, a PI locates and recovers his client’s stolen goods on Craigslist…and encounters the ire of local law enforcement.
*Places, times, and situation changed/misremembered to protect the guilty.
Investigator’s log: Saturday, Memorial Day weekend, 2pm
The client calls. “My car was broken into,” he says. “Can you help me get my gear back?”
This isn’t normally what I do, but hey — it’s Saturday afternoon on Memorial Day weekend. The small-town police station isn’t answering calls, and the voice on the phone sounds pretty desperate. He’s lost thousands of dollars worth of electronic gear and irreplaceable work product. “Sure, I’ll do what I can,” I say.
I set up a few tricks involving Craigslist and Ebay, something to send me an alert when certain criteria are met. Within an hour, I have a perfect match for my client’s iPad. “Do you want me to set up a buy?” I ask.
“Yes!” Client says.
I place a call to the Smackville Police Department to let them know what I’m up to. Still no answer. I touch base with my lawyer to make sure what I’m about to do is at the very least not illegal, if not outright stupid.”I don’t see a problem,” Lawyer says, which instills a certain confidence. Lawyers always see a problem.
Off we go, south to the fictional town of Smackville. Twice I try to raise the good people at Smackville’s Finest, to no avail. Memorial Day weekend, you know.
I meet the “seller” in a well-lit strip-mall parking lot in Smackville’s sketchy outskirts. Tall and tattooed, the seller gets out of his SUV and walks an almost-brand-new iPad over to my car. I climb out into the pulsing heat of late May and shake his extremely large hand. “Dude, man. This shit is tight,” he says.
“Cool,” I say. “My nephew is home from the sandbox tomorrow. Thought this might be a nice welcome home gift.”
“Shit, dog,” says the seller. “Dude is gonna love this, man. I’m tellin’ you, this shit is tight.”
As far as I can tell, "tight" suggests a ringing endorsement of the merchandise.
As far as I can tell, “tight” suggests a ringing endorsement of the merchandise.
After a few minutes of niceties, during which I videotape the seller’s face, arms (clear shot of tattoos), girlfriend, and license plate, we get down to business.
“Dude, man, this shit goes for $800 retail,” the seller tells me.
“I assume we’re dealing at wholesale prices,” I say.
“Awwww yeah, dude. Man, we doin’ business,” the seller says. “I’m gonna let you have this shit for $400, half price.”
Well, of course I can’t pass up a deal like that. Especially considering the fact that the serial number is an exact match for the iPad my client purchased at full retail just last week. Shit is tight.
I peel off four Benjamins and press them into his large, open palm. Video is rolling. I’m strolling back to my car when an idea hits me. Turning, I ask, “Say, would you mind making out a bill of sale on this? You know, just so we have a record.”
“That ain’t a problem,” says the seller. “You got some paper?”
I pass him a sheet from my surveillance field book. He dutifully pens the following bill of sale:
I, XXXXX XXXXXXX, herby [sic] sell this ipad to XXXX XXXXXXXX for $400. May 28, 2011.
There are two totally astonishing things about this particular bill of sale.
1. The seller writes out his real name in full on the slip of paper from my surveillance log.
2. The seller also signs his real name on the slip of paper from my surveillance log.
Saturday, Memorial Day weekend, 11:30pm
I tell her the whole story. “I’ll send a patrol car right over,” she says.
Roughly 30 minutes later, a young street cop rolls up and exits his vehicle. I offer a hand in greeting.
“I don’t shake,” he says. “What’s the story here?”
After my story, Street Cop berates my client for 10 minutes or so for not adhering to “OpSec” protocol. When he finishes, I ask if it might be possible to speak to his superior. This makes Street Cop very happy.
Superior rolls up 20 minutes later, exits his vehicle, and forms a huddle with Street Cop, whispering authoritatively.
Superior is about five foot six, bald head, tightly trimmed mustache, and glasses. He walks with his chest puffed out, ready for confrontation. After about five minutes of briefing and debriefing, Superior beckons.
“Son, I need you to come over here,” he commands, pointing to a spot on the ground. I approach, respectfully, if a little tired. As I near the indicated spot, Superior jumps backward, hand on weapon.
“Son, you need to stop right there,” he says. “I don’t want you anywhere near my weapon.” He gathers up my PI license, my driver’s license, and my handgun permit. “Check him out,” he says to Street Cop, who dutifully hops into his cruiser and runs my information.
“Son,” Superior asks in an aggressively sarcastic tone, “do you have any law enforcement experience?”
“No, sir,” I say.
“Well, I could tell,” he says. “What you’ve done here is putting me in a bad position, son.”
“Sir, may I ask a favor of you, please?” I ask. “I am not your son. Please call me ‘Hal,’ ‘Mr. Humphreys,’ or some other courteous name. But don’t call me ‘son’ again.”
“You,” he says, red in the face, dome a-gleaming, “DO NOT tell me what to do. I could arrest you for possession of stolen goods. You’ve just ruined any chance that this ALLEGED thief is ever going to be held accountable for his actions.
“We have PROCEDURES that must be followed,” he rants, on a roll now. “You can’t just come in here and buy stolen goods. That’s a crime.
“I could have you arrested,” he veritably yells.
Sunday, Memorial Day weekend, 12pm
Seller is arrested at a Smackville filling station after Superior’s superior — a Smackville PD detective — views the video evidence, bill of sale, and background check info we’ve collected on our small-town crime mastermind. “This guy’s been kicking our ass for six months,” the detective tells me, eyeing the bill of sale.
Smackville PD is still understaffed for the holiday weekend, the detective explains, and he asks my wife Kim (and PI partner) to phone Seller and line up another buy, this time at an interstate exit gas station…where the detective and 2 other officers take the guy down. A raid of his house turns up thousands of dollars of stolen goods from three Tennessee counties.
Six Months Later
Seller pleads guilty and is sentenced to six years. Two other jurisdictions are in line to try him for similar crimes. Smash and grab incidents plummet in Smackville the day after Seller is arrested.
It seems that verified video, fingerprints, a signed and dated bill of sale, and old fashioned detective work actually is admissible in court. And furthermore, Mr. Superior, it is not a crime to gather and return stolen property to its rightful owner.
I haven’t seen Street Cop since, but really hope to meet him somewhere and shake his hand. Or at least try.
*note: We at FIND Investigations fully respect and defer to law enforcement, and in most cases, have an excellent working relationship with them. This is but a single, isolated exception, and all’s well that ends well.
Click below to hear Hal Humphreys tell the story at a live storytelling event in Nashville: